Everything Stops At Four O’Clock

knobs radio clockThe last time I wrote about radio and the art of performing it in any kind of detail, it turned out to be one of the more popular pieces on this site for some time. I was quoted in newsletters, contacted by some big names and even invited onto Radio 4 to discuss it (an invitation I had to decline due to half term holidays getting in the way, alas). All because I saw nothing wrong with presenters on a quasi-national network being given a style guide.

Radio you see is actually quite hard. To do it well at least. It is all too easy to imagine that any idiot can sit down in front of a microphone with a few records and introduce them. But if you haven’t prepared properly or even learned the best way to do it, that is precisely how you sound. An idiot.

In an age when developing a career from the ground up is old hat, or when being a celebrity name in other walks of life is the best qualification for a high-profile radio slot you can always tell the ones who have been thrown in with little or no advanced guidance. They are the ones who commit the cardinal sin of ceasing to speak like human beings but instead say the kinds of things they imagine radio presenters are supposed to say. Telling the time seems a particular challenge for nascent broadcasters. Because to hand someone a microphone and an audience and is apparently to make it impossible for them to stop themselves from descending into cheery cheese mode and start saying dated rubbish like “twelve minutes to the hour of one o’clock”.

The first man ever to give me any kind of coaching in the art of radio was a man called Kenni James who was particularly keen on the correct way to tell the time. Even once people had moved past the urge to be Noel Edmonds circa 1976, the temptation to read the time straight off the studio clock was also to be resisted. “Three fourty-eight?” he mocked, “Who actually speaks like that in real life? You look at the clock and go ‘ooh, almost ten to four’. Just speak like a normal person”.

Time (as in the passing of years) has moved on since but the lesson still holds true. And there is one other strange verbal crutch which for some reason always raises my hackles when I hear radio presenters doing it. Now I’m about to call attention to it, you will notice it as well:

“This is me, Tommy Trebleknob, with you through ’til six”.

I’ve genuinely heard presenters do that as their opening link of a four-hour show. Telling people how long it is before they knock off.

So why is this bad? Well for a start, it introduces a stop point for the audience. Creating for them a reason to cease listening and go off and do something else. In radio, commercial radio, in particular, that is a huge no-no. Forget the ego for a moment, no matter how good you think you are or how much of an appointment to listen you dream of being, precious few people are tuning in specifically for you. Your “show” as it were is merely one part of a large and lovingly constructed schedule. Your only thought should be persuading people to consume as much of it as possible, to appreciate not only your hard work but those of your colleagues. Plus you are also there to give value for money to the advertisers whose money is paying your daily fee and who want as many people as possible to hear their message. So don’t tell people when they should be turning off. Tell them why they should be sticking around all day long and into the night if possible.

Why do presenters do it? Well, once again it is one of those things they imagine radio presenters are supposed to say without ever considering why. It is a sign of someone who in their head is “on the radio” rather than “communicating with the audience”. At the end of the day, it comes down to one simple point. Nobody cares what time you finish work for the day. So why beat them around the head with it?

Sheeran, Drake et al – How They Rescued The Album

The argument appears to have been raging for close to two months now and shows little sign of dying down any time soon. The ability of entire albums to sweep en-masse into the singles chart was thrust to the fore of the news by the near-total domination of the Top 10 achieved by Ed Sheran’s Divide album back in March. It has prompted an extended debate as to whether things are now “broken” regarding the way charts are compiled, and the popularity of songs is measured. From my point of view it has resulted in the most-read Chart Watch piece since I migrated the column to its own site almost a year ago, and this previous posting where I refuted suggestions made by the BBC as to how things might be “fixed”.

However, for a few weeks now I’ve become convinced that there is one thing that is indeed broken. What Ed Sheeran (and other streaming Kings such as Drake and The Weeknd) have actually done is rescued the album from near-oblivion. And that was actually the last thing that anyone expected to happen.

