You Know I’m Going To Lose

Finally it was over. The final sales tallies were in, the numbers had been crunched and the news could be announced to the world. The bold attempt to pay suitable tribute to the dearly departed Lemmy by sending his most famous work to Number One on the UK Singles Chart ended with the track resting at what some would regard as a suitably ironic Number 13.

To repeat what I stated before, it is certainly no bad thing to have the music charts reflect the sad passing of a true icon of rock music and indeed it must be noted that the social media pile on was enough to give Ace Of Spades its highest ever chart placing. lifting it two places higher than the Number 15 its original issue scaled first time around in November 1980. We’ll ignore the minor elephant in the room that this actually still isn’t sufficient to make it the highest charting Motorhead single ever and that in their heyday the group managed three Top 10 hit singles with a collection of EP releases, noting instead that a social media campaign aiming to push the track to its best placing ever would have been considered a roaring success. Instead the inevitable happened, those who had bought into the fun of buying 20 copies of the record at once and setting up farms of devices to stream the song 24 hours a day in the forlorn hope that it would fly to the top of the charts and prove, SOMETHING, had to deal with the fact that it was all in vain.

But that doesn’t mean the fun had to end for we casual observers, not a bit of it. We can instead play a game of “it is all rigged anyway” bingo:

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These last two are my particular favourites, putting forward the hypothesis that the “top record companies” went out and bought a few thousand copies of a record just to push it up the charts. Or to put it another way, the exact thing that you spent the last week doing. I’ll spell out the irony for anyone still struggling: buying multiple copies of a track and encouraging others to do the same is, whilst within the rules and part and parcel of the game, chart-fixing. Attempting to have the best sellers list reflect a false picture of the true popularity of a piece of music. If it is all rigged, it is because you yourselves have rigged it.

Any more?

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Yes, the thing that stopped your favourite topping the charts was nothing more than people buying ALL THE OTHER RECORDS above it. The bastards.

There are those who are just angry that not everyone has the same music tastes as they do:

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Yes, if you prefer X Factor to flying Spitfires or Shakespere (sic) (unsure emoticon) then shame on you forever!

And finally just for a special bonus we’ve even got a token retelling of the “Sex Pistols were robbed too” myth:

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Damn those BBC. They just ruin everything.

In a strange, sad, coincidence as I write the music industry has moved on to mourning the unexpected passing of another legend, the media awash with tributes to the life and work of David Bowie. As I write his new album Blackstar (which was heading for the top anyway) is more or less a lock for Number One this weekend, and meanwhile his individual greatest hits have experienced a sales surge comparable only to that which followed Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. It is more or less inevitable that the singles chart this Friday will quite justly be populated with any number of David Bowie songs. All of which will have landed there as part of the natural, organic process of increased interest in the work of a now deceased musician. And not because some chap has hectored people on Facebook to prove a point which probably didn’t need proving to begin with.

The Return Of The Chart Chumps

Now, if we are all being honest with each other the build up to the Christmas chart was more than a little disappointing, at least for those of us looking for a chance to gently mock those attempting to propel random track X to the top of the charts. Yes, the whole party was gatecrashed by that rather weird NHS Choir single, but this was in the end more as a result of some clever PR work rather than crowdsourced surge purchasing. They had a Facebook group but it was largely a placeholder – a dedicated website instead the hub of much of the public push. Even those hoping to see the Star Wars theme head chartwards were to be disappointed, the whole event going off rather half cocked and the track itself landing nowhere near the Top 100. An abundance of chart chumps (as documented in the last post on this site) there were not

Part of the problem was actually the absence of a suitable bogeyman to focus on. Cries of “we must stop X Factor topping the charts this Christmas” rang slightly hollow given that the X Factor winner’s single by Louisa Johnson was spending the holiday selling the sum total of knack all and indeed dropped out of the Top 10 completely in Christmas week itself. Instead the focus had to switch to a need to “stop Justin Bieber from being Number One at all costs”, a rather odd aim given that he was already Number One anyway, would continue to be so after Christmas and indeed it was never quite clear why it was so important that he should not be again. Like in all the best heroic romances, you need a proper dragon to slay. Without one you just don’t have a story.

