Lazy Buggles Headline*

I Wanna Move With Ya

It has been over 65 years, and the UK charts have always remained in step with changing formats. Whether it is the transition from 78rpm to 45rpm singles, or new forms such as the 12″ single, cassette single and CDs, where the market evolved so too the charts followed. That change also extended into the digital era, with the addition of electronic downloads to the survey in 2005. Then ten years later came the streaming revolution, and it was only right that the charts took this into account as well when measuring the popularity of music, even if that represented a significant paradigm shift as we began to measure repeated consumption rather than discovery and purchase.

However since 2014 and the start of what I always refer to as the “streaming era” there have been voices asking an awkward question: what about YouTube? The survey includes every audio streaming platform, so why not the video one too? Indeed, I’ll often explain the compilation to people with only a passing interest in such matters and surprise them with the revelation that up to now YouTube plays do not count for singles chart purposes.

The same question was repeatedly being asked behind the scenes. Should video streams count for the pop charts? And each time there has been pushback from somewhere in the industry. “Not right now,” has been the view and one that I had always concurred with. To me, there was an important distinction between consuming music aurally and taking it in visually. OK, visuals have been added to music for decades, and the pop video is considered an art form of itself. But the term “incidental music” also exists for a reason.

Music can even be relegated to the background, there for effect only, and the visuals allowed to dominate. Proof of that comes in the way precious few people would honestly sit down an enjoy an OK Go track (their hit singles are few and far between). But we’ll all eagerly tune in to see just what piece of cinematic art the group are going to come up with next.

Time To Move On

It is now clear that this is an outdated view. After all, the personal entertainment devices we all carry around with us have screens as well as headphone sockets. When you play music on your phone, you all too frequently have your eyes upon it also. I may well have a subscription to Google Play Music as my streaming service of choice, yet when I want to call up a particular song for reference or research, time and time again, I’ll end up going to YouTube to see if the video is there. We live in 2018, and music is a visual format as much as it is an audio one. Just look at the way acts such as Clean Bandit have built their success, taking control of the production of both sound and vision in the creation of their art.

Clean Bandit with their Official UK Number One award for 'Solo' - Credit: Official Charts Company

Clean Bandit with their Official UK Number One award for ‘Solo’ – Credit: Official Charts Company

With the announcement in recent weeks that Google is to fold the Play Music streaming service into its new YouTube Music service, merging the two propositions and indeed taking advantage of their dominant role in the online video space, the time has come for the UK chart to answer the question in the affirmative.

Never Be The Same Again

As of Week 27 – the chart published on Friday, July 6th – video streams from services such as Tidal, Apple Music and yes indeed YouTube will count towards the weekly singles charts.

I gather it has been quite the challenge to achieve. YouTube is by no means exclusively a music platform, regardless of the creation of the new dedicated premium service. What truly counts as a “music video” in amongst all the other user-generated content it contains. The answer is apparently that a play counts as a “music stream” if a copyright owner has claimed both sound and vision. So this not only includes official music videos uploaded through the Vevo platform and via official artist channels but also where an independent content creator has associated the visuals with an audio soundtrack registered for chart purposes.

This last detail is important because when Billboard began counting video streams for the Hot 100 five years ago, they only enforced ownership of the audio side. As a consequence, any video featuring more than 30 seconds of a copyrighted music track saw its plays count for the charts, resulting in the bizarre sight of Bauuer’s Harlem Shake flying to the top because the Hot 100 was logging every single Harlem Shake video watched at the height of the 2013 craze. That won’t happen in Britain. It is official video plays only.

Get Your Calculators Out

That’s the headline change, but there is another adjustment to the chart compilation process which may have passed people by. In a move which has been desired by some sectors of the industry for a time, a distinction will be made between premium, paid-for audio and video streams, and ad-supported free ones. Instead of the single flat rate 150 streams = 1 sale ratio there will now be two. Paid streams will revert to the 100:1 ratio first introduced in the summer of 2014, while free streams are to count at an extended 600:1 ratio.

That’s not a typo. Listen to a track on Spotify’s free tier, or on the standard YouTube site, and you will need 600 plays to clock up the equivalent of one purchased sale.

Britain is actually behind the curve on this in many ways. The charts in countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy don’t count free streams at all, while Billboard switched to downgrading free plays some time ago. I’ve never myself seen the need for this adjustment, arguing that a stream is a stream regardless of whether you have paid for the privilege or sat through an advert first. The royalty return to the artist is the same no matter what.

