Sunday, 7 June 2015

You think you've got choices? The Musicbiz would rather you didn't

FIFA may be dodgy, but try looking at the hype industry

There's a fantastic, possibly apocryphal, story of how one record company rep made quite sure that only his company's stuff was played at US R'n'B radio in the 50s. This was in the days of 78s. The rep simply, accidentally on purpose, cracked all the other records in the library, leaving them unplayable. Oops, sorry 'bout that. 

The Music business has a long and unsavoury history of dodgy deals. Back in the 30s, song pluggers would pitch songs for their publishing company bosses, first when selling sheet music in music shops, and later pitching material to record companies and band leaders. Even Gerschwin, when he wasn't banging out hits, worked as a song plugger. Such territory is ripe for manipulation. And before radio killed jukeboxes, there was intense competition to place songs on the right machines.    

You may ask what that ancient history have to do either with today's relentlessly, um, transparent music industry, or even music on our patch? Well... quite a lot. 

George Harrison wants you to play this

A generation back, by the time I was programming music output at the old BRMB, I'd developed quite a hard-headed attitude to the record industry after ten years of being pitched. When I started there, aged 24, green and trusting as a baby DJ could be, one plugger told me that George Harrison had personally asked him to ensure I got this particular release (on his 70s Dark Horse record label), as he really liked my show. I actually bought that, until I compared notes with another DJ on a station up the road. Silly me.

The goals of the record industry don't exactly coincide with those of radio stations. They want sales; radio wants stuff its audience likes. Sometimes the two interests coincide; often, they absolutely don'tRecord companies seek heavy airplay to sell their priority acts, no matter how the deal was sealed, even if the deal was dodgy – it's all a bit FIFA. 

The charts!! Poptastic!!

One marketing tool that was (still is, in places) massively over-used was the chart. The industry pumped up the role of the top 40 chart to a ridiculous degree. In 2015, it matters far less, and if anything, it has lost its ridiculous volatility, now that streaming figures are part of the equation. Back then, when a song charted high, it encouraged stations to add the song to their playlists. And that led to a never-ending dance of fiddling sales figures from those selected 'chart return shops', the ones that declared their sales to the charts company - to get a better chart ranking. This was a national activity, but it also had its local contributors.

Chart return shops - licenses to print money

The list of Birmingham chart return shops was easy to get hold of. If you owned one of these shops, you were in clover: record companies would bung you free stock, giving you 100% 
profit on sales, just as long as you put those ticks down on your return. That was one device. Another was to rope in the bands themselves. Here's some local memories from a person, who must remain anonymous, who was quite happy to go along with the whole process, as long as it benefited his band. He was by no means alone.  
“It happened  on several occasions. We simply had the list of chart return shops. If one was so inclined, one would visit the shops, and purchase a single in each shop. The clever thing was to avoid being spotted, because if the same person was spotted in two or three shops, it looked suspicious. It was a fun game. You couldn't achieve much. You could alter a chart position. You could improve a chart position a little – that was all you could do. You couldn't chart something that hadn't any legs.”
"I guess I didn't feel bad about it, because we weren't as bad as in North America, where you could buy a radio hit over there up until a few years ago. And it was furthering my own business interests. It was a step towards a goal." 
Back in the day, I talked about this with the drummer of a noted local band, whose first hit had charted high. He was perfectly happy that his records had been hyped into the chart. But, irony of ironies, he also complained bitterly about the corrupt record industry which restricted his chances of success with other projects.

'We'll chart it and you'll have to play it then, won't you?'

But this was small potatoes compared to nationally orchestrated chart-rigging campaigns. A number of record labels were notorious for hyping their product. 

In the 80s, I attended a music conference, where radio programmers and record producers met up to discuss the conflict. I was astonished and depressed to hear a name producer, someone who is very well known now, even 35 years on, declaring that the process was straightforward and legit business practise: buy the song onto the chart and then radio would follow. And then he named a very well-known Birmingham act, one that I had been playing and supporting for some time, whose record suddenly shot up the chart, weeks after its release. Of course, I was pleased for the act's success at the time, but learning how that success was achieved placed it in a very different perspective. 

