I discovered record charts in junior high school. Trying, yet again, to be cool, I started listening to Z-100, the local New York City Top 40 station. I was shocked to learn that all of pop music could be reduced to 40 songs. It seemed way too small. At the time, it felt like Madonna must have had 50 top-10 hits all by herself.
I eventually found my way off of Top 40 into the heavy metal parking lot that was suburban Queens in 1988, but I remained fascinated by the idea of record charts and how something as personal and as expansive as music could be distilled to a chart position. It’s why I read with interest about Rolling Stone delaying the launch of their own music chart, which was supposed to use an algorithm to figure out and weight what people are actually listening to nowadays.
Music charts used to be simple things. (And they sure as hell didn’t get sued by pissed-off DJs.) People either bought a single/album, or they listened to it on the radio. Now, as Rolling Stone has learned, it’s gotten more complicated. There’s streaming. There are online radio stations. There are podcasts. And while there are rules and laws that govern the use of music, including who collects the royalties, there are so many podcasts and streams that it’s impossible to police. And that means usage metrics are hard to track. There’s also the issue of bots and how much streamed music is heard by an actual human and how much someone is gaming the system.
Adding to the complexity of all of this, there’s just a ton of music released every day across genres. A quick look at the Billboard chart page shows more charts than you might have known existed: The Hot 100, The Billboard 200, Latin, Holiday, Blues, Country. And as segmented as it is, many music fans will look at the list and be upset that their genre isn’t represented.
Just to oversimplify the problem, there’s way too much music to track and there’s no good way to track how many people are listening to it. And not to put this on the kids, who are always doing crazy things we can’t account for, but the kids are always doing crazy things we can’t account for. We’re lucky someone stumbled upon their use of Google Docs as a communication/bullying tool, but for all we know, they’re using empty Amazon shopping carts to listen to music or abandoned Blackboard course shells to create playlists. As Rolling Stone has seemingly learned, there are simply too many unknowns to accurately track music-listening patterns.
Music charts are potentially influential because they not only reflect what’s popular but drive it as well. Radio stations use various charts to create their own playlists. It was a recurring theme on the classic WKRP in Cincinnati, with the DJs often pushing back against being told what to play. So, like Dr. Johnny Fever eating his own tail, popular songs receive airplay because they’re popular. And as Bruce Iglauer, the founder of the Alligator Records blues label, says in Bitten by the Blues, his autobiography, “subtlety is the enemy of commercial radio.” Numbered lists are anything but subtle.
But many people believe in music charts. While charts have never been scientific, even in simpler times, there’s something about a numbered list that seems official: Of course “Crocodile Rock” is a better song than “We’re an American Band”. “Crocodile” was No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and “American Band” was 23. “Crocodile” won by 16.
All music fans know music is much more interesting and complex than a number on a list. The record store employees in the 2000 film High Fidelity constantly make lists, not because there’s an empiricism behind them but as a form of mental exercise. There’s no larger truth in their lists so much as their lists capture a moment. But numbers, even used ironically, create a veneer of science. Music’s personal and numbered lists, like record charts, are a way to validate our own views. Some people take great pride in their music not charting. As a college DJ in the 1990s, I instantly suspected anything that appeared on any chart, concerned that the artist was somehow more interested in popularity than their craft. Conversely, some people like to see music they listen to on the charts as proof of their taste-making skills.
Lists and unreliable numbers aren’t just a music problem, either. Take, for example, American politics. The media now covers elections by using poll results as a proxy for the underlying campaign issues. It’s not about the candidates, their platforms, and their ideas so much as it’s about their numbers. So rather than readers, viewers, and listeners becoming educated about candidates and issues, we’re constantly bombarded with information about who’s winning. Read any coverage of the Democratic primaries and the thrust of the article will be about polling numbers with, if you’re reading a good source, just a few sentences dedicated to what the candidates, also known as the poll subjects, are about. Suffice it to say, this process isn’t working out for lots of people in this country. Or democracy. Polls and music charts both allow ideas to be discussed without delving into quality; they’re reductive.
One of the few things everyone agrees upon is that the music industry is broken. Artists make little to no money from their music (unless you’re Taylor Swift). Labels maintain they’re not making any money either. The unreliability of charts aren’t the disease but rather a symptom of the disease, which, at the risk of sounding like Ted Kaczynski, is technology. Technology made it possible to have almost unlimited access to music without ever having to pay for it, and that killed all the ways we track musical popularity.
Which is why it’s time to give up on charts. They’re not accurate. And more importantly, normal people don’t care about them. Sure, back in the day we all listened to “American Top 40,” either to mock it, to check in on the decline of pop music, or hoping for a long-distance dedication. I’m sure charts are useful as an industry tool. But as a way to discover music? Or as a way to assign value? It makes no sense. They’re poll numbers when we need conversation and thoughtful analysis.
Charts worked when we all listen to the same music in the same way. But music, like the United States, is simply too fractured for that now. There are popular artists who are slipping through the cracks of charts. These are vital, important artists with small niche audiences. By walking away from charts, we can figure out other metrics to gauge artist popularity. One of those metrics might be how much they are written or read about. But maybe it’ll be based on NSA surveillance data. Or perhaps someone will convince Siri and Alexa to wear a wire. Right now, we only know what doesn’t work and that the algorithms won’t rescue us.
However, we can save ourselves by using human judgment to figure out what’s good, what’s popular, and what’s important. It won’t have the same ring as “number one with a bullet” (perhaps the most American of all idioms), but maybe that’s yet another reason to say goodbye to the old chart system.
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