Billboard made the change for tactical reasons. Free streams were heavily used by fans of hip-hop acts and it was skewing the Hot 100 to detriment of the rest of the market. So they felt the need to re-balance. In Britain, that is not so much the case, and this separation of powers as it were is more symbolic than anything else. Rewarding those who pay for music rather than taking it “freemium”. Or perhaps more to the point, rewarding the performers who persuade people to pay to listen to them. These are meaningful gestures to make.

There is no need to fear that the charts will now be susceptible to kids and fanbases repeatedly hitting reload or replay on a video to play the game of boosting its view count. Because you’d have to do that a heck of a lot to game the charts. In any event, I have a feeling there’s a technical bar to it as well. YouTube may well only be logging a play for a video every time it delivers the data to a client, rather than the number of times the user clicks the play button. When you replay a YouTube video you are playing pre-buffered data from your browser cache, so it doesn’t count twice.

Simmer Down

The imminent introduction of any change to chart rules immediately conjures up images of drastic changes to the musical landscape and a whole new way for singles to behave. The numerous test charts compiled have revealed no drastic changes to the status quo at all. Indeed at no time has there ever been a Number One single which would not have been there under the existing rules. Like all the adjustments that have taken place since we embarked on this journey, the change will be one of evolution, not revolution.

To recap then: video streams from online services will count as of this Friday (29th June) and register on the singles chart published the following week (6th! July). The ratio of sales : streams will now be adjusted. 100:1 for paid for streams, 600:1 for free tier. How this affects the Accelerated Chart Ratio has not yet been made clear, but I suspect it will remain at 300:1 for paid streams. With freemium plays already at 600:1 they are downgraded almost into insignificance already.

UPDATE: A comment on a Music Week post online has confirmed. A move to Accelerated will double the ratio of a track in the same way it does now. So paid-for will end up on 200:1 and freemium will be a colossal 1200:1.

So strap in for the ride, next week’s chart will be the last under the old rules. And we then have to re-learn the market all over again. Here’s the future (2018 version)!

 

* (Video Killed The Radio Star – duh).

The Lotus Fax Of Knowledge

Back Then Everyone Used Lotus

Our information-led world is a beautiful thing. Facts, help, knowledge at the click of a mouse or the tap on a screen. Such a state of affairs is especially true if you work in any technology-related field where the solution to any problem you may encounter is just a carefully crafted search away, and because someone else has almost certainly faced and solved the same problem.

But how did we manage this before the age of the internet? Before everyone was online on a near-permanent connection, how did your average computer operator sat at his desk in the mid-1990s go about solving problems with no internet to speak of available to him?

I remember it well. So here is my tale of how it all happened.

Wavy Lines To Indicate Flashback Sequence

Picture the scene. I’m in my first job out of university, being paid a vanishingly low sum of money (hey, it was better than nothing) to be the office “IT Assistant” for the local branch of a large firm of insolvency practitioners. For the first time in a year my immediate boss has gone away on a two week holiday, meaning this is also the first time in a year I’ve not been subject to random data entry or spreadsheet processing jobs landing on my desk within ten minutes of the working day started. In short, for the first time in forever once I’ve completed a handful of daily admin tasks, I’m genuinely at a total loose end.

So I seize my chance to pull out a small project which has been sat on the to-do pile for some time. Automate the production of the diary.

When dealing with corporate or personal insolvencies, there are a myriad of statutory filings you have to make, reports you must prepare for a specific schedule. And historically our office had been rubbish at keeping up to date with them. Details of what was due, and when, were all kept in the bowels of a Clipper-based application called IPS of which only a handful of us in the admin team had access. So once a week the program was commanded to spit out a text file of all the statutory returns required on a case by case basis. This file was then wrestled into shape in Lotus 1-2-3 before being formatted in a manner readable by the office’s internal videotext system. And so a variety of pretty graphs could be issued to the partners to show just how many late events we were enduring.

Production of this report was not a straightforward process. The work instruction for this in the office’s ISO9001 quality manual ran to about 12 pages, step by step instructions on how to format, sort, weed out and ultimately re-export the data. It took the best part of an hour for even the most dextrous of spreadsheet wrestlers to do it. And it was ripe for automating with a macro.

Happily, this was well within my talents, as in the months I’d been there I’d become quite the wizard in the Lotus 1-2-3 macro language (everyone used Lotus in offices back then. Excel was only beginning its march to dominance in the spreadsheet market). I would joke that eventually, I’d get it to stand up and fart the national anthem on command. So with the coast clear, a whole two weeks of just being left alone to get on with stuff ahead of me, I set to work on what was set to be my greatest gift ever to the admin team.

