Why the ‘Wham! Bam! Thank you, maam!’ of mp3s simply doesn’t measure up to a 12″ box set.

I haven’t paid much attention to the charts for many years, it’s not my musical home anymore. But there was an article on the Internet that caught my eye. It noted that after The Voice had finished its 10 week run, 22 of the songs recorded by the contestants or judges dropped from the Top 100, with eventual winner Karise Eden’s ‘Stay With Me Baby’ plummeting from No.1 to No.54, the biggest drop in chart history. Before that Celine Dion’s ‘My Heart Will Go On’ went the same way as the Titanic going from top spot to No.24. It appears The Voice has changed the singles chart into a one night stand of instant gratification.

Although there is a CD single available for Karise’s ‘You Won’t Let Me,’ most of her chart success comes from downloads, probably purchased on the night when the show has finished as kids, who are probably online anyway tweeting their love for her, can pop over to iTunes and download what they need. Yet it is less than 2% of the tv audience.

But what do they own? A file? An icon somewhere on their phone or laptop? If they were to die in an accident tomorrow, they’d have no belongings for their parents to remember them by. OK, that’s a bit severe, but if I die, my daughter has piles of vinyl, cds and tapes to sift through and say, “Dad listened to some shit!”

I’m a different generation and I’m not going to say, “It’s not like the old days.” But it’s not like the old days. When I bought singles I went after school, well, during school, to the local record shop. And if I were lucky some of my favourite bands would have limited editions. Picture discs, laser etched discs, gatefolds. And if I was extremely lucky, a box set that had extra contents as well as the vinyl; patches, posters and badges. That’s what my daughter will be looking at.

But why did they disappear? The finger points squarely at chart compilers. In the UK the chart was based on vinyl sales only, that were usually written in a book that shop owners would phone through to the compilers at the end of the week, which of course never lead to any fiddling of those sales at all. Then came 12” and cassette single options and finally the CD single arrived. By 1991 the British Phonographic Industry had reduced the number of eligible formats from five to four, and were now counting sales through the scan of a barcode. Four years later four became three. Record labels were not prohibited from releasing singles in more than three formats, but were required to identify the three eligible formats for chart compilation. So luxurious box sets slowly died out as the cost was not offset by a higher chart placing through sales. Cassette singles went the same way, which left 12” and two CD options as the selected formats. Part One and Part Two CD sets enticing the public to buy it twice.

As downloads were becoming a more popular way of buying singles, chart compilers decided that a download could be available two weeks in advance of the physical product, thus giving longevity to the singles market, allowing the single to grow in public and slowly rise the charts, like the old days. Gnarls Barkley quickly put that idea to the test by reaching No.1 on downloads alone in April of that year. Downloads did however revitalise the UK singles market, driving up sales from 32.3m in 2004 to 62.1m in the first 51 weeks of 2006.

So the aim for singles to be a longer-lived product failed, no more instances for an ‘Everything I Do (I Do For You)’ by Bryan Adams spending 16 mind-numbing weeks at No.1, or ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Whitney Houston being at No.1 for 10 weeks (1992) and Wet Wet Wet’s ‘Love Is All Around’ a 15 week chart topper in ‘94 anymore. Thank format for that! It should be noted with a maximum format rule for chart eligibility all songs had the maximum amount of formats allowed therefore all sales meant chart eligibility. No box sets, no posters, no badges.

But these acts shifted units regardless of attaching their song to a film for extra promotion. It was bands such as Del Amitri, Gun and Hothouse Flowers using these box sets and limited editions to help them scrape into the Top 40. Ah, that’s it, scrape. Was it the acts needing that extra push using box sets to gain those extra sales, to get the kids to become bigger fans by offering gifts with the purchase?

Well, not all the time. U2, despite worldwide success still had not achieved a UK Number One single. In 1988 with Rattle and Hum about to be unleashed on our ears, and eyes with its cinematic release, the band needed a successful first single. Desire was released with a 7”, 12”, a 7” gatefold, a 12” gatefold and a CD single. All eligible to count towards sales, and the track duly hit No.1.

