Category Archives: Popping the Question

This week sees the first episodes of both the last BBC series of The Voice and the last ever series of American Idol. The future of Britain’s top singing show, The X Factor, also looks uncertain. 2016 will give us one final year of the big music contests in the familiar scheduling pattern, but from there the future is open. Will new talent shows take their place or will it be the end of an era?

First, let’s look at the future of The X Factor. As the UK TV talent show that’s produced the most successful artists, with 13 contestants still signed to major label deals today, its demise would have a noticeable effect on the music industry. The latest winner’s single may have peaked at an underwhelming no.9 in the UK chart, but there are currently 7 singles by X Factor alumni in the top 40. Traditional pop acts like boybands and girlbands struggle to break through without the exposure brought by 10 weeks on prime time TV. The loss of The X Factor would be a blow to pop. Not to mention, big trouble for Sony and Syco, where X Factor acts have brought in reliable income for the past decade.

The X Factor brings financial reward not only for the acts it produces, but also those it promotes in other ways. Performing on the show is one of very few remaining TV opportunities that actually translates into sales and chart success for artists today, and it’s enough to convince major international acts to visit the UK. Plus, when an artist’s song is performed well on The X Factor by a contestant, both the cover and the original often rise up the iTunes chart. For a new song this can be a watershed moment, such as when Fleur East’s cover of Uptown Funk was so popular that the release date for Mark Ronson’s original had to be moved several weeks earlier to meet demand.

It’s clear that the end of The X Factor would be a problem for the British music industry, but that’s not a concern for ITV, the party with the ultimate power to cancel the show. The 2015 series was trounced in the ratings by long-time rival Strictly Come Dancing, and even beaten by Countryfile. The tabloids rejoiced at the opportunity to dramatise the situation, and give the fun-haters of Britain fuel for their moans. The show has recovered from ratings dips in the past (2006/7 was a wobbly time) but in 2015 the average viewing figures for the series declined for the fifth year in a row. At this point, the brand name is sullied, a reversal of fortunes is unlikely, and ITV need to work out when to cut their losses.

However, I don’t think ITV will be keen to ditch The X Factor just yet. Ratings may have declined, but they were very high in the first place. A hit entertainment format of this level is rare to find, and an unpopular replacement for The X Factor would mean loss of ad sales in the crucial pre-Christmas period, as well as a very embarrassing public faux pas for ITV. The only way to lessen this risk is to replace The X Factor with a show that has proven popularity. One option would be to move Britain’s Got Talent to the autumn/winter slot, or another is to introduce an alternative singing show that’s already familiar to the public. And this, of course, brings me to The Voice.

I was excited when The Voice came to the UK, because I’d already seen and loved the US version. In the US, the coaches have natural chemistry, genuine musical knowledge, talent and credibility, and clearly enjoy making the programme. The host Carson Daly is warm yet professional, and has a history with music TV via TRL. The show hasn’t produced big chart stars, but that’s fine because winning The Voice is a great achievement, an end in itself. Unfortunately, the BBC failed to replicate the fun yet sincere atmosphere of NBC’s production. Perhaps us Brits are too self-aware and cynical to ever achieve that balance, but the BBC followed the wrong path from the start by mistaking a music show for an entertainment show. I believe The Voice would have been better in a weeknight slot (preferably on Channel 4!), but the BBC were so set on finding their X Factor competitor that they spent five years and millions of pounds trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

A 5-minute promo trailer for the new series of The Voice was released a few days ago (but has since been taken offline), and I watched it in a strange conflicted state of cringe and boredom. I’ve never missed an episode of The Voice (or The X Factor, Pop Idol, Popstars etc.) before but it’s going to be a real challenge to persist with this series. Working out whether the BBC are trying to destroy its chances on ITV or naively hoping to end on a positive note is the only thing keeping me interested. At long last, in November, the BBC admitted defeat, and gave up the rights to The Voice, despite having a new series left to be shown. ITV bought the rights and announced that spin-off show The Voice Kids would air in 2017, but they’re yet to confirm what their plans are for The Voice itself.

