Sunday, July 09, 2006

How should I feel?

You know, it's not really my place to fuss about the withdrawl of Top Of The Pops, especially not several weeks too late. But it is my place to be a pedant, so let's have a quick look at this response from the usually trustworthy Economist. It's not that I always agree with their position on an issue, but the level of research is impressive. So how did some of this slip through?

FOR a comparatively young genre, pop music is suspiciously full of “historic” moments. But the announcement on June 20th that the BBC was to cancel Top of the Pops (ToTP), a weekly tour of the singles chart that has been broadcast since 1964, surely qualifies. The programme itself was embarrassingly naff: presenters often seemed bemused by the bands; many acts refused to perform, objecting to the requirement to mime along to a pre-recorded track; and skimpily clad dancers were a main attraction. Nevertheless, at the height of its popularity in the 1970s, 15m people tuned in each week.
A fair start, there, although I'm not sure how many acts really did refuse to show up - the Clash are the obvious ones, and New Order refused until they were finally permitted to attempt a live 'Blue Monday' - and over the years the programme did have dalliances with a no-miming policy which proved less than succesful. There's no question that the naffest incarnation of the show was also the most popular. There follows a reasonable reference to the alternative outlets for musis in the multi-channel world, but then it goes a bit wrong:
More recent is the rise of the internet, which has made finding new music even easier. In March Britain made musical history when an American band named Gnarls Barkley reached the top of the singles chart before its song was available in shops. For the first time anywhere, a song had been propelled to the top spot entirely by internet downloads.

But let's overlook that question and get to the actual point here. It's true that Gnarls Barkley (actually a duo, but that's fair enough) reached the top of the singles chart on download sales alone before the single was released in the UK - but the fact that they were the first is not necessarily unconnected to the fact that a change in chart rules a few weeks previously had allowed download sales to be counted the week before physical release; had they sold as many downloads three weeks earlier it would have made no difference. In fact, sales of the record increased when the CD single appeared, with even its download sales more than doubling (presumably as a result of the publicity). What really matters though is why people were downloading it - they may have had a slightly novel way of purchasing it but the reasons were the same as always: it was a huge radio hit. Furthermore:

Sandi Thom, a Scottish singer, recently signed a £1m contract with Sony after tens of thousands of internet users watched her play live “concerts” from the basement of her Tooting flat. (Some think her success was masterminded by Sony from the start.)
Actually, more of us think her manager orchestrated it. But again, that doesn't really matter because for the bulk of its history, TotP refused to feature a record until it had entered the chart, and they wouldn't repeat it unless it was Number One or had increased its sales by a certain amount. Under modern industry conditions that would be more difficult, which may well be why the rules were abandoned some years ago, but the fact remains that it's never been the job of the programme to find the hits, even though it was a valuable promotional tool once upon a time. It was supposed to report the hits that were already happening, by whatever means. Personally, breaking that link was one of the things that put me off the programme around the turn of the century (that and age of course) because it began to lack a real raison d'etre when the big stars could waltz straight on to it with a performance they'd taped months in advance. By the time they were desperate enough to combine it with TOTP2, thus interspersing new and old performances to avoid satisfying anybody, it seemed to become a waste of time and the writing was really on the wall. I'm still a little grudging in admitting this, but if it really couldn't survive in its original form it's better off being put out of its misery.

The better news is that, for the time being at least, the website is staying up. I've been enjoying their Blog Party archives, and there are a few brief clips of performances through the ages. New Order? They ended up miming 'Regret' on a beach.