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.

Double Top

There’s a fun moment in the middle of Jonathan King’s musical film “Me Me Me” where the characters very nearly anticipate what is about to take place on the British charts. Detailing his plans to turn graffiti artist Johnny Bambino into the next big music sensation, impressario Ben Volio has a bold and daring release strategy:

This plan to make the Number One position “exclusive” to the singer works a charm until… well, that’s for the interested to watch and see.

I reference this because according to all sales figures available at this point, tomorrow afternoon Justin Bieber will make a small piece of singles chart history, knocking himself off the top of the Official UK Singles chart with Love Yourself. He will by no means be the first to have back to back Number One singles, but as history shows he will be unique in the modern era simply by being alive when he does so.

The early years of British chart history saw all manner of strange and rather unusual things take place at the top of the charts – joint Number One singles, dual versions of the same song taking turns at the top and even on one occasion two different versions of the same song being considered the joint chart-topper of the week. But nobody ever managed what appeared to be the ultimate trick of replacing themselves at the top of what was then termed the Hit Parade.

The first act to achieve this were, who else, The Beatles. In late 1963 at the height of the first wave of Beatlemania their third single She Loves You had already had an extended run at the top of the charts, spending four weeks at the top from mid-September. A full seven weeks then elapsed with the single bouncing between the second and third slot whilst first Do You Love Me by Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and then You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry and the Pacemakers had spells at the top of the charts. In late November however both singles fell away and the path was left clear for She Loves You to have a further fortnight at the top of the charts. As it turned out the single was simply keeping the slot warm, long enough for the next Beatles single I Want To Hold Your Hand to climb from its Number 10 debut position to the very top. The four lads from Merseyside had just made chart history and replaced themselves at the summit.

It would be another 17 years before anyone else did the same – and it just so happened that one of the same men was involved. The murder of John Lennon in December 1980 prompted a tidal wave of emotion at the passing of one of the greatest musicians and songwriters of his generation. The most immediate impact was an immediate reversal of fortune for his then-current single (Just Like) Starting Over which had seemingly peaked at Number 8 in late November and was at the time of the singer’s death making its way gently down the charts. The week ending December 20th however saw the single make what was at the time one the biggest ever jumps to the top of the charts as it rocketed 21-1 to give Lennon the first of what would turn out to be several posthumous Number One singles.

Then Christmas intervened and the St Winifred’s School Choir broke the reverie as There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma topped the charts for the season. Said record is credited with two weeks at Number One but it was actually only top of one published chart – at the time no music charts were published over the new year and the record books simply duplicate the Christmas countdown for the sake of continuity.

In the meantime the Lennon tribute industry had kicked into life in earnest. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) shot into the charts and peaked at Number 2 for the holiday, to be swiftly followed by his 1975 masterpiece Imagine. On the first chart of the new year, the latter installed itself at Number One where it remained for a month. This was just long enough to coincide with the release of a brand new Lennon track, the second single from the now iconic Double Fantasy album which he had come out of retirement to promote. On February 2nd 1981 Woman climbed to the top of the charts, deposing Imagine and depending on your point of view making John Lennon either the second artist to replace himself at the top, or simply doing it for the second time in his career.

The third and final incidence of back to back Number One hits would arrive in the first weeks of 2005. This was during the dying weeks of the physical-only singles market, which by that time was itself in terminal decline. The singles chart at the time was essentially circling the drain, its methodology having utterly failed to keep pace with the sea-change in consumer behaviour and with the long overdue introduction of digital sales still three months away. The ideal time then for some opportunistic and highly targeted re-issues.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the artists’s birth, Elvis Presley’s record label RCA/BMG embarked on a unique first, a weekly programme of re-issues of each of the King’s 18 UK Number One singles in chronological order. In actual fact two were released in the first week, All Shook Up landing in the shops simultaneously with Jailhouse Rock. The former was chart ineligible, coming as it did in a special cardboard sleeve in which all the other discs could be housed. It still sold 17,000 copies and would actually have placed at Number 2 had any of them counted. Jailhouse Rock on the other hand was free to chart and the 21,000 copies it duly sold were enough to ensure it deposed début X Factor winner Steve Brookstein from the top of the charts and in the process become the 999th Number One and only the third single in chart history to top the charts twice.

