Nine years ago, sitting in a student bar in Nottingham, my friends and I considered with some growing excitement the musical state of the nation. Arctic Monkeys were about to top the charts with their debut single ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ – an incredible feat for an indie-rock outfit, helped no end by the British charts recent inclusion of digital downloads to their count.
It felt like a brave new world for independent music, and it felt like the charts were finally breathing new life into their archaic structures. Structures which had sat by, watching helplessly as sales faltered and illegal downloads grew more and more rampant every week.
Of course, times change. In the nine years since the charts last modernised the music world has moved on once more. iPods have been swapped out for smartphones, meaning people have even more access to music than ever before. Streaming services such as Spotify have made a decisive move against pirated music, and provide us with the means to listen to whatever we want, whenever we want. Often we don’t even have to pay a penny to do this.
The new considerations attached to the UK music charts pay heed to these developments – streamed songs will now count towards an artist’s chart position too (although the relative value of stream to a song in terms of artist’s pay means that a song will have to be heard a hundred times in order to have the same effect on the chart as one purchase).
It’s a move that has both its strengths and its weaknesses. Certainly the decision keeps up with the changing ways of commercial music, and shows a respect for new technology that the industry is often far too slow to adopt. But it also highlights the issues faced by independent musicians trying to break the market in the same way Arctic Monkeys did almost a decade ago.
It’s already incredibly difficult for independent artists to break into the charts – there’s currently less than five in this week’s Top 40. But streaming remains dominated by the push-click votes of mainstream music fans (the only independent artist in Spotify’s 40 most-played tracks last week is, funnily enough, Arctic Monkeys, at number 38). On top of this existing bias, it was announced last week that Youtube, the world’s biggest source of streamed music is threatening to delete the music videos of independent artists unless their labels (usually small and already buckling under financial restraints) accept new, non-negotiable royalties from a new subscription-only service.
A move like this won’t affect the new charts (Youtube is not amongst the sources providing data for chart consideration), but would affect hundreds of small bands – indie rock groups that might be the next Rolling Stones, burgeoning pop acts who could have been their generation’s Madonna or Michael Jackson. And it won’t be just the small, unknown artists that suffer – still signed to the same independent label that discovered them, Arctic Monkeys themselves would disappear from one of their most effective ways of consumer outreach. Though Youtube is out of reach of the official singles charts, this move is telling of the power this new system gives the streaming services.
There’s change afoot in the charts, and for the most part it offers a new future that echoes the changing tides in the music industry – but we must keep our eyes on the newest sources of data so that we don’t lose the fresh voices that keep the industry moving forward in the first place.