Walking past the New York property belonging to the late David Bowie last week was a chastening experience. It was as unspectacular as his career was the opposite. No one had left cards or flowers. No fans with Aladdin Sane lightning bolts on their faces were outside. Five minutes walk away The Bitter End, the tiny Greenwich Village club where Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Woody Allen cut their teeth, was equally deserted. Lines of excited teenagers were across the road from the Bowie property. Supreme clothes store, which advertises online its supply of “skateboards & related gear, sneakers & house-brand streetwear” was having a sale. A bodyguard was at the door to manufacture extended queues round the block.
The point of this preamble: audiences want what they want and there is often no rhyme nor reason to it. This becomes more baffling, which is part of the ageing process.
All of which brings us to what is still quaintly known in some quarters as the Top 40. March 2017 saw fourteen of the top fifteen entries occupied by Ed Sheeran. This is not because he’s released singles, but because the Singles Chart is no longer the Singles Chart but a chart based on tracks bought and downloaded. Sheeran’s third album Divide, which James Masterson’s iTunes podcast on the charts tells me sold more than the next 500 albums combined, filled the Top 20 with streams and sales. Masterson also pointed out that the last artist to have four songs in the Top 10 was Frankie Laine in 1954.
As I write, this week’s Top 40 has twelve songs each from Canadian rapper Drake and Sheeran, the latter camped in the Top three. Two men take up more than half the charts with Drake, the nephew of Sly Stone and Prince bassist Larry Graham, having a further ten songs in the Top 75 and Sheeran another four.
In January, one US entertainment site feverishly shrieked the headline: “Ed Sheeran Has Single-Handedly Saved 2017, Twitter Says (& We Agree!)”
Not everyone agreed.
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This takeover led for calls for the charts to be overhauled, and ideas for improvement from the BBC’s Mark Savage – a return to singles only (bad news for Led Zep if they ever reform), an end to streaming listens (good news for Taylor Swift who took her songs off Spotify and Apple Music), introducing airplay sales (bad news for anyone old enough to remember payola). It all appeals to a simpler age when the Top 40 “mattered”.
This age feels as current as the stone age, the iron age or Frankie Laine. In the US, the rot could have set in when TV binned Casey Kasem’s Top 10. Over here the BBC scheduling Top of the Pops against Coronation Street then exiling it to BBC2 didn’t help.
The introduction of streaming counting as part of the charts in 2014 led to some weird anomalies.
The Spotify Top 40 means that the top track on a streaming list stays the top track in their charts. Recent records from Take That and Justin Timberlake were top sellers, but missed the summit.
One Direction had four Number One singles to Westlife’s fourteen but were hardly less popular. This just suggests that Simon Cowell, who masterminded both bands, felt the Top 40 was more important at the turn of the century than it was by 2011. He’s not alone.
The concept of the paying customers is over when the customer doesn’t need to pay. That tide isn’t being turned back anytime soon.
Whatever the reason for the mess in the top 40, it’s not really fair to blame Sheeran.
He namechecks Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and his mentor Elton John in his work. For any music fan from ten to 110, those three artists’ greatest albums are all as readily available as Sheeran’s and his contemporaries’ for online listening or, in extremis, buying. So old acts are, to Sheeran’s audience, new acts. Paul McCartney has even said in interviews how students come up to him and gush about 1971’s Ram.
So maybe the charts could be about old acts competing with their newer incarnations – Stevie, Van, Elton, Macca seeing if their latest efforts take down what they did in their pomp.
Another solution to help break new acts could be one song per artist in the charts. If Sheeran or anyone else wanted to release a new record, the last one would automatically be disqualified from the charts. His album tracks would not enter the “singles” charts until he decided to release them as such.
The Top 40 could then provide a greater diversity of new acts, streamed tracks from artists who didn’t have big record company backing or songs which have popped up in a film or ad. This was how Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight re-entered the charts.
Or maybe in an age where people don’t buy physical singles or watch music on TV anymore, it’s too late.
Old Chinese Proverb: you know the debate around the charts is in trouble when the outcome is influenced by a drumming gorilla advertising Cadbury’s Dairy Milk.