If the BBC couldn’t produce the music-focused, light-hearted yet credible show that The Voice deserves to be, there’s no hope that ITV will achieve it. The format and the network are an even less comfortable fit. However, if anyone can make The Voice work for a Saturday night prime time audience, it’s ITV. Forget the depth and sincerity, just make it The X Factor with spinning chairs. I’m not totally convinced, but it could work. I would suggest moving Britain’s Got Talent to The X Factor’s current slot, and The Voice to the BGT slot, to avoid direct ratings comparisons between The Voice and The X Factor and give The Voice a fighting chance. Or if ITV don’t want to give up The X Factor just yet, they could make it bi-annual, alternating with The Voice or BGT, with the other show in the current BGT slot. There are many different ways they could go, and it will be interesting to see what approach they take. The future of the TV talent show in the UK is in ITV’s hands.

On a broader scale, it’s clear that the TV talent show concept is wearing thin not only in the UK, but around the world. American Idol will announce its 15th and final winner this spring, at the end of a series they’re calling “The Farewell Season.” Even The Voice US, which still attracts a high level of talent and has a positive image in the press, has lost a few million viewers compared to its heyday in 2013/14. In Sweden, attempts to launch The Voice and The X Factor failed, and their remaining talent show Idol gets an all-new judging panel this year. In Australia, The X Factor achieved its lowest average viewing figures ever in 2015, despite featuring a Kylie and Dannii duet in the final. What more do you want, Aussies?!

I don’t think the end of the talent show is here quite yet, but we do need someone to come up with a fresh new take on the concept soon if we want live music performance to have a continued presence on TV. Pop Idol took inspiration from shows like Opportunity Knocks as much as it did Popstars, so perhaps the next generation of talent shows will also combine something old and something new. I’d love to see someone finally manage to adapt the talent show for the online age. Attempts such as YouGeneration (Syco) and If I Can Dream (19 Entertainment) are better best forgotten, but a big player in video on demand like Netflix or YouTube could approach the challenge differently and make it feel relevant to young music fans. There will always be an audience for a talent show as long as it’s entertaining and introduces exciting new artists. We may have to suffer through a few more Ben Haenows and Stevie McCrories first, but I’m optimistic that there’s something better to come.


It’s been a while since a big female pop star came from nowhere to join the A list, and this year the contenders have been lining up. Artists such as Alessia Cara and Hailee Steinfeld are in strong positions, each with a brilliant debut single, but over the past few months, one of their rivals has stormed ahead: Halsey.

The music industry has been whispering about Halsey’s impending stardom for a few months, but last week it was made official. Her debut album reached no.2 in the US Billboard 200, and in the UK it charted at no.9. The latter stat might not seem that impressive, especially as another young female artist, Ella Eyre, charted at no.4 with her own debut that week. But Ella had been on the UK music scene, promoting that album for about two years, and I dread to think how much her label have spent. Halsey just rocked up, seemingly from nowhere (yes, we’ll get to that in a minute!), and debuted only a few places behind.

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen many articles discussing Halsey’s rise to fame. These are intelligently written, interesting pieces, but unfortunately no amount of research can qualify a writer who doesn’t relate to the teenage audience of the digital age to interpret Halsey’s success. I’m not a teenager either, but as someone who works closely with youth-oriented artists and is fascinated by how young people interact with music and the media, I’d like to believe I understand them better than most. However, for a bit of extra research, I spent last night surrounded by Halsey’s adoring fans at her second ever UK gig, a sold out show at Koko in Camden.

