Sunday, July 03, 2016

Drowning in the stream: some thoughts on music formats past and present

"One Dance" by Drake has been top of the UK singles chart for 12 weeks now.  The song is only 3 weeks away from equalling Wet Wet Wet's chart-topping run and 4 weeks away from equalling Bryan Adams' stay at the top. It's the longest-running UK chart-topper since 1994.

If a song stayed at the top of our singles chart for that length of time, it was once a great achievement - even if you never wanted to hear those songs again. But they were at the top of the chart for a reason; they had sold the most copies of a single within that particular week to stay there.  Love it or hate it, the Top 40 used to be a fair reflection of the kind of music which was commercially popular in that week, month, year, decade - even if many of us were listening to completely different music which rarely got radio play - and the official UK singles chart was purely based on sales alone, rather than, say, airplay.  In 2005, download sales were included in the UK top 40 for the first time.  I remember being quite excited about that, purely for the reason that it might broaden the scope of the chart.  With very few exceptions - either new album fan-power or posthumous sales for an artist who has passed away - it didn't change the chart all that much.

Two years ago, it was announced that streaming plays would also count for chart positions.  In my view, this was a bad move.  So what if a certain song has so-many-million plays through streaming? That doesn't mean that it should top a singles chart, competing with other songs which have been purchased, rather than listened to for free.  By all means, have a separate streaming chart if you must, but don't include this along with sales in the UK Top 40.  Or just have a streaming chart and forget the sales.  And don't count the record-breaking chart-toppers in with other songs which made it there on different merits.  Streaming only represents a certain demographic of people. So why should their tastes be acknowledged in a chart, when the rest of us who consume music in a different way are ignored?

The other negative change which has occurred is that the singles chart is more stagnant than ever. The same songs now hang around the top 20 for weeks on end, without much variation.  New entries are a rarity and it's a massive change from the days when we had a different song going straight in at no.1 every week.  That wasn't healthy either, but at least it brought some variety.

Radio is equally to blame for the stagnation.  I went back to look at the first chart of 2016 and found that many of the songs from that chart are still figuring prominently on the daily playlist of Heart, the radio station which we listen to at work.  They will take so long to put a song on their playlist and when they do, it will then be played for a further 6 months at least.  It's a symptom of the risk-averse times we live in - mainstream radio stations are not willing to change their playlists, try something new or indeed be more adventurous in their choice of "oldies".

Perhaps that's one reason for the success of shows playing old hits which never get any airtime - like Absolute Radio 80s "Forgotten 80s" which I previously wrote about on this blog.  The show has a large and loyal audience and trends every Sunday evening on Twitter.  Another show worth listening to is BBC Radio Manchester's "Nothing But The 90s", presented by Stephanie Hirst from 10.00 pm until midnight every Saturday night.  This show provides a broad and diverse selection of music from that most underrated decade, and is available on demand on BBC iPlayer at

The UK top 40 singles chart has never been more narrow-minded and less representative of this country's musical tastes.  I have never felt more disenfranchised from what is "popular".   Which brings me back to "One Dance".  Despite its lengthy stay at the top of the chart, I have never heard this song - until today, purely for the purposes of researching this post.  My conclusion:
Why is that song even in the chart, never mind no.1, never mind 12 weeks at no.1?

It's mediocre at best.  But then again, I'm old in music-fan terms, and this kind of music doesn't mean anything to me at all.  On the other hand, I'm glad to be the age that I am, glad to have absorbed decades of good (and bad) music and lived through times when music meant something, rather than the throwaway medium of streaming.

Streaming, for me, is the worst possible development for music, as it would indicate that music is no longer of any importance to the streaming generation; they don't take any ownership of the music, it's a temporary fad, it's just passing through, and you can't listen to it any time - what if there's no internet connection for example?  With streaming, music is no longer yours to keep.  A large music collection holds a lifetime of memories.  You won't get that with streaming.

I have tried streaming music at home, but only on a very rare basis and that was only because I wanted to check out a specific Spotify playlist.  It's bad for the development of artists if no-one is buying their music, and they are only receiving a pittance from streaming services.  And who really wants to listen to music on a phone, or a little tinny speaker?  (Cue the market for quality Bluetooth speakers!).