One week later and with no other new releases able to command anywhere near even that miserable level of sales, Elvis’ third chart-topper One Night duly became his 20th as well. 18 years after he had died Elvis Presley had become the third act to have two successive Number One hits on the British charts. Needless to say the following week there was immense speculation as to whether he could manage a unique treble, hopes for which were dashed when Goodies by Ciara just sneaked ahead of the re-released A Fool Such As I/I Need Your Love Tonight. ‘Normal’ service was resumed the following week as Elvis was back on top with It’s Now Or Never, the last of the 70th anniversary re-releases to land at the top of the charts to widespread relief. Nonetheless three different Number One hits in the space of four weeks is the closest anyone has ever come to the ultimate chart triple – although I refer you once more back to the small detail of John Lennon’s fortnight away from the top in 1980/81 being only due to the second of those being a dark week for the British charts.

Which brings us neatly back to the present day. Assuming nothing changes in the next 24 hours, Justin Bieber will this week become only the second ever living artist to replace himself at the top of the charts and the first to do so in almost 11 years. You will note that the previous occasions have all been during very specific circumstances – at the height of the first ever wave of fan devotion for a pop group, the aftermath of the murder of a musical hero and a weekly re-issue programme at the precise moment when the sales market was on the verge of collapse. Bieber has to all intents and purposes pulled off the trick without any such mitigation.

Except that times are different and indeed it is perhaps surprising that this hasn’t happened before now. Given that the music market is no longer beholden to the release plans of artists and labels, hits can happen spontaneously out of nowhere and the cross-pollination of acts means that everyone performs on everyone else’s records. Side by side chart hits for the same act are nothing new or particularly notable these days. It was inevitable that at some point someone would be in the perfect position to replace themselves at the top.

Now, this wouldn’t be a chart fact without a “yeahbut” creeping in here, because technically there is a fifth act who have swapped places with themselves at the top and indeed did so three times. I refer to The Shadows who in the early 1960s were unique in being both Cliff Richard’s fully credited backing group as well as having their own parallel ‘solo’ career. So it was in August 1960 that Please Don’t Tease by Cliff Richard and The Shadows gave way to Apache by The Shadows. Then in January 1963 The Next Time/Bachelor Boy by Cliff and the Shads was replaced by Dance On by the Shadows alone, and two months later it happened again as Cliff’s Summer Holiday was deposed by their own Foot Tapper.

You can decide for yourself if this counts or whether it is technicality, although it is worth noting that by and large the Official Charts Company don’t regard Cliff’s early hits or albums as counting towards the chart tallies of The Shadows themselves (although their singles database hasn’t quite caught up in that respect).

If we overlook technicalities such as “being a guest on someone else’s record) then replacing oneself at the top of the charts has nearly been achieved by two other acts in recent years. In June 2010 Dizzee Rascal topped the charts with his own track Dirtee Disco, his reign as chart king sadly lasting just a week before David Guetta and Chris Willis’ Gettin’ Over You stormed to the top instead. Had he clung on he would have been perfectly placed to surrender the top slot instead to his own Shout, the World Cup anthem he performed alongside James Corden.

Three years later Pharrell Williams was very nearly the guest singer on two back to back Number One hits – only Naughty Boy’s La La La got in the way of Get Lucky being succeeded at the top of the charts by Blurred Lines.

So yes, technically both Rascal and Williams were mere guest stars on at least one of their Number One records in the same way The Shadows were just “guests” on Cliff Richard’s hits. Justin Bieber’s chart feat will go down as extraordinary – he’s the sole lead act on both singles and perhaps more pertinently he’s still alive to see it happen.

Collect(ing) Call

“That’s quite a good collection isn’t it, some amazing songs on there” said my mother a few weeks ago. Walking past the shelves that house my LP collection she had pulled out one boxed set of albums and peered at its contents.IMG_20151111_213207800

This was the set in question, a boxed pack of eight discs, dating from the days when the mighty Readers Digest empire specialised in lovingly curated themed collections, all sold in special presentation packs and designed with the aim of being something to treasure and appreciate for some considerable time. It is in marked contrast to today when the themed compilation market now consists of “100 Best Songs About Farting” 3-CD sets sold for a fiver at supermarket kiosks.

My mother was the person who had actually bought it for me, at my special request as a Christmas present in 1987, this after I’d picked up the leaflet breathlessly advertising its contents after it had been left lying on the living room table having clearly been bundled with a prize draw mailing or inserted into a Sunday supplement somewhere.

