Pop & justice: the 21st century charts

I’ve found a great new site, if you’re into dweeby detail that is, chartstats.com.  This labour of love details the chart life by position and weeks of every artist,singles and albums, since forever.  Naturally there are still some gaps but not many.  Browsing it really illuminates how the music industry is changing, and how the returns on album releases (the only profitable game in town) are gradually declining away to nothing.  These are just a few things that struck me.

1.  Artists’s careers are becoming massively front loaded i.e. the first album is the only one that makes a profit.  Rewind to the last century and the standard distribution curve with sales building on the back of airplay, word of mouth, tours etc peaking at #1 or in the top twenty at least was quite common.  The Stone Roses debut never reached higher than #16 but sold hugely over a long period, but such a pattern is almost vanished now.  The first month or even week’s sales is critical, if its going to #1 it will enter there or not at all.  One explanation from an industry insider was that the debut by a new band gets a big marketing budget and the CDs are heavily discounted for sale in supermarkets and online.  Next time out there is not the same push and sales fall to the hardcore fans before slumping to nothing as a thousand new groups push through all demanding money and attention from their label.

2. Albums are having shorter and shorter chart runs.  Many albums that hit the top are fading quickly as the wave of hype subsides and actually registering as droppable offences with the record label that releases them.  Hard-Fi scored a stunningly successful failure with their second album which crashed in at the the summit then disappeared again.  All attempts to resurrect it were in vain.  A #1 release sold about a fifith of the total of their debut – not bad by indie standards but Atlantic had spent a lot of dough promoting it so this wasn’t good news to them.  It’s weeks on chart that denote success not the highest position.

2. The law of diminishing returns is strangling more and more careers.  The number of underperforming second or third albums from the last decade I found nestling among the figures were startling.  Editors, Pigeon Detectives, Rifles, Fratellis, Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand, The Feeling (what is it with F names?) Mystery Jets, Vines, Razorlight, Glasvegas, The Enemy, Bloc Party, Hard-Fi (again! no takers for Killer Sounds).  Even the Kooks who shifted an amazing 2 million of their debut saw their third go south faster than a middle class family with a villa booked on the Cote D’Azur.  It seems that if people are going to buy your albums in any quantity they will do so only at the first time of asking.  After that they do what – stream it? Cherry pick a few tracks off itunes? Illegally download it?  I don’t know, but it is becoming impossible to do a Lazarus and come back from a stiff.  This is not just because you will probably be offloaded by your label but because we the public don’t do second chances.  Though to be frank many groups don’t deserve one as they are all too willing to stick rigidly to the formula long after everyone is sick of it, hello Travis are you still here?  And it is not only in “credible rock” that this applies, pop artists as diverse as Duffy, Kate Nash, Mika and Natasha Bedingfield have had a mare sales-wise a few years down the road.

3.  And now the good news; in terms of returns from recorded music the reality talent show bandwagon is heading for the ditch by the side of the road.  Rash prediction or what?!?!?  Well, only two graduates from the X Factor have sold over a million in the UK, Leona Lewis and JLS.  Another four have passed platinum (600k).  Nineteen have failed to pass 200k which Cowell supposedly uses as the redline after which dropsville beckons.*  The same steep declines from first to second albums is evident.  Leona sold less than a quarter of the total of her first with her second.  Cue panic and her third has been postponed to next spring by when she will be ancient history surely.  As the market becomes saturated with useful idiots dependent on heavy TV promotion and not in control of their careers, “one’s enough” syndrome is taking hold.  But I suppose the telly revenues have always been more important so the ghastly carnival may roll on for some time yet.

4. The album is losing definition and value all the time.  One thing I don’t know is what happens to downloads of individual tracks that aren’t singles, they kind of fall between the cracks but I imagine there just aren’t that many of them.   Single sales of downloads have bounced back dramatically but unless you sell millions of them ala Katy Perry you won’t raise much for your paymasters.  £6.99 against 69p is no contest. And notoriously if you listen on Spotify or similar that doesn’t exactly have the bean counters reaching for their calculators.

5. Cheer up.  Record your first album cost effectively (yes I may be able to help), build your live following and release it yourselves and you may pocket a decent wedge before the spotlight moves on.  Let’s end where we began with Hard-Fi.  Their “Stars Of CCTV” album cost less than £500 to make in a disused cab office.  Cannily they refused to re-record it at Abbey Road because the record company paying the bill would own the masters and so they licensed it instead.  Bingo 55 weeks on chart, 1.4 million sales and a hefty amount of cash trousered by the band.  Anyway you didn’t get into this business to be rich did you?  Well more fool you, have you thought about a career in the city?

*Matt Cardle is 26 and likes pies.  Any kind.

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