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Uncharted Ground

The pop charts, who wants 'em and needs 'em? Tim Goodyer glimpses a world without pop charts and the marketing that accompanies them.

ITS LAUGHABLY EASY - in fact it could be the single most popular musicians' pastime. I'm referring to the casual slating of music in the pop charts. How many "happy" moments must have been spent dissecting the elements that constitute a chart hit or the reasons something that should never have been written or recorded is "shipping gold"? The blame for the state of the charts is almost invariably laid at the feet of forces behind the faces - record comppany moguls or power-crazed production teams. But what I've never heard discussed is the modern music scene that might exist in the absence of the charts we all accept as a fact of musical life.

Consider a world with no Gallup chart - or any other chart, for that matter. The first, and most significant, difference this would make to the popular music scene would be to deprive it of its main vehicle of communication. Without the charts, the existing channels of marketing would disappear. Without the charts the huge profits enjoyed by the major record companies would simply not be there for the taking. Without the charts there would be no Top of the Pops, no Radio 1 playlist, no 'Top 100 Album' displays in record shops... It would be quite a different world, but what would be likely to take the place of the chart system?

Let's assume we're in this chartless society - what used to be the main channel of communication is now missing. The only difference that now exists between the singles market and the album market is that singles contain less music and are cheaper to buy. There's nothing to be gained by panicking teenagers into buying singles as there's no chart placing to aim for. Singles do, however, still offer one form of promotion for albums. And here lies the real difference between the old regime and the new: assuming musicians still want to make records and the public want to buy them, some alternative method of promotion has to be established.

What we've found in this "alternative reality" is a youth culture free from the high-pressure selling of 'commercial' music, one that's free to choose what it listens to. And, far from being the fast-moving, multi-million pound business it is in the real world, the record industry here exists to bridge the gap between musician and public - but it exists on a smaller profit margin, if it can survive at all.

Obviously people still need to know records exist before they can buy them (and so support the musicians): this now takes place through more diverse TV shows, radio shows and magazines, and by word of mouth. Live music has regained some of its former importance in the absence of promo videos and personal appearances on children's TV shows. Now it's an opportunity for artists to win new followers, as well as being a musical event in its own right - rather like it used to be before the record industry became too profitable for big business to leave alone.

The musicians' lot has changed too. There's now no reason to churn out disposable, formularised, four-minute wonders. There's more room to experiment. And there isn't a quick buck to be made by getting the right haircut, only by getting the right chords.

The music biz certainly isn't the glamorous, star-studded affair the media would have us believe in the real world: it has a more sedate feel - perhaps more along the lines of the worlds of painting or literature, but with the additional contact between artist and audience brought about by live performance.

And why? Simply because the marketing machine has disappeared for a few abstracted moments.

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Mar 1990

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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