A collection of old Number One hit singles made my eyes gleam, for it was advertised in the exact week that Radio One had gone to town on the fact that China In Your Hand by T’Pau had just become the 600th Number One single. To commemorate, they announced that over the coming weeks they would make a point of airing every single one of those chart-toppers at some point during daytime programming. It is hard to imagine now that the network would contemplate drip feeding records that were some 35 years old into their programming, but back then the station was at the forefront of noting and celebrating popular music history.

I’d always had an appreciation of older hits and the songs of the days before I was born. Years of listening avidly to Jimmy Savile’s Old Record Club shows on a Sunday lunchtime and studying the history of each artist he played in the pages of British Hit Singles had helped to ensure that. But suddenly here was the chance for me to start collecting older hits for myself, a selection of the very same famous hits that Radio One was airing in full was but a polite request away. It was one of my favourite presents that year.

I tell this tale simply because I’m kind of sad that the joy of building a music collection is one that the next generation may never experience. Quite simply why should they, given that just about every piece of mainstream recorded music is now available with just one click of a mouse or one tap of a screen. Yet unless you stumble across an old song, how will you ever know of its existence? That’s part of my motivation for writing the Top 40 Annual series of books, just so for the benefit of someone, somewhere the significance of every pop hit is written down for reference and future discovery.

Meanwhile the past belongs to the 14 year old me, who thanks to the combined efforts of Radio One and Readers Digest spent the Christmas holidays 28 years ago cultivating a proper appreciation of Number One hits from 1955 through to 1985, from Adam Faith and Buddy Holly through ABBA and Dr Hook and ending up at The Police, Bucks Fizz and Jim Diamond (RIP). And I’m glad you pulled it off the shelf to remind me of this, Mum.

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Gambo-Lit

gambocoverIt is to my continuing frustration that my life and career has so far not resulted in my ending up in the same orbit as broadcaster and all round musical expert Paul Gambaccini. Despite mutual friends, the closest the veteran entertainer and pop charts fan has ever come to knowing of my existence is introducing some of my recorded contributions on a 2008 Radio 2 documentary about the charts which he narrated.

Back in 2013 he had made headlines for all the wrong reasons, arrested as part of the Metropolitan police’s misguided Operation Yewtree, his name leaked to the press and thus forced to spend a year in career and personal purgatory as the police investigated false claims of sexual offences dating from the early 1980s, the torment only ending when it became clear to even the CPS that the allegations were a nonsense and he was free to resume his life with little in the way of an apology.

Like many other names put into the same position, his catharsis has been to write a book Love, Paul Gambaccini and it is this compelling read – a diary of his year of hell – which I recently devoured in the space of 48 hours.

The book is an absorbing account of how he deals with each stage of the struggle: his initial arrest, the media scrum outside his front door, the publicity fall-out and above all the continuing and all-pervading anger he feels at being subject to what he and everyone who knows him well knows to be a colossal and painful injustice.

Along the way we meet celebrity friends, institutions such as the Labour Party who turn their backs on him for fear of toxicity (an issue Gambaccini is particularly scathing about) and others who have been through similar battles such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Jim Davidson, politician Nigel Evans and Oxford Union president Ben Sullivan.

Not that the book doesn’t contain some entertaining moments, his regular tracking of his moods via the most played songs in his iTunes collection for a start, as well as the fun fact that his apartment block is virtually round the corner from where I work with his daily footsteps and lunchtime hangouts ones that could at times almost match my own.

Despite the final attempt by the CPS to smear him, announcing to the world the exact nature of the allegations he faced as part of their public statement that he will not be charged for them (and thus giving the “no smoke without fire” conspiracists all the information they need), Gambaccini emerges from his year in limbo with his reputation intact, free to resume his career but now crucially a man who is now a passionate and eloquent campaigner against the injustice of extended police bail and the sheer impossibility of defending oneself against accusations of misdemeanours three decades ago and in an era where old fashioned principles such as innocent until proven guilty fall silently by the wayside.

Only those who have yet to encounter it still labour under the misapprehension that our justice system is engaged in pursuit of the truth. It isn’t, its only desire is for a “result” of some kind, and only the truly naive believe that they need nothing more than their innocence to save them from a judicial miscarriage. Sadly this can lead to the kind of Kafka-esque nightmare to which Gambaccini and his family were subjected, auditioning Barristers, selling heirlooms to fund legal fees and entertaining thoughts of emigrating to start anew back home in American after having contemplated the very real possibility that he would end up serving a prison sentence for crimes that never took place – just like others before him.