The idea of the album as a complete body of work, as opposed to a random collection of songs assembled for convenience, only truly dates back from the late-1960s with the invention by the likes of The Moody Blues and The Beatles of the ‘concept album’ with all tracks being bound by a single theme or narrative. By the 1970s the LP was seen by some acts as an artform in itself, elevated above the level of the mere pop record and the mark which distinguished the average performers from the truly great. Rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd released famous bodies of work and by and large declined to lower themselves by promoting them with single cuts. You didn’t cut pieces from your masterpiece, the argument went, you sat back and appreciated it as a whole. And people cheerfully bought into that idea. If nothing else, the technology of the time meant that the only ‘proper’ way to listen to a long playing record was to put the needle at the start and let it run until the end. Anything else was too much of a faff and involved getting out of your seat to move the needle along. So why bother?

The slow death of this concept actually came far earlier than anyone realised, with the invention and subsequent adoption by the mass market of the Compact Disc player. For the first time music was available by random access. As much as the marketing of the early players focused on the crystal-clear sound of the reproduction (so good you could hear the singer breathing), the system was also sold on the idea you could program or even randomise the available tracks. I remember as a teenager visiting friends whose parents had indulged them with hi-fi systems that played the wondrous silver discs in order to hear the latest album by our favourite groups. This would normally consist of programming in tracks 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 on the basis that “you don’t need to hear the rest, they are a bit rubbish”. People had started to enthusiastically cherrypick the killer cuts from a long playing record. It was just that nobody really noticed – you still had to buy the complete disc regardless of how much of it you wanted to hear.

Hence when the digital era arrived, the iTunes store and the concept that every individual track was effectively a ‘single’ you could buy was less of a revolution than it might have first appeared. In 2007 when the gloves finally came off, and any track was free to chart, I and many other chart-watchers were anticipating mass invasions of the singles chart by the complete set of tracks from the biggest names in pop. Except it never really happened that way. What we saw instead was a savvy music buying audience homing in on the most popular tracks from an album and cherry-picking those ones alone. Two or three, or at the most four, tracks from a hot new long playing collection would make brief chart appearances before fading away to perhaps await the day they were properly elevated to ‘singles’.

It was this break-up of albums into their constituent parts which not only frustrated the veterans (Pink Floyd albums were notoriously slow in appearing online, Roger Waters refusing to countenance Apple’s wish that tracks could be purchased individually and insisted that his masterpieces were designed to be appreciated as a whole) but also the music industry as a whole. While singles buyers enthusiastically embraced this new musical form, album purchases remained stubbornly locked to their physical past – a market that was slowly but steadily dying. Many attempts were made to fix this problem and migrate people to the idea of purchasing full albums digitally, whether it was the iTunes “complete this album” button which allowed you to snap up the rest of a collection you had partially bought for a discount, or the “instant grat” tactic whereby a pre-release purchase of a big name album allowed you immediate access to one or more of its tracks.

None were particularly effective, and the near-calamitous collapse of the album market over the past few years can be directly attributed to the decline of the physical-buying audience who simply were not replaced in sufficient numbers by those who wanted complete digital sets.

It seemed safe to assume that this trend would continue, that (freaks of nature like Adele aside) the album was largely dead and the future lay in the cumulative sales and streams of particular tracks. When the Official Charts Company made the move to fold streaming data into the albums chart they rejected counting plays of entire albums, or certain percentages thereof, in favour of counting the total listens for individual tracks from a set, weighting down the biggest singles and adding them in on a 1:1000 ratio. It was a way of continuing to measure the overall popularity of artist collections in an age when all the evidence was that nobody actually listened to albums any more. This is why there was no need to put in place any kind of rule to stop entire albums swamping the singles chart – because let’s face it how likely was it that this would ever happen?

Except that of late, we’ve seen a significant social change. For far too long, appreciation of recorded music has been a solitary activity. We’ve all become used to vanishing into our own musical world via a pair of earphones and a portable player. Your musical choice was nobody’s business – unless perhaps you were 13 years old and riding on the back seat of a bus. Yet slowly but surely music has become a collective activity again. All thanks to social media. Twitter and Facebook mean we can band together with like-minded individuals, congregate on a hashtag and enjoy the shared experience of the appreciation of a work of art. “Second screening” started with television fans and has now spread enthusiastically to music lovers.

