Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Nobody's on Top Of The Pops

No matter how much – or little - music is on TV some will always have an objection to it. The objections may vary from the style to the quantity or even the delivery but all they really do is support the adage: you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Music TV has to hit some common denominators and try to satisfy some of the people most of the time. TV is the vehicle delivering content to the masses who, by their number, are not likely to share the same tastes.

The process for selecting acts for Jools’ Later must be a tough one given that it is arguably the most important music programme in the UK on any medium. It wasn't always this way. Before the fracturing of tastes and the severance of ties to what we now call ‘appointment to view’ TV there was Top Of The Pops. TOTP had fewer issues of selectivity and snobbery since its function was to reflect the most popular songs in the country at that time relying on the sole form of measurement available, the singles chart. The chart was a measurement of popularity reflecting six or seven-day sales of physical format recordings, or records to you and me. I put this explanation in only for my own amusement.

A documentary, clip-show, at the weekend reminded me of what a bizarre musical world we used to inhabit. It took as its base the year 1979 since this was when TOTP hit its highest ever viewing figures. This was due to a variety of factors including one of the three available TV channels being unavailable due to strike action. It was also the year when the UK was recording the highest ever sales of singles and what an odd range they were. The mish-mash of styles reflected competing trends in the UK from disco to punk and its sub-genre or variant ‘new wave’, this contributed to  a vibrant era  for music but it also threw up some oddities that are no longer visible (or viable?) today.

It is obvious that the age-range and tastes of the singles buyer was vast and varied. Thus The Skids and The Members would appear alongside The Dooleys and The Nolans, post-punk clashing with variety-format family-entertainment, gob in the air vs chicken in a basket. It’s a vibrant reminder of why TOTP could often be so frustrating, easily earning an ‘uncool’ reputation through having to deliver a ridiculous variety of music in a garish TV studio surrounding with Smashie and Nicey style hosts. It is worth remembering of course the dominance of Radio 1 from whence such hosts were culled and their vast popularity at the time. For all the sneering and satire the music industry would kill to have those times return.

Somewhere in the last three decades we have lost both the quantity and the diversity of a music-buying audience. It might be easy to attach a link between the demise of TOTP and the disappearance of this crowd but the fault lines emerged somewhere in that interim period, perhaps the industry was trying too hard to keep up with the cool. 

These days the TOTP replacement is not ‘Later’, broadcasting to a niche audience on a secondary station at an inconvenient time, it is The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. This is where the mass market lives and it is watched by the same audience – adults with their children – that TOTP once dominated.  That these shows do not produce more stars – One Direction and Susan Boyle not withstanding – is perhaps somewhat worrying. The middle ground has gone to ground and perhaps found other interests, the music market is fractured but possibly not broken and The Dooleys have disappeared. We might mourn these things more than we ever thought we should.



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