You may end this book having some small degree of sympathy for the police, bound by procedure which leaves no room for common sense and who had little choice but to investigate the allegations, even though they’d quickly concluded that Gambaccini’s first accuser’s story had little or no merit. But you’ll also share the author’s contempt for a system that can leave the accused in legal limbo for months or even years whilst the bureaucratic wheels slowly turn, and gasp in horror at Liz Kershaw’s revelation that the police told her they don’t need actual physical evidence of a crime where historical sex offences are concerned “just people who agree”. Two wrongs never make a right, but three lies can combine to be seen as the truth in modern Britain.

Gambaccini ends the book with the pointed question: “what are you doing to do about it?” but the sad truth is that few people will do anything about it, not until they or someone they know is plunged into the pit of false accusations. But you can make an excellent start at least by reading Love, Paul Gambaccini. It is well worth the time.

Know The Score By Now

Back in the summer of 1992 I developed a deep and lasting love affair with 1970s soul and disco, prompted if memory recalls by an HMV sale which meant I picked up two volumes of a Telstar-released disco compilation (the identity of which will have to wait until I’m at home) which were crammed with classics from the era.

Returning to university that autumn I immediately instigated a disco show on the campus radio station. Every Monday night at 8pm I pitched up on air with the choicest cuts of the era along with some hidden gems too and basically lost myself in Philly strings for two hours. If memory serves the show’s theme was a hideously bad version of Pink Floyd’s Money as performed by an Australian outfit called Rosebud on an album called Discoballs, one which every week I regretted due to the fact that the album’s cover featured a very of its time depiction of a naked lady and the show preceding mine was the weekly women’s issues show co-hosted by the union Women’s Officer.

Discoballs

I’d end the show each week with a selection of all-time classics. The tracks that were justifiably famous and had remained so for the decade and a half (or more) since. There was one song that I would come back to again and again and ended up describing it on air as “the reason this show exists”. To this day I view it as one of the most perfect records ever made and one I can listen to ten times in a row and still discover something new about it each time.

Who would have guessed then that the only thing capable of making it even better was a YouTube video of the full length 12-inch disco mix being played out on an SL1200 record deck? Even if the uploader has disabled embedding. Click through anyway, it is still well worth it.

Native New Yorker

Philatellically Ancient

Last week, with time on my hands and a bit of spare cash jingling in my pockets, I went online to continue the long process of replacing some old cassettes with their CD equivalent. Given that some of my remaining collection of tapes represent albums purchase in the early 1990s, this frequently involves bagging good prices of second hand discs, frequently from the kind of warehouse traders you get on Amazon – bragging of high ratings and 100% genuine stock etc.

One disc in question was relatively obscure, so I didn’t baulk at paying £6 for a copy. The CD duly arrived intact and plays perfectly. It is not the subject of this article.

Instead it was the envelope it arrived in. After berating me for destroying the jiffy bag rather than carefully opening it for future re-use, my wife peered at the stamps that adorned the front and noted the number of them, the varied designs and the rather unusual values they held. A closer look revealed this was the most extraordinary package I’d ever received. The sender (whoever they really were) had paid postage using a series of mint condition stamps of a vintage you would normally see in the pages of a Stanley Gibbons catalogue. In some cases they were over 40 years old. Take a look:

Stamps

It prompted me to look them up on one of the many online catalogues to track down their true vintage.

The two 15.5p salmon stamps were part of a commemorative set entitled British River Fishes, issued in January 1983. According to stamp-exchange.co.uk its mint value is approximately 30p.

Top middle is a 15.5p Christmas stamp, part of the festive set issued by the Royal Mint for Christmas 1982. These are rather more collectable, so its mint value is around 50p to dedicated stamp collectors.

Now we come to the extraordinary bits. The 9p stamp depicting Robert Falcon Scott was the top priced item from a collection of British Polar Explorers issued in February 1972. Almost 46 years ago. As a mint, unused stamp, it is valued by collector websites at 55p. Rather curiously my now franked version is worth slightly more fetching 75p if resold.