But then salvation arrived, in the shape of what is in truth rather a sad story. On the morning of December 28th the world woke up to the news that Ian “Lemmy” Kilminster, one of the most notorious, celebrated, admired, scary and yet at the same time funniest and most affable heavy metal stars of his era had passed away suddenly at the age of 70. The tributes to him were fulsome, genuine and rightly drenched with hero worship. Inevitably the call went out: wouldn’t it be grand to see his masterpiece, his most famous composition and the piece of music with which he will forever be associated back in the charts. Can we see Ace Of Spades by Motorhead at Number One?

Over the years it has been so inevitable that the death, premature or otherwise, of a famous musician will see them return to the singles or albums chart in some form. So much so that it has almost become a cliche. When My Sweet Lord was re-released in January 2002 following the death of George Harrison it was almost a matter of routine that it shot to the top of the charts for a second time. Nobody paid it that much attention, it was just something that was pre-destined to happen, so it did. With the advent of the download era these chart returns tend to happen rather more organically, as evidenced by the flood of Michael Jackson singles that reached the sales charts in the aftermath of his 2009 demise, and to a lesser extent those of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston in the years that followed. It would indeed be no bad thing to see Ace Of Spades back for one last chart run – particularly given that its last journey into the mainstream was thanks to a famously hated (at least by metal die-hards) club remix which hit the charts in the summer of 1993. I bought the 12-inch of that just so I could own the copy of the original version which was on the b-side.

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But no, these are the 2010s and we have to have a Facebook group to push for the great man’s inclusion in next week’s singles chart. And I’m pleased to say that it and indeed its followers are falling into every single one of the traps I warned of before Christmas. Quite entertainingly so as it happens.

First there are the mixed motives:

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It is not just about Lemmy it seems. It is for some reason really, really important that Justin Bieber should be knocked of the top of the charts. No matter that with a variety of singles he’s been Number One for 11 of the past 18 weeks. He must not be there this week and Lemmy is the man to make this happen. Because he’s dead.

You will notice the unwavering belief in the cause too. This CAN be done we’re told. Repeatedly. The followers and supporters of the group only become more enthused when they check the status of the single on the live charts across the various retailers:googleplay

Yes Andy indeed it is. But the problem is Google Play is first and foremost a streaming service. They do have a click to buy store and those sales do indeed contribute to the charts, but their volumes in comparison to other services are to say the least minimal. You could record five minutes of sneezing, get your entire office to buy it, and make the Google Play live charts. The only live tables that truly reflect what is probably the current state of the market overall are the iTunes ones. Although dying a slow death, this remains the pre-eminent download store. So let’s look at where Ace Of Spades is on there shall we:

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Now, to be fair this was late on Monday evening and the main version of the track available has rallied a little during the course of today (Tuesday) to be just inside the Top 20 of the live tables. But it is still selling a little under 18% of the copies of the market leader – one Justin Bieber – and isn’t making further progress. People are being encouraged to buy multiple copies of the various different versions of the track available, but none are selling enough to register on the Top 100. Combined at the end they may be, but with just over two days to go to the end of the chart week this record is nowhere near in contention.

Still, the news of the midweek chart position only served to reinforce the hope that this all hasn’t been in vain:

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Bieber is WITHIN SIGHT it seems. Well yes, yes he is in the sense that he’s at the end of the pit straight and you’ve just turned onto it. But as I noted before Christmas, in order to actually overtake him you’ve got to sell harder and faster than he is. For several days. And there’s absolutely no indication that you are going to come close to doing so.

But still, there’s always streams isn’t there? And despite the administrators of the Facebook page having muttered a few times about how “only the first 100 (70 actually) count”, there are still those determined to use up their spare processor cycles to attempt to game the system.

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Of all the dedicated souls however, this one has to be my favourite:

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Yes, that’s this chap’s very own streaming farm. Resurrecting old telephone handsets to run side by side and stream the track into oblivion 24 hours a day. Or if you like, the exact same thing people assumed that the record labels themselves would try to do and for which there were rules put in place to stop this happening. Quite why you’d imagine this would be regarded as a legitimate streaming ‘sale’ to qualify for the charts is a tiny bit of a mystery. Full marks for effort though, even if it will do nothing more than add a few pence to his next electricity bill.