Manipulating regional radio only had so much impact. The bigger the station, the more attention that station got, and the closer it all got to crossing that line between promotion and corruption. The serious efforts went into getting big airplay at the nationals. One of the spectacular low points was the Janie Jones affair, which was lavishly covered in the scandal sheets of the day. 

The Net has changed things. A bit. 

At local level, a band buying its own singles was a basic attempt to exert influence, back in the day. Today, the equivalent is hours spent feverishly clicking on their videos on YouTube to beef up numbers, or sending out requests for votes of support on Facebook.

We're well into the digital age. The internet threw everything up in the air, and the pieces have rearranged themselves differently now they're back on the ground. Now, record shops have gone, and the chart is compiled from download as well as physical sales, and weighted for streaming figures, hopefully filtered to reflect UK business only. After all, I'd hate to think that those monster figures of 300 million views for, let's say, an Ed Sheeran YouTube video, reflect just UK activity.

Other things have changed in the biz-media relationship. Radio has distanced itself from playing iffy songs touted by record companies, and relied more and more on its own research, as competition has tightened things up. That can be pure market research, where the best results for conservative stations would be songs that are accepted and liked, ideally liked a lot... but also never, never, disliked. Or, for more cutting edge stations, research can be trend-spotting in the right markets. Dance is one such market. And so, surprise, surprise, the big music blogs in this field are now getting preferential treatment... from the record companies. 

Boost your YouTube views right here, cheap as chips...

I wrote a few weeks back on the decline of radio as a force with the power to influence in the music industry. The post dealt with Apple's new music streaming service and the threat it presents to conventional radio. It's all connected with the sector's decline, as younger music fans migrate to streamers like Last-FM (now owned by CBS Interactive), Spotify, YouTube, and from this week, Apple's service.   

And the stats that you can collect from these organisations can be fascinating. The most open is YouTube, which posts viewing numbers for each video. I use these in my twice-yearly Video views charts, which make for interesting reading. I personally feel that the bottom part of the chart is the most relevant, charting as it does the efforts of bands with limited resources to make progress purely on the basis of their often excellent material. 

Higher up, it gets a lot less trustworthy. Some of those numbers look awfully suspect. I'm told that major pop stations won't look at a track or artist unless it has a significant social media presence. That means serious YouTube numbers.

But put that last phrase into a search engine, and you'll find dozens of sites that will help you boost your YouTube numbers - sometimes the growth is even described as 'organic' - even if it's paid for. Above, there's some sample prices, lifted from the front page of one site. Just think about this for a moment. 

So what do we take out of this? Simple: the tech changes; the methods change; the principles don't. Like I said, very FIFA.

Photo credits: from top, nisr6dh and Barney Moss, both Flickr.

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Mike Tobin said...

Robin, you & I first met when I was a regional promotion "executive" (!) with Virgin Records & you had your nightly rock show on BRMB. Fat chance of getting the latest Henry Cow release on the playlist ! Over the ensuing years I like to think that I built up a rapore with you & other DJs on radio in my "patch" and that an element of trust was built up . I took pride in learning what records to "plug" to which DJ ( sorry "presenter" ) so as not to waste time . When RCA were looking for a new representative , they did a search of likely candidates with people like yourself & my name came up frequently - thanks , I got the job . But then the pressure started , it was about hit singles , it was about playlists , & woe betide the poor "plugger" if he failed to get certain releases on all of his stations lists. Then I had a new boss - head of department & one of the new directives was to concentrate on hyping the chart shops . I refused to do it - I believed that real promotion was about a symbiotic relationship between the plugger & the media people. I was forced to resign ! Then I set up MAP, an independent promo company which did well initially but in the end we were forced out of business because rival companies were set up that specialised in chart hyping, which I refused to do. I loved what I did , back then & I still believe that I was right. ( Of course there was the time when my Victoria Plum Tree had a bumper crop & I gave big bags of plums to all my media contacts became known as "Plumola" . I may have achieved the odd spin on air as a result ....guilty as charged ! )
Mike Tobin

Robin Valk said...

Mike, thanks for this. Interesting, not surprising, But Plumola! I am shocked to the core - the filth and corruption that you let yourself wallow in, Mr Tobin.

Hey, how come I never got any?