Bottom right might have been slightly harder to identify, devoid of any narrative or anything to help locate the collection. Fortunately its value and the clearly festive nature of the stamp made this less painstaking detective work than would otherwise have been the case. This is part of the Christmas 1972 commemorative issue, depicting “Angel Holding Trumpet”. Modern day value: a rather less exciting 10p, whether unfranked or not.

Finally top right is a generic first class stamp which in the absence of any other evidence to the contrary can be assumed to be of contemporary issue and with a current worth of 63p was duly the highest value stamp on the envelope.

Strange to note then that the total cost of postage of the item, as per the face value of the stamps affixed to the parcel was £1.21. Yet it was sent using a set of stamps whose actual monetary value in collectible terms amounted to £2.38.

Part of you feels kind of bad for them and rather sad that these items of postal history ended up being affixed to a jiffy bag and franked. They could so easily have been discarded without my ever noticing, but at the same time who on earth raids packs of old stamps to post out second hand CDs to Amazon customers?

Late Night Fucking

There is no 9pm watershed in radio.

That’s a detail that often surprises people, most of whom assume that the strictures that apply to ‘adult’ and ‘mature’ material on television also cover radio broadcasts as well. In actual fact the only content restrictions on radio broadcast enforced by the almighty regulator Ofcom are that they must have “particular regard to times when children are particularly likely to be listening” (Broadcast Code Section 1.5) and in the case of offensive language “unless it is justified by the context” (Broadcast Code Section 1.16).

I’m fond of reminding people that just over 20 years ago Radio One once broadcast the whole of Bono’s “fuck the revolution” speech from the performance of Sunday Bloody Sunday in Rattle And Hum on a Saturday lunchtime as part of a documentary on Northern Ireland. The request to do so was handed up to the highest levels of the corporation and it was decided that the language was perfectly justified in context of an adult documentary on a subject that aroused intense passions on both sides of the debate and that as long as it was preceded by a warning it was fine to go out. It remains the most high profile deliberate broadcast of daytime profanity on national radio. And a fine example of what is allowed if the context merits.

Over the years one of the jobs I’ve ended up with at work is being the final port of call for any of the occasional pre-recorded shows broadcast on talkSPORT. Tapes of the award-winning My Sporting Life are handed to me to check for technical quality, scheduling in the playout computer, editing for the timeslot if required and making sure anything that was supposed to be cut has indeed been removed.

This also means I have to deal with potentially the hottest potato on the schedules, the monthly “Matt Forde’s Sports Party” specials. These are live recordings of comedy chat shows, held in the intimate surroundings of the St James’ Studio in Central London. Guests from the world of sport and comedy are interviewed at length and in an envrionment where everyone has let their hair down. That does mean people use language you wouldn’t normally expect them to. Which can often lead to some soul searching. It is one thing to say something in front of a crowd of 50 people who have paid to be there. It is another thing altogether to inflict on a national radio audience the spectacle of a much-loved hero or entertainer saying “fuck”. Or is it?

The edition of the programme which went out in September required a fair bit of soul searching at times, the process of which I thought it would be interesting to share here. The Sports Party is an adult show, and is promoted as such. It is broadcast at 10pm on a Sunday evening, far removed from anything Ofcom might consider “when children are likely to be listening”. The start of each hour of each show is preceded by a clear warning: “The following programme contains swearing, and may not be suitable for younger listeners”. Theoretically that is more than enough to fully contextualise and forestall any complaints about fruity language in what follows. It means that “piss”, “shit” and “bastard” and other invectives of that ilk can actually be broadcast unexpurgated in a manner you wouldn’t contemplate at any other time of day and in different circumstances.

The f-word is a different matter. Right from the start, regardless of the nature of the programme, we judged that even a late night talkSPORT audience would baulk at hearing presenters or sportsmen saying “fuck”. That’s possibly over-cautious, after all you can hear extensive profanity in late night Radio 4 plays, but it is comfortable line to draw for our status as a commercial organisation. Having decided to remove the word, the question now is how to do it. You either bleep it out or edit the exchange out of the programme altogether. The latter is safer but in truth not always possible to do cleanly. It also for me kind of undermines the whole integrity of the programme. There is little point in advertising an adults-only show if it doesn’t actually contain anything adult (I’m reminded of Victor Lewis-Smith once satirising the censorship of his programmes by portraying a manager demanding dangerous radio that is also very safe and so not actually dangerous). Bleeping is perhaps better and respects both the sensibilities of those who don’t want naughty words but also those who are grown up enough to deal with them. Too many bleeps however and things get painful. By its very nature a burst of tone calls attention to a profanity that might otherwise just be background chatter and makes it a more prominent part of the dialogue than was actually the case. You run the risk of making a guest sound incredibly foul mouthed by just trying to clean them up.