What is funny about metal fans is that they often have some deeply-held principles which even the carrot of a chart return for their favourite veterans is unable to shift. Back in 2013 when the aim was to propel AC/DC to the business end of the singles chart there were any number of people on the relevant Facebook group rather grumpy about the fact that the only way to download the single was to sign up to iTunes, a piece of corporate teat-sucking that they just could not bring themselves to perform. No such problems here of course with Motorhead available for purchase on just about every platform you could name, but that didn’t stop one man throwing up his own obstacles:

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That’s Barry there, not prepared to register his personal details and hand them over to someone who might do nefarious things with the information. And who is choosing to use his Facebook account to tell us this.

I mock with the best of intentions. As I stated at the top, to see Lemmy’s musical masterpiece enter the singles chart even for a brief moment to commemorate his passing is nothing less than his memory and legacy deserves. If it is good enough for Cilla then it is good enough for him. But you do have to remember the first and most important rule of chart chumpery – be realistic. The record won’t be Number One in his or indeed our lifetimes. Top 30 come Friday is a reasonable aim. Top 20 will be a job well done. The owners of the page will be magnanimous enough to hail that at least as an achievement, even if many of the followers and commenters will of course be convinced that a fix was in. Watch this space.

UPDATE: as of close of play Tuesday, Ace Of Spades has slipped to 12 on the latest unofficial set of midweek figures I’ve seen. Meanwhile Justin Bieber appears set for a unique singles chart first, commanding the entire Top 3 of the singles chart for himself. There’s going to be carnage on Facebook.

Don’t Be A Chart Chump

It is the time of the season. One week before Christmas we approach the start of the sales week that will determine the UK’s Christmas Number One single, the annual game in which people who profess to neither know nor care what popular music tastes run to all year round suddenly become extremely engaged in the idea of what the biggest selling single for the Christmas holiday is. At least for a few hours after it is announced anyway.

As regular readers of these pages and followers of the music charts will attest, recent years have seen this turn into a game as social media is leveraged for mendacious or virtuous reasons to persuade interested parties to “lump on” the purchase of a particular record which it is presumed will signal… er, let me get back to you on that one.

I’m on the record as being rather snobbish about the whole thing, being of the old school mentality that you buy or listen to a piece of music because you happen to like it, not because some chap with a knocked together logo on a Facebook page has told you to or because it demonstrates how much you really, really like going to the doctor. But it happens, all conspiring to turn the last but one sales week of the year rather beserk and random. This year it seemed entirely appropriate to offer some kind of public service and a guide to the pitfalls and pratfalls that may lie ahead of anyone attempting to propel their favoured piece of noise to what they hope is the higher reaches of the singles chart. Presenting then:

Masterton’s Five Point Guide To Gaming The Christmas Chart

i) Be Realistic. It Probably Isn’t Going To Work.

Harsh but true. Only once, be it at Christmas or any other time of year, has a social media inspired campaign managed to gatecrash the very top of the charts. The now iconic Rage Against The Machine race of 2009 only occurred because the chart regulations had never anticipated it. The rules at the time were there to prevent unscrupulous record labels and their management from attempting to hype records into the charts. The idea that the general public would gang up en-masse and buy 50 copies each of a 16 year old record at the busiest time of the year was a totally new one. So there was indeed nothing to stop you buying 50 copies at a time. Or a day. Or twice a day. As some people claimed to have done.

Specifically the Singles Chart Rules forbid “purchasing records or causing records to be purchased or streamed other than as a genuine consumer transaction”. For online stores this amounts to allowing no more than three copies of any one version of a track per purchase. One for you, and two to be “gifted” to a friend. Any extras that you buy at the time will simply not count for chart compilation. Whilst you can get round this by buying multiple versions (remixes, live recordings etc.) of the same song to bolster your total, by and large it means that the only way to storm the singles charts for real is by sheer volume of numbers. And at Christmas that means you need a heck of a lot.