Circular Reference in Cell B55

Only within five minutes I’d hit a snag. The text file output by the IPS application would always contain random line feed characters at random intervals. Sadly this was enough to trigger a strange assumption made by the writers of the 1-2-3 application. If you imported a text file directly into Lotus 1-2-3 containing these characters, it would assume you wanted a new page in your worksheet and create a new one on your behalf. It was a behaviour hard-coded into the program. The only way around it (we assumed) was to open the file in a text editor and manually remove all the line feeds you could find. And then rinse and repeat if it turned out you had missed any.

This, however, was not part of my plan to automate the entire process. Convinced there had to be another way to work around this, my first mission of the project was to work out what it was. Temporarily mystified, I began browsing the application help files in search of inspiration. It was here that I turned the screen which would transform my life for the next two weeks. Details of a faxback service of solutions to common technical issues. Hey, even if this didn’t contain the answer I was looking for it would be fascinating to see how it worked anyway.

So I phoned the American number given. An automated voice instructed me to enter my fax number, plus the extension number of my desk, followed by the code for the document I wanted. Or just “1” for the index. Transaction completed, I walked to the post room and waited for the phone to ring.

What emerged behind the “for the attention of the person at extension XXXX” cover sheet was what must have been a 15-page document. A full list of technical articles containing how-to guides and solution to everyday problems. It was my first ever encounter with a technical support knowledgebase. And I had a fantastic way to access it.

It took five minutes to track it down, but yes, the solution was in there. A specific document relating to my problem of line feed characters in text imports creating multiple sheets. The bump in the road had suddenly become smooth again.

Slash Command Not Recognised

What was the workaround? There may be people who had spotted it already. Open the file up, let it populate as many sheets as it required. Then select all the data, re-export and re-import. Messy, but the result was a flat file contained in a single layer that I could then set my macro to work extracting and formatting.

By the time the boss returned from holiday, waiting on his desk was bound documentation detailing how I’d implemented my one-click solution to one of the office’s messiest tasks. Not that there weren’t other bumps in the road, including one that led to me staring at the screen for three hours without typing. I had no idea how to get a spreadsheet macro to make a human decision based on the type of event it was processing (solution: do a text search on a lookup table containing the choices), but I steadily figured it out. Often with the help of my new-found bible. The Lotus Corporation Faxback Service.

Six months later I was given a login for the then-experimental Lotus Notes system the company was planning to roll out in future. The knowledgebase came bundled with the install, I discovered. I couldn’t help but think that had taken away part of the fun.

 

Fade Into Penguins Avicii

Plagiarised Penguins

The death of any performer is always a sad occasion for their fans, but no more so than when the death is that of someone still in the prime of life. The passing of Tim “Avicii” Bergling last week at the age of just 28 has prompted a re-evaluation of the catalogue of music he produced during the course of his ten years as an EDM producer. Some of his greatest career highlights will quite rightly re-appear in the charts at the end of this week. Only when considering them back to back do you appreciate just how many of the greatest pop records of the decade bore his name.

Only there is one single which was never supposed to bear his name, and indeed if he and his manager and label had had their way would never have appeared at all.

A Tale Of Two Hits

Tyro Avicii was, by his own admission, a producer and not a songwriter. He’d been signed by dance label Ministry Of Sound on the back of the instrumental works he’d been producing for his own amusement since 2006. Everyone who heard them knew they had hit potential, but at the time his library of tracks were nothing more than instrumentals with apparently random coded titles. What was needed to turn them into smash hits was a final bit of magic. To use them as the base of proper pop songs.

One such track was a catchy ditty that Avicii had entitled Penguin, simply because it was based on a simple piano riff sampled from an old Penguin Cafe Orchestra track Perpetuum Mobile. To find a suitable song to sit on top of it the label initiated a beauty contest, inviting publishers and songwriters to pitch demos in the hope of seeing their compositions recorded by one of the most talked-of upcoming dance producers. The idea was that the untouched instrumental could be circulated to select club DJs, the track gain a following, and then a commercial smash hit based on the track that everyone loved would be unveiled.

The song selected from this process was Fade Into Darkness, written by fellow Swedes John Martin and Michel Zitron, a combination which could easily have meant the song could have become a Swedish House Mafia track rather than an Avicii one. With a lead vocal recorded by up and coming Swedish singer Andreas Moe, promos were sent out, the reception was positive and a worldwide release was slated for July 2011.

Only then there was a spanner in the works. Some of the other demos of the Penguin vocal interpretations had by now begun to circulate behind the scenes. A tape of one had made its way to the offices of Syco Records, Simon Cowell’s outfit by that time searching for material which could go on a new Leona Lewis album. Collide had a strong pedigree of its own, the lyrics and melody written by Autumn Rowe and Sandy Wilhelm who had already contributed to hit singles by the likes of Rihanna and Katy Perry.