So it is a balancing act, and one which often causes me much heartache. I loathe censorship in all forms, but with my professional hat on I have to remember that I’m not the regulator. Sometimes things have to go that I myself don’t have a problem with, but which I know others will. Here then are a few examples of how I attempted to create that balance last weekend.


First the edit. Here is the audio from guest comedian Paul McCaffrey as he recounted the trials of supporting a seaside club:

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Should that be left in? On balance, no – particularly as it was at the end of a section of the show which had featured multiple instances of fruity language. You could leave the swearing out without damaging the joke or treading on the point Paul was making. So here is how that particular exchange went out in the broadcast programme:

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Pretty seamless. So far so good.


Earlier in the show however was an instance of swearing it would have been wholly wrong to take out. This was the exchange in question:

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To put this in context, it is a powerful description by Brian Moore of how he was taught to confront inner demons and not let them dominate him. To edit that would have been wrong and undermined the whole point he was making. So this one I bleeped, protecting those with sensitive ears, those who didn’t tune in to hear a much-admired rugby player and broadcaster swearing but also keeping the integrity of his story intact.

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You’ll note that I wasn’t particularly precise with the bleep there. That’s my own personal sop to creative freedom, a nod to the intelligence of the audience to say “yeah it is obvious what he said, but if anyone asks we can say we took it out, right?”.


The final example is one which caused a great deal of argument in the office, even on the afternoon of the broadcast. Something that wasn’t actually profane but could be construed as such. Here was the original tape:

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The expression “see you next Tuesday” as a theoretically polite shorthand for one of the rudest words of all has tripped broadcasters up in the past. A footballer used the phrase one afternoon on an edition of Sky Sports’ “Goals On Sunday” show, the reference sailing over the heads of presenters and production crew and resulting in some heads rolling when it was subsequently picked up on by management.

My instinct however was to leave the above reference in. The comedian was after all self-censoring, unable to bring himself to use the word even in front of a paying audience. Nonetheless the weekend editor was unhappy with it having reviewed the tapes at my request. “Take it out” was his instruction. My argument was that by editing or bleeping we were actually making it sound like he had actually sworn when he didn’t which to me was unethical. But then I opened up the file and tried it anyway. Extraordinarily it made the joke better.

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The whole point of the anecdote was after all to recount the forlorn experience of refereeing a football match (badly) and taking constant abuse from the crowd. The comedy comes from the moment when a spectator tells him he’s a c**t, and all he can do is regretfully agree with that assessment. But it doesn’t work without the profanity, there is far less comic pathos in being called a ‘see you next Tuesday’ than there is being called a c**t. So against all instincts I bleeped the self-censored epithet. The story now carried far more resonance and most importantly of all humour. Not all censorship is bad it appears.


So that’s a brief lesson in editing rude words, and the fine tightrope you have to walk when preparing a recorded show for broadcast. If I’ve fired up your curiosity, then if you are in the London area then why not come along to the next recording of Matt Forde’s Sports Party (on the evening of October 20th) and if you look very carefully at the back of the auditorium you’ll see at least one sweating radio producer noting down times and preparing for arguments over the exact contextual justification of the third utterance that night of the word “wanker”.

 

Apple Slices

In a perfect world, the British singles and album charts are compiled with a full set of sales and streaming data from all the registered sources they survey. When that happens it is such a deeply satisfying feeling that even the data sent to those of us in the media smugly points it out.

alldata

Sometimes things do go wrong, glitches in the matrix occur, and a chain of stores for whatever reason may not be able to report its sales information to the required schedule. This is all transparent and once again is flagged up for anyone who cares.

tescomissing

“Upweighted to compensate” refers to the process used to ensure the charts can be compiled even if there is a small part of the data missing. Just over a year ago Alan Jones explained the mathematics involved in his Music Week column:

The chart is compiled down to eight decimal points – or one hundred millionth of a sale. Obviously records only sell in whole numbers but the complex weighting matrix employed to take account of shops which are unable to report on any given week produces these fractions. For example, if an album sells 15 copies in seven shops in a weighting cell where there are two more shops whose sales were not collected for whatever reason, the upweighted sales for all nine would be 15 divided by seven, multiplied by nine, or 19.28571428.