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The solution is simple. Although “Christmas Number One” is a sexy sounding aim, you end up looking stupid come the final tallies going “yeah but we got Random Track x into the Top 30 and that’s a MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT”. Yes it is, but not the one you set out for. Campaigning to bombard the Top 10 or even Top 5 at a push is by no means beyond the reach of a well motivated set of Facebookers. Number One just isn’t going to happen.

ii) Don’t Forget Streams. In Fact No, Forget About Streams

Since the summer of 2014 a large spanner has been thrown in the works of potential chart hypers. It is no longer just about sales, it is about people streaming your song online. In the last year this market has grown to phenomenal levels, with a full 50% of logged chart data now coming thanks to digital streams and not purchases. The most played songs of the week have in the last couple of months routinely clocked up 3 million plays or more. And your potential Number One song will need to do the same.

Yet that is phenomenally difficult to engineer. Because the chart rules committee were wise to the prospect of people setting up farms of machines to endlessly play the same song over and over. So for chart purposes you are restricted to 10 plays per IP address per day of any song. Over the course of the week it is not possible for any one individual to log more than 70 streams for a particular song. Or to put it another way, for chart compilation purposes 0.7 of a download, based on the current sales:streams ratio of 1:100. It means that for people like this user:stream1

It was indeed a waste of their time. And processor cycles. And electricity.

iii) The Live Charts Are Helpful But Deceptive

Midway through chart campaigns the generals at the front bring back breathless reports of the progress of their chosen song up the live tables issued by the major retailers. “We’re the Number 3 song on Amazon’s Nose Flute Music chart” they holler. “UP TO 12 on iTUNES COME ON WE CAN DO THIS” they triumphantly cry. Then everyone acts baffled when the song in question is listed at 34 on the midweek update. Or lower on the finished chart.

First you should understand that Amazon live charts are meaningless. They may be the biggest retail brand online to the dismay of some and almost certainly the go-to place for any keen book buyer. But their share of the digital music market is tiny. A dot in comparison to others. Being the most downloaded song in your genre category on Amazon may look impressive, but it probably only takes 50 or so people in the last day to get there.

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Oh, and here’s the other thing that confuses people. The retailer’s live charts are not cumulative, they are reactive. The precise methodology of the iTunes live tables still remains known only to a select few but it is generally presumed to be a rolling average of sales over the last 24 hours. Rising to “Number 6” on iTunes is meaningless unless you have a) been there or higher earlier in the week or b) remain there or go higher for the rest of it.

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iTunes is a wonderful medium for noting what is selling right now, at this precise moment. As a barometer for what has taken place during the course of a full sales week it is surprisingly flaky.

iv) You Are Not The Only Dog In The Race

During the course of Christmas Chart week the Official Charts Company are more forthcoming than normal about the numbers involved and the exact difference between the chart contenders. This inevitably leads to people getting very excited at the midweek stage noting “We are just 8,000 copies off the top. This is do-able, come on people”.

Well yes and no. You may well be able to rustle up another 8,000 copies from your legions of supporters in a couple of days. The only problem is this will only take your tally up to where the chart leader was two days ago. Because it is pretty unlikely they are not going to sell any further copies that week. To put it another way, it is like arguing that since Car 2 in a race is only 7 seconds behind Car 1 it will inevitably be in the lead in 8 seconds time if it keeps driving at the same pace. That’s only actually possible if Car 1’s engine has exploded.

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v) Finally, Be Wary Of Breaking The Irony Meter

As noted in point i) above. Your DJ Trepan For Xmas No.1 2015 campaign probably won’t work the way you planned it. The odds are stacked against you. And despite your apparently comfortable lead at the top of Amazon’s Armpit Squelching Music daily chart and your inexorable progress towards the Top 20 on ITunes, the final reckoning may well see you fall short of the Top 40 altogether.

In the aftermath of this disappointment it is vitally important that neither you nor any of your followers survey the wreckage of your attempt to promote mass purchases of 15 different versions of the same song, to stream it non-stop across five devices in your household for 24 hours a day for a week and indeed to generally contrive a level of demand for a four minute pop record that doesn’t accurately portray its true level of popularity with the general public at large –  and then complain that your failure to rig the singles chart is itself proof that the charts are “fixed”.

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Oops, too late.