The new track (Leona’s first brand new single in almost two years) was released to radio in mid-July. At this point, a mighty row blew up.

Twitterstorm

The problem was that Collide sounded almost identical not only to Penguin but also Fade Into Darkness, its production an almost straight retread of the two Avicii tracks. Which led to questions online as to whether the Swedish producer was involved in the Leona single as well. In fact, he wasn’t, and he was none too happy. Especially as the Leona track arrived in the same week as the release of his own record, almost totally overshadowing it.

His manager and collaborator Ash Pournouri was more explicit, responding to press queries about the connection between the two records by stating:  “We were under the impression that they were going to sample the original. They ended up copying our version.”

Yes, this was a none more 2010s kind of row. One which appeared to be playing out in public via barbed tweets from the artists in question. A few days later, stung by the intense criticism which had been flying her way Leona herself weighed in with what she probably hoped was a diplomatic explanation:

Avicii’s immediate reaction? To call it out as bullshit:

This was rapidly turning into a PR nightmare, at least for Syco. Opinion online was very much on Avicii’s side with the popular view that he had been screwed over by an organisation which felt they could act with impunity. Matters were not helped by a Syco spokesperson briefing “Avicii is already credited as a songwriter on Leona’s song. It’s a case of sour grapes from Ministry Of Sound”. In response, Popbitch that week noted: “Ministry of Sound has been astonishingly successful at building up an instrumental track through the clubs and radio before releasing it with a vocal to a high chart position and, if that is what the bloke who actually penned Penguin wanted to do, that’s what should be happening.”

Indeed such was the impasse that both Avicii and Ministry Of Sound felt they had no option but to petition the courts to stop the release, The Guardian reporting a week later:

Guardian Extract

Who Breaks The Wings

Had the case proceeded it would have produced some fascinating legal arguments. Just what was it that Avicii and his team were claiming ownership of? It wasn’t the Penguin Cafe Orchestra sample, as both parties had acknowledged. That was under the control of the estate of Simon Jeffes and who were more than happy to licence the piano riff to whoever. Was it the precise use of the sample in the context of the dance track? Again, a grey area.

It had already been established that an arrangement of a piece of music was not subject to copyright. Back in the 1970s, Jonathan King sat and watched Blue Swede have a massive US Number One hit with their version of Hooked On A Feeling, a recording which used the same “ooga chaka” vocal intro as heard on his own UK hit version a year earlier. But because that was deemed an arrangement of the BJ Thomas original he was not entitled to claim ownership of it.

No, the Collide legal row appeared to be based on the intellectual property. The producers of the Leona Lewis track were accused of copying an idea, and perhaps more to the point in a way that was damaging to the interests of the originators of the concept. By this time the release of Fade Into Darkness had come and gone. Despite Avicii fans making noise about the track online, radio programmers were only interested in the Leona Lewis track and Avicii’s best prospect to date at landing a breakthrough commercial smash hit had fallen by the wayside.

Sadly before we were able to find out what the legal argument was going to be, it was all over.

Daily Mail web clipping

The result of the settlement was that Collide could be released as planned. Significantly, however, Avicii was credited not only as a composer but also as the producer (even though he’d had nothing to do with the physical creation of the Leona track). Not only that but he also received a co-artist credit, Collide eventually listed online and in the charts as “Leona Lewis & Avicii”. The single shot to Number 4 upon release, Leona Lewis’ biggest hit single in three years and notably the first ever Top 40 entry for her initially unwilling collaborator.

Oh, Sometimes I Get This Feeling

In one of those odd coincidences, Avicii’s next single was indeed a global smash hit. But it also did so in two different versions. As if to prove that a vocal track wasn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for turning an EDM club smash into a chart hit. Levels flew up the charts worldwide in its original form, its only lyrics coming thanks to the Etta James sample on which it was based. After going through the proper channels, Levels also ended up forming the basis of Flo Rida’s Good Feeling and which swiftly followed the original into the charts, the rap hit creeping to Number One in Britain in early 2012.

It would be another year before Avicii finally hit paydirt with his own material, but in early 2013 he topped the UK charts for the first time in conjunction with Nicky Romero on I Could Be The One – ironically another track which began life as an instrumental demo NickTim before having a vocal grafted on. Tellingly by the summer, he was on top of the charts worldwide with Wake Me Up, a track which had been worked on as a pop song right from the start. Avicii was still not a songwriter, but by now as a star he had people queuing up to work with him. And nobody ever ripped him off again.