Yes, that is so convoluted that unless you are the most dedicated of chart anorak it is enough to know that the system is there and it works. Sometimes it has worked a little too well, like in December 2010 when the zero sales registered by supermarket chains on Christmas Day were mistakenly flagged as missing figures and the upweighting algorithm used to account for sales that physically could not have happened at all. The entire set of charts had to be reissued a few days later when the error was discovered. More recently in Eurovision week 2014 iTunes suffered a data hiccup on the Saturday and could not produce their figures in time for chart compilation the following day. The upweighting algorithm had no way of knowing that many of the songs performed during the contest itself on Saturday night would have seen their sales rise and the usual impact of the airing of the Eurovision Song Contest was lost. These however are isolated incidents and on the odd occasion when the system is called into use it is to the satisfaction of all.

But here is the thing, since the start of the summer – the changeover to Global Release Day in fact – this upweighting system has been called into use every single week. Not one chart since July has been compiled using a complete set of data.

allmissing

For the past nine weeks (at the time of writing) both Apple Music and Spotify have failed to deliver their Thursday data in time to be included in chart compilation with Apple’s losing run stretching three weeks further, right back to the very launch of the service in fact. Every week without fail the information from both giants arrives too late to be included in Millward Brown’s sales survey and the UK charts wind up being compiled with guesstimated streaming numbers for the end of each sales week. Now you could put this down to teething problems with the new Apple Music streaming service, although quite why a company that has been able to report music sales from iTunes with a reasonable level of consistency for well over ten years now should suddenly be struggling remains a mystery. It is also rather odd that Spotify are repeatedly failing to deliver too given that over the previous year they have finished the week with a complete set of figures more often than not.

I’ve heard conspiracy theories that this is a deliberate ploy on the part of the two streaming services which are aggressively competing for market share and are particularly interested to know just how large a chunk of the market their rivals have. Solid facts to back that up are a little harder to come by however.

One industry contact has indicated to me that in actual fact both services are taking longer to deliver data to chart compilers Millward Brown than they are supposed to on a daily basis, this delay only noticeable when Thursdays data misses the final deadline for the charts to be compiled. A source inside the Official Charts Company acknowledged to me last week that this is an issue with the sheer volume of data the two services are now generating and that for the moment they just cannot turn it around in time. That’s certainly plausible, as since the start of the year the streaming tracks market has grown at a phenomenal rate. To put this in some kind of context, this week digital streams accounted for 4,887,190 ‘sales’ on the singles chart. This week 12 months ago they totalled 2,350,366. The market has grown by almost exactly 100% in the space of a year. Which means double the data to process.

A systems engineer friend of mine noted: “There’s absolutely no chance that Apple & Spotify are finding it any harder just because sales have doubled. Unless the number of records AVAILABLE has doubled then the aggregates remain the same size in terms of data. Especially since they both have systems that extract and render how many times YOU have played something with no trouble at all”. This does however presume the retailers declare the data pre-aggregated. “50 copies of track number ABC123” is quicker to declare than “track number ABC123” 50 different times. But the latter is easier to audit and is the more likely method used.

All I know is that if I sell a copy of one of my books I am notified instantly that it has taken place, even if it does take Amazon up to seven weeks to actually pay me the royalties for it. It is hard to believe that Apple Music don’t know at midnight each day exactly how many plays a track has had in the last 24 hours. Theoretically this would then point to the transfer to Millward Brown being the bottleneck, the transfer or receipt of the data simply not proceeding in a timely enough fashion. The charts director for the market researchers assures me that everything is being processed in time:

Our connections and servers are all capable of processing any retailer data if received by the agreed deadlines. And, to clarify, we can, and often do wait for late data received from retailers. In virtually every case where data arrives late, it doesn’t actually arrive until after that day’s charts or Sales Flashes are published.

The pertinent point here is “if received by the agreed deadlines”. Which clearly in this case are being repeatedly missed on Thursdays. The precise reason for this remains a mystery, at least for the moment. I’m assured the problem is known about and a solution is being worked towards. What this does mean though is that for now the UK charts are actually working from an imperfect data set. A statistical averaging which was designed to accommodate isolated system issues is being called into use week in week out as a patch for an ongoing data snafu. That cannot be to anyone’s satisfaction long term.