While not every song that graces the charts is worthy of derision, it’s no secret that the charts do very little to properly represent both music and the music industry as a whole. Songs that are just products of lazy corporate entities designed to make profits, that constantly clog up the single charts, do nothing to alleviate the age-old mentality of “modern music is rubbish, music was better back in my day!“. But why are the charts so broken and can they be fixed?
Before we continue, let’s be clear that songs that do well in the charts are not automatically bad. There are some great alternative acts such as Hozier that cross into the mainstream, and there are some fantastic pop acts like Adele or Ed Sheeran that owe their success to talent and hard work. What I’m talking about is the fact that these are the exceptions to the rule, which should not be the case. The majority of the charts should be composed of talented pop acts and a few break-out crossover stars scattered in between. Instead you have bland paint-by-numbers pop that all sounds alike, or dance remixes of older songs that just make them sound worse. The kind of stuff that’s made in a boardroom meeting, not crafted by an artist’s hands. The major labels deprive up-and-coming artists the chance to grow in favour of their own hit factory.
The “hit factory” mentality is nothing new, Motown dominated popular music for decades with a similar idea. Where it differed however was in a separation between art and business, and in offering a way out. Songwriters were given free rein to create, so long as they provided enough songs that met the label’s wishes, and those that excelled often went on to break out from the sidelines and onto the stage; such as Carole King. Artists begin singing songs from the hit factory that suited them, and those that proved their worth were trusted to flex their own creativity; like Marvin Gaye. Obviously there were still a few shady deals and greased palms to try to influence the charts, but the listeners held far greater power than in the modern day. The public still had an important part to play, one that couldn’t be just bought off.
Today the major labels own the charts, they decide what is “popular”. There are very few chances for smaller artists that don’t fit their model to get through. The major players throw money at the problem in every conceivable way; through radio, streaming, advertising. Basically blocking out other music wherever they can and only sharing what they want to. The only time I ever hear chart music is on the radio. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that would think to themselves “I’m gonna go listen to the new song by The Chainsmokers” yet we’re told these are the most popular songs in the country? Popular how?
Spotify breaks the charts in a number of ways, but playlists are the main culprit. People in search of a bit of background noise just pick out any old playlist, and low and behold the major labels hold the most power when deciding what is on these playlists, which then in turn feeds the charts. Drake shattered streaming records with his latest album, but is that any surprise when Spotify is running banners with his face on the home page, advertising to free users constantly, or adding his new songs to every single playlist whether they belong there or not. He would have made a tiny fraction of his current streaming “sales” if it wasn’t for this big push behind him. You don’t give gold medals to athletes that pump their body full of steroids, so why let people cheat their way to the top of the charts?
The fact that YouTube views will now count towards chart positions in much the same way that streaming figures do is only going to make matters worse. To change the way things are done and enforce a fair and equal footing would be like the equivalent of toppling the government. You’d need an unprecedented amount of public support, but most people are fine just going about their daily business. So, it looks like the charts will remain as crooked as a fish hook… I suppose the question now is whether we need them to be fixed?
Obviously it’s maddening to see talented artists struggling while those far less deserving rake in obscene amounts of money, but think for a moment about the bands you love, about the bands playing festivals across the globe. Most of these artists don’t get radio airplay or massive playlist campaigns, and the occasions that they do are an admission of defeat from the powers that be, realising that they’re already successful and just attempting to make the most of the situation. Most of these didn’t have loads of money behind them when they first started out, but they managed to beat the odds, fight the power, and claw their way to the top. It’s not easy, in fact it’s the hardest it’s ever been, but it’s possible. That’s something we can take heart in. Sometimes the more people try to control something the more things can slip through their fingers. Perhaps Jeff Goldblum said it best: “life finds a way”.