published: 29 /
In his ‘Condemned to Rock ‘n’ Roll’ column Ben Howarth analyses the decline of the singles market and looks at how music buying has changed over recent years
It’s the ultimate fantasy of every pop-obsessed kid: you’d imagine recording your first hit single, you’d meticulously plan out every detail of your debut album ('Introducing Ben Howarth', or perhaps the less formal 'Meet Ben Howarth'). There are many fine details to ponder. Do you compose the sleeve notes yourself, or leave it to your earliest champion in the music press? Should the bassist and drummer get a songwriting credit, and do you need to claim a co-producer's credit for yourself?
Then there would be set-lists to compile - do you play the biggest hit early, or save it until the encore? Do you throw the ‘fan favourite’ B-side into the mix? Should the gig begin with an instrumental? Which of the many tastefully chosen cover versions in your repertoire most deserves an airing?
Only then do you come to the most important question of all. What to call the Greatest Hits? ‘The Best of Ben Howarth’, might seem the obvious choice, but ‘The Very Best of Ben Howarth’ is perhaps a wiser choice, leaving the impression that there are other songs left over, many very nearly as good. Including the suffix ‘Volume One’ is also important. Future gaps in the Howarth recording schedule (or ‘three year holidays’, as we in the industry call them) will also need to be plugged, after all.
But, one aspect of all this was never in any doubt. Success would be measured in one way, and one way only: Number One singles.
Occasionally, I conceded that my more artistically challenging numbers would need an exclusive new track on CD2 to help them on their way to the top of the charts. But the notion that there was any form of success that could not be measured by Radio One’s Sunday afternoon chart rundown never crossed my mind.
Not any more. Surely there isn’t anyone who still pays heed to chart positions these days. As I type this, I have literally no idea who is Number One, who was number one before or who is vying to secure Number One. It has simply ceased to be important.
Like all the best religions, pop music has always set about separating itself off into lots of little churches, who inevitably end up hating each other’s guts. But the charts were always a means of channelling that aggression into a mutual competitive process - Blur vs. Oasis, Ginger Spice vs. Baby Spice, ‘Posh’ Spice against actually-Posh Ellis Bextor, Pop vs. Rock, Dance vs. Grunge, Boy Band vs. Girl Band.
This mattered when pop music was all fighting for the same space - slots of daytime Radio One, 'Top of the Pops' and the occasional chat show were the only ways for bands of all persuasions to get their music heard. It didn’t matter if you were Ash, David Bowie, Texas, B*Witched or Boyzone - you needed this limited access to the airwaves to get into the charts, you needed to get into the charts to get invited on again, and you needed to get into the charts to make any kind of living.
In our more multi-faceted media world, this is no longer the case. A certain group of devotees might go misty-eyed over the National, (and might go wild eyed when their concert tickets are put on sale that they buy out the entire allocation of Royal Albert Hall tickets in twenty minutes), but the man next to you in HMV probably has no idea who he is. The National will never have a hit single, of that I can be very sure, but so long as there is the Guardian 'G2' section, Radio 4’s 'Front Row' and a huge arm of the magazine industry aimed at selling records to middle aged men, they will enjoy a comfortable earnings threshold.
Given this, I remain mystified by the music industry’s obsession with boiling the broad range of commercial opportunities they offer up into one vapid measure - how many times sometime parted with 79 pence to download an individual track. At the behest of the ‘Official Charts Company‘, @The Guardian' picked up the ‘surprising’ news that pop singles accounted for 33 per cent of the market last year, meaning - apparently - that ‘the reign of the rock band is officially over’.
The news does not appear to have reached the Glastonbury organisers, who insisted on two rock bands - Muse and U2 - to headline the UK’s biggest annual music event. Nor has it affected album buyers, who choose a rock album 40 per cent of the time.
The days when trends like these mattered are long gone. Try as it might, pop music is never going to permeate mass consciousness in the way it did in my childhood imaginations. If newspapers (themselves clearly declining in influence: they can’t even rig General Elections anymore) didn’t write about Lady Gaga everyday, then even most ardent music fans wouldn’t know her from Adam. We’ve all slunk off into our respective niche market cliques, and we’re highly unlikely to return.
Of course, in marketing circles, the concept of the ‘Hit’ will survive. But, as a measure of public taste, trends in the music or the quality of music on offer, it is entirely redundant. Music buying has become a much more sophisticated business, and it's hard to imagine times more interesting as a result.