Familiarity breeds content

“If you recognise an animal or plant, then it hasn’t killed you yet.”

In Derek Thompson’s new book, Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular, he explains, in evolutionary terms, why we prefer things that we already know. It’s an interesting lesson in how the familiar will always triumph.

Ed Sheeran’s domination of this week’s singles chart  has provoked much chatter, most of it about whether the charts are ‘broken’. The inclusion of streaming stats, meant to reflect the growth of hearing over owning – following in the footsteps of airplay stats, has led to Sheeran owning the top five and the bulk of the top 20.

Streaming was included to give stability to a chart that was adequately reflecting the death of physical product purchases. I’m slightly more interested in what Sheeran’s domination means for the album format. On one hand it shows that, for those who are popular, it is valid. If people are listening to all the songs then the album has a future. Conversely it suggests that for some others, failing to dominate the singles chart in a similar way, possibly means that few people are consuming the whole album however famous you are.

It’s all Ed’s fault

There is a certain strand of commentary that seems to be blaming Ed as if it’s a crime for being popular. In this instance, it should really be a case of don’t hate the player, hate the game (to adopt popular parlance).

Ed Sheeran has simply proven, as has Adele, that it is still possible to be a huge recording artist with significant impact – and sales.

As far as I know, on one listen and a quick scan of reviews, Ed set out to make a huge hit album. He nailed it.

If ‘Divide’ is commercially crafted and predictably populist it’s hardly hurting anyone, no-one expected free jazz. Sheeran isn’t pretending to have artistic pretensions or a desire to be the new Leonard Cohen. Aside from that, he has time to develop that artistry and to diversify should he choose to do so. He could also now afford to give away his artistic experiments if he goes in that direction.

The music industry will be examining Ed’s commercial DNA and attempting to reproduce it. The problem is more likely that due to financial realities they’re not doing it as well or as often as they once were.  If there was more competition then it’s conceivable that Ed may not have enjoyed the extreme domination that he has. Rather than fuss over the algorithm and calculation of ‘sales’ it’d be useful to know how many albums are backed by major labels in this decade vs previous.
I find the industry entirely culpable. By deciding that the singles market was for ‘the kids’ they effectively destroyed a large sector of potential record buying. At the height of sales (60s-80s) the singles chart crossed age and taste boundaries, now it flounders due to a concentration by labels and radio on trends, set genres and familiarity.

We know that people’s tastes are narrow. The rigidly formatted and over-researched middle-ground malaise of commercial radio has known this for eons. Play it safe and play it often. Most people don’t have that much interest in music but the industry used to at least try to reach the fringes. For now, it is concerned only with the middle.

Naturally I generalise. The contraction of the industry was partly caused by the devaluation of recorded product, profits eaten first by illegal downloading and now by streaming.

Identikit pop and RnB is all around, it’s hardly a new development. I found myself beating the same drum 2 years ago and we’re unlikely to break the cycle without a seismic shift in tastes or attitudes. It hasn’t happened in years so what will be the tipping point? Industry and consumer are both too complacent, it’s down to the artists to break the mould. (to be continued)