A year later Simple Minds were tussling with Michael Ball for the number one spot, midweek indicators showing Simple Minds were just ahead. Their promotional team tried to get a box set out in the second week of release. That would normally take six weeks but they got the box made in three days. But the boxes came in flat and needed to be in the shops on Saturday to give the band that push to get to Number one. The entire team spent all Friday afternoon putting 3,000 box sets together. The hard work paid off and Simple Minds got their first UK number one. Of course, on both occasions the strength of the songs, popularity of the bands plus other promotion helped but hardcore fans will buy multiple formats and it is sales that get you to the top of the charts.

But do today’s kids really want box sets and pictures discs? This 38 year-old one does. But if the bands I adored so much in my teens were knocking out box sets with posters now, it would be cringeworthy.

Very few of these reality competition winners ever have more than short-term success. The public get behind who they think is the best singer, or whose story tugs their heartstrings the most or more simply which gurning surfie is the fittest. But they don’t necessarily buy the product.

Times have changed, The Voice is a cynical money making scam. Karise’s album ‘My Journey’ was on sale days after her victory, many of the songs taken from her performances on the show and not actual new studio recordings. Did she have a say in what songs she wanted on her debut, or was it Seal her mentor for the show? Or was it down to what publishing deals the Dutch-based Talpa Media Group could agree with Universal Music Group? They’re the force behind the, now, international show.

‘My Journey?’ Sorry Karise it should be ‘My 10 weeks on the nations current favourite reality show,’ as there was virtually nothing from your previous 19 years on earth.

So while the chart compilers have failed to negate the short life of the single and create a fair chart, record companies are seeking new ways to make money. Hence The Voice having close to a 25% share of the Top 100, Karise having four songs in the top 5. “Let’s release everything we can digitally while we’ve got the kids’ attention, all on a shoestring, then we laugh all the way through to next years Voice and do it all again.”

It’s harmless fun I’m sure. But music fans that stay music fans throughout their lives will always buy a physical product. They are also unlikely to fall for the manufactured pop of Karise, Sarah or Darren with their zero input to their musical output. Although I did enjoy Darren’s version of ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat,’ but not enough to spend $1.69 on a download, or a few bucks on a 7” box set with life size poster and badge. I should be so lucky!

So last week as I opened a 7” box set that I bought online from a record shop in the UK, unfolding the poster of some long haired, leather jacket wearing rock group that I wanted to look like, my wife stated firmly, “That’s not going up!” You’re damn right it’s not going up, I want to keep this tidy, unmarked by Blu-tak and feel the buzz every time I do slip off the belly band from the box, carefully lift off the lid and unfold the poster and feel the sort of sensations that sent me dizzy with excitement half my lifetime ago. Certainly not the same as hearing a beep telling me my track has downloaded.

These are different days, and time moves on and the way I used to do things no longer can be done in 2012. As I’m able find that limited edition box set online I can relive some of the old days. But if Karise and Universal Music Group continue on their majority digital release path, those shops could go the same way as my beloved box sets. But that’s a whole other story.

For now I wish Ms Eden, Ms De Bono and Mr Percival, success and ask them to please enjoy it because you too may disappear. If the fans can’t own any CD’s, t-shirts, posters, books or magazines they have nothing to help their fan seeds grow in their fertile young lives, and that is where the interest drops off.

So while there is now little threat to topple the record of Frankie Laine’s ‘I Believe,’ which totalled 18 weeks at No. 1 in two sittings in 1953, the music industry is making money. Sales are going up and actual record shops are finding that customers are coming through the doors again. They’re just not buying The Voice products, they’re buying Jack White’s ‘Blunderbuss’, ‘Valtari’ by Sigur Rós, The Black Keys ‘El Camino’ and other artists who have an appreciation for the physical product you have to carry home.

Maybe everybody is happy after all. More music than we can possibly listen too, all becoming more widely available and websites allowing us to communicate with each other and enjoy our music and thoughts on it. A positive difference to the old days.

2 Responses to “Why the ‘Wham! Bam! Thank you, maam!’ of mp3s simply doesn’t measure up to a 12″ box set.”
  1. Gaylia says:

    Davie is one of of those ‘voice kids’ you refer to! I was a late adopter of downloads as I preferred to hold the cd as well as listen to it. Now I’m loving not only the instant gratification (so good!) but the fact that it is one less thing to dust in my house! It is sad though…like photographs that live on hard drives, you must print the besties out so they can be held in your hand and, when the inevitable happens and you pass away, your kids etc can find them easily!

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