About Charts and the Disparity of Pop Music

This morning on our Slack channel (message me if you might want in) I was having a discussion with Jon Curtis, newly responsible for the wonderful blog A Poke in the Ear (With a Sharp Stick). Jon posted an article about the apparent inevitability of Spotify windowing out big new releases from their free tier. I commented that this might somewhat curtail the recent phenomenon of multiple songs from a single album release simultaneously filling up the pop charts, now that streaming numbers affect position. I shared a link to an article in The Guardian about Ed Sheeran doing just that, with 16 album tracks in the UK top 20.

Jon Curtis:

The takeaway: "The problem isn’t so much the charts as what streaming is doing to music itself. The vast gap between pop’s behemoths and everyone else is a problem that the medium only compounds." The charts were always about popularity … initially number of products sold, now number of products streamed. This skews the playing field dramatically. And, like most questions that are posed in online headers {in this case: "Can the charts be fixed?"}, the answer is no, they can't be fixed.

My response:

I don’t know if I agree with the quote. I think the disparity of ‘pop behemoths’ vs. the second tier is reflective of such growing (and troubling) disparity overall in our society, and there are other factors unique to our time – such as rampant media consolidation and the fact that there are now three ‘major labels’ – mainly to blame. But, on the flip-side, there are now more people making a living in creative fields due to the democratizing effect of the internet (which includes streaming) then there ever were. The most disappointed are those feeling they’ve been cheated out of their Led Zeppelin-style private jet because it’s not like it was in 1975 (spoiler: it wasn’t like that actually).

Regarding charts: I managed a major retail store during the introduction of Soundscan and saw firsthand how that stuff was gamed. But now that we’ve got a million easy-to-access niches (and many self-released artists making a reasonable, lower middle class living off music streaming and such) things like ‘charts’ are even less relevant. I think the Ed Sheeran bit above is hilarious, and it’s fine with me. If that’s how they want to set the metric for their charts then so be it … all this does is send true music fans away from traditional outlets (charts, corporate radio, etc) and into avenues of discovery.

I also admitted that even I'm strangely fascinated by my recurring mix of optimism and cynicism.