Gathering for an online listening party is now the done thing in the wake of a big name release. Fans will co-ordinate their efforts to listen to the work of their idols track by track, commenting and interacting along the way. Radio has picked up on this too. Once upon a time, a major album release by a priority act might be marked by Radio 1 making it a weekly feature and sprinkling tracks from it across dayparts. Now they will devote entire programmes to their own listening parties, playing a release in full, one song at a time. For the first time since the 1970s people aren’t skipping, randomising or programming. They are listening. Albums have become an important part of the narrative again.

That then is why Ed Sheeran, and to a lesser extent acts such as The Weeknd and Drake managed to “break” the singles chart. Because their fans played the new music in full, en masse, and repeatedly over a short period of time. There was little discrimination. Every track was effectively just as popular as the next, and in they shot to the singles chart side by side with each other. It isn’t the charts that are broken, just that the public have started to behave in ways that were never anticipated.

Don’t panic. I’ve not quite come over to the dark side and believe in making rule changes to stop this. This tendency for new releases to create floods is also a consequence of what is still an immature streaming market, one which is still effectively dominated by the early adopters – and in particular those newly-minded music fans who have never bought a record in their lives and probably never will.  Those who have embraced this new means of consumption are overwhelmingly young and their tastes lean almost entirely towards acts of a more urban nature. Because nobody else is doing this in such numbers, they have the ability to swamp the market when they put their minds to it. Or when there is an exciting new release to hashtag listening party. As the market grows and matures and listeners with more diverse tastes arrive online and start to bend the charts to their will, the ability of one act or sound to completely dominate will be greatly diminished, simply because the weight of numbers are against them.

For now, however, we are in what should be a brief period where things do indeed appear to be broken. At least I assume it will be brief. As reports of the premature death of the album have proved, even the smallest of assumptions can be a very dangerous thing.

Sheeran: Fixing What Isn’t Broken

If you are reading this post around the same time it is published, in the middle of March 2017, you will scarcely require the topic of this post explaining. Ever since Ed Sheeran released his album Divide and duly planted all 16 of its tracks inside the Top 20 (9 of them in the Top 10) the media coverage has been enormous. Although not always on the positive side. To read some of the articles which have been printed in the press, or to hear features on some radio stations, you would think that an artist landing a large amount of very big hits all at once was akin to the end of days, a civilisation-cracking event. Or at the very least proving that the pop charts in this country are broken.

Last night I posted a new podcast dealing with this issue and put forward a theory I developed whilst talking to friends over the past few days. I’ve been studying and writing about the British charts for virtually the whole of my adult life, but I do so for the benefit of what is inevitably a transient audience. Everyone has a certain period in their life when pop music matters a great deal, when the study of the charts week by week is what defines your life and gives your memories the accompanying musical snapshot. But for most that lasts just 2-3 years and you move on, the charts now something to glance at occasionally and marvel at the “rubbish the kids are listening to” whilst safe in the knowledge it was better in your day.

The consequence of that is that virtually all of us have connected to them in some way and have an internal view on the way things should look and how they should behave, regardless of which particular era this happens to be in. This week we have a situation where an artist has done something so totally without precedent that it violates everyone’s internalised view. Hence the large numbers of people expressing unhappiness and hence my amused reaction of noting the number of people with only a passing interest in pop music who nonetheless have very strident views on the singles chart and how it should be constructed.

Some opinion pieces have taken the argument further and explored ways things can be “fixed” to stop evil bastards like Ed Sheeran in their tracks. One such piece which caught my eye this week was on the BBC’s own entertainment news website, penned by their main entertainment guru Mark Savage. BBC news items don’t allow for direct comment, but it seemed appropriate to present here my own rebuttal of all the main points in Mark Savage’s Five Ways The Singles Chart Can Be Fixed.

Redefine What A Single Is

The problem, so the argument goes, is that there is no dividing line any more, no restriction on what counts as a ‘single’. So any old album track can invade the charts. Therefore there should be some rule in place to ensure only specific tracks by an artist which qualify can register on the singles chart.