(Incidentally, my negative view of streaming does not extend to films and TV: internet connection permitting, on-demand viewing is a good alternative to watching live or recorded programmes.  And no doubt I will eventually end up subscribing to the all-conquering binge-watching monster that is Netflix.  But films and TV are different from music and perhaps streaming is a better fit for the visual media.)

I just wonder which music format will come next?  So many have come and gone, which got me reminiscing....

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.

Once upon a time, people used to buy music!  And that music came in a physical form - a single was a 7" vinyl disc and an album was a 12" vinyl disc which you played on a record player.  We had one which was similar to this:

And then the technology moved on and you could play your music on a "hi-fi", a tower system which included a turntable, a radio tuner and that other piece of technology, the cassette player.

When the Walkman became popular in the 80s, vinyl was still my music format of choice.  But cassettes made music mobile, this format became increasingly popular.  Although many people of my age will probably look back fondly at taping their favourite songs off the radio, on to blank cassettes like the one pictured above.  My own home-taping adventures often focused on music which you couldn't get anywhere else, such as Radio 1 sessions from the John Peel/Richard Skinner/David 'Kid' Jensen shows, or live concerts broadcast on the radio.  Remember "home taping is killing music?" Well, it didn't.  If anything, it worked the opposite way - I would discover new artists through taping radio sessions and would then go out and buy their records.  So it didn't kill music at all.

Suddenly we were hearing about this new invention - the indestructible "compact disc".  (it wasn't so indestructible - if you've ever heard a stuck CD, that's very painful to listen to!) You no longer had to lift the stylus on the record player to change tracks - you didn't even need a stylus.  You just had to press a button.  It took a long time for me to embrace the CD revolution as a) I couldn't afford it, and b) I was determined to stick with my vinyl and cassettes.  But the technology was foisted on us and forced our hands.  Vinyl records rapidly disappeared from the record shop shelves, replaced by those little square jewel cases containing CDs.  I finally gave in and bought a hi-fi with a CD player in 1994 and began building what would become a very large CD collection.  Cassettes stuck around, but remained a problematic format.  I lost count of the number of tapes which got stuck in the machine and had to be retrieved, cut open and spliced together again with sellotape.  Eventually the cassettes disappeared from the shelves.  A few years down the line, I began digitising my cassettes and that job is still not finished!

The 21st century brought yet another revolutionary technology - digital music.  Apple were the first to corner the market with the launch of the iPod (iPod Classic pictured above) to play your digital music on.

Digital music has a lot to recommend it.  It was space-saving - all your music could be saved on an external hard drive rather than in numerous boxes and cabinets.  If you are lucky enough to own an iPod Classic, you can carry around your whole music collection with you.  You could buy songs immediately rather than wait a long time for them to be released.

I embraced digital music and remain loyal to my iPod classic, which was sadly discontinued by Apple 2 years ago.  But I also like to listen to CDs on my sound system, and for the last few years 'digital' and 'physical' music have happily resided side by side in my home.

But the popularity of MP3s had a negative effect on record shops.  Chains like Our Price, the Virgin Megastore and our particular favourite Music Zone all closed down.  HMV have had their problems but are hanging in there and they also own Fopp which is still around.

Many small independent stores do exist, and have reinvented themselves with the resurgence of vinyl albums, which are also creeping back on to the shelves of HMV and Fopp.  Yes, in this time of streaming, people are buying vinyl albums again.  A couple of months ago I was in Fopp and noticed some of my vinyl albums which I bought first time round in the 1980s. Interestingly the biggest sales are within the 25-34 year old age bracket - not so many of us 45-54s but I guess that's because we've been there, done that and already have a big vinyl collection!

I'm curious if the market will respond to this and if it will mean the return of the "hi-fi" with the turntable.  In the meantime, retro-style turntables are making an appearance.  I spotted one of these in Tesco yesterday and it brought some early 70s memories flooding back.

So I've come to the end of my little trip down memory lane.  Who knows what's coming next? Maybe time to dust off the cassette player...?

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