But that would be pretty much unworkable. How do you do this? I’ve seen it suggested that chart places are reserved for only the most popular 4 or 5 tracks from an album. Which is fine, until the 5th and 6th most popular tracks are more or less neck and neck and swap places each week. Why would you exclude the track which was just outside the Top 50 one week just because it has sold 5 fewer copies this week than the track it sold 5 copies more of last week. Chaos would ensue.

If you simply insist that labels designate specific tracks from an album as the chartable “singles” you also run into complications when the public decides otherwise and starts buying or streaming ‘unauthorised’ album cuts in large numbers. We are seeing this happen this week with Ed Sheeran. Far and away the most popular of all the Divide tracks is Galway Girl and all indications are that if it continues in the manner in which it has been doing it stands the best chance of any current hit of removing Shape Of You from the top of the charts. So an album track will be the Number One single. And you cannot argue that it would not make a joke of the singles chart if the best selling or most streamed track of the moment was not at the top or even on the charts at all, just because the record label didn’t make it one of the nominated few.

Fix The Formula

‘Fix’ is once more a very leading word, presuming by definition that there is something broken. This refers to the current ratio of 150 streams : 1 purchased sale, adjusted down from 100:1 at the start of this year. It has been changed once and almost certainly will be changed again as the streaming market continues to grow and evolve. Nobody is suggesting changing it just because of Ed Sheeran, and indeed you could have a 200:1 streaming ratio and Ed Sheeran would still have dominated this week. But if he is the thing which causes a jump in the market, causing custom to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer et al to notch up dramatically then I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us move to a 200: 1 ratio by the end of the year. But by no means before then.

Eliminate Passive Listening

This is the notion that much of the perceived stagnation of the market is down to people blindly listening to the various “today’s hot hits” playlists, to the extent that it swamps the true investigators, those who go on journeys of discovery and actively choose which tracks to listen to, or build their own playlists based on personal tastes. So the argument goes that the charts should not be tracking passive playlisted streams, those that follow on automatically from a user selection. The downside here is that strange though it may sound it will actually just play into people’s conservatism. The number of users who take time to explore the catalogues under their own steam is tiny compared to those who immediately go to the songs of their favourite acts time and time again. Not all playlists are bad, and Spotify’s heaviest users are unanimous in their praise for the famed “discover weekly” playlist – your own customised batch of both songs the system knows you like and other stuff (old and new) which it thinks you will like. Playlists are actually how labels get new music in front of ears and potentially into the charts. Take that away and you will find new music has more of an uphill struggle than ever before.

Include Airplay In The Charts

Radio One would love this, as the BBC article notes. But it also notes that relying on the programmers of commercial radio to positively influence the pop charts is a hiding to nothing, given the way their own research constantly insists that they should play the songs that people know and love to increase audiences. And right now the stuff that people know and love is indeed Ed Sheeran. Calls for the UK charts to incorporate airplay have been made for as long as I’ve been a music fan, and it has always been rejected by those with the power to make these choices. The Billboard chart for all its historical worth is seen as constantly in hock to the small handful of radio programmers. Say what you like about the UK charts, but it has always been the public who has shaped them. And long should that continue.

Ban Ed Sheeran

The final, tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Mark Savage isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Back in the spring of 1976, a mass re-issue programme of old Beatles singles resulted in a phenomenal chart invasion, the like of which had genuinely never been seen before. The Top 50 singles chart of April 10th saw no less than six of the places occupied by tracks by the famous Liverpudlians and there were genuine calls from those whose releases were now stuck outside the published chart for Beatles tracks to be relegated to a listing of their own, almost as if there was the assumption they would hang around forever. Which of course they didn’t.

Fifteen years later it was the album chart which was causing headaches for some. Just before Christmas 1991 a plethora of TV-advertised hits collections had made the chart rather collection-heavy. As the following clipping from Music Week shows, there were rumblings in some quarters that the album chart should be the preserve of new studio recordings. Hits compilations should be binned off to their own table, much as compilations had a year or two earlier.

We won’t see a Sheeran-only chart, any more than we saw a Beatles-only or Hits-only chart. Because the issue is this week’s issue alone. By the end of April we’ll all be wondering just what the fuss was all about, you wait and see.

Once upon a time it was thought Hits albums should be excluded.