One recent article that particularly stood out claimed Beats 1 was the driving force behind Halsey’s breakthrough, even suggesting they now “own” her. Her success couldn’t be traced back to traditional media such as radio, press or even music blogs, but somehow the writer of this article forgot about the biggest influence over the lives of young people today… social media! He and his adult male tech-savvy peers (the only ears that count, obviously) may have first heard Halsey on Beats 1, but her album had massive pre-order numbers before Apple’s radio station even launched. And anyone who knows the first thing about teenagers’ music consumption habits today knows they struggle to see the point of streaming services and online radio when YouTube already exists. Apple were hedging their bets when they chose Halsey as a guinea pig to prove they could launch a new star – she was already a sure thing before Beats 1 ever played New Americana.

To analyse Halsey’s success, we need to start at the beginning: Her first hit. You probably think the first Halsey song you heard was Ghost, Hurricane or, if you’re a disciple of Zane Lowe, New Americana, but actually there’s a good chance you heard her back in 2012. At the time, the 17-year-old Halsey, then recording under her real name of Ashley Frangipane, was a big fan of One Direction. Like many Directioners, she wasn’t pleased that Taylor Swift was dating Harry Styles. Showing the first signs of a smart marketing brain, Ashley recorded a parody of I Knew You Were Trouble, with new lyrics expressing everything the angry 1D fans felt about Taylor.

The Haylor Song wasn’t a lighthearted joke, as popular parodies usually are, but an almost jaw-dropping musical interpretation of the vicious social media rants that the power-crazed Directioners were known for at the time. Naturally, it went hugely viral, first on Tumblr and then on YouTube. The original video upload by Ashley has now been removed (you can see its YouTube embed ghost in this Huffington Post article), but of course it was re-uploaded by fans and is the first result when you search Halsey’s real name.

A viral hit is great exposure for an artist, but few manage to capitalise on it. Halsey did so, in a slow yet strategically brilliant way. She gained a following initially as a One Direction fan who liked to sing, but over time, she used the platform she had given herself to transform into a singer who liked One Direction, and eventually into a popular recording artist with no particular public association to the band she should thank for her opportunity to succeed. Halsey is the perfect example of a clever, digital native teenager achieving what major label marketing teams dream of, simply because she understands her audience, her own generation, in a way they never could.

The Haylor Song gave Halsey an audience, but it was her personality that turned her followers into fans, and ensured that their numbers multiplied, in contrast to the decline in interest you’d expect in the years after a viral hit. When asked about how she got started in music in a Reddit AMA last December, she said: “I really just used social media to my advantage. I became sort of a tastemaker who was trusted in what was “cool” in fashion, music, etc, so when time came to release my own content, people trusted it would be good.” When I read this, my immediate thought was that it couldn’t be the whole story, and sure enough a little more Googling revealed she was the girl behind The Haylor Song.

At the same time as Ashley was turning herself into an online brand and self-styled tastemaker, she was also exploring opportunities to pursue a career in music. She had a failed audition for X Factor USA, got herself a manager and worked on defining the sound of her original music. By the time she premiered her song Ghost, she was already a minor internet celebrity. She was also very communicative online, which meant her followers saw her music as the work, not so much of their idol, but their coolest friend. This gave her an advantage over other new artists, and ensured her songs got enough buzz to attract the attention of radio (Sirius XM were big early supporters) and record labels. She had interest across the board, but chose to sign with Astralwerks, an indie-esque label that is actually owned by Universal.

Although The Haylor Song was the initial catalyst for Halsey’s success, I think the real defining moment was when she debuted her original music. She had already been cultivating a distinctive online persona for a while, and the attitudes and opinions on her blog and social media were consistent with those in her song lyrics. Halsey is the antidote to perfectly composed, polite and politically correct stars like Beyoncé and her original, now strangely appropriate, nemesis Taylor Swift. She represents a female character that has little presence in pop music at the moment: the intelligent, outspoken rebel. At a time when issues around gender, sexuality and race are more important than ever to teenage girls, especially those that frequent Halsey’s original online home of Tumblr, it feels like there’s a big gap where this pop persona should sit. And that, if anything, probably explains why Halsey has been escalated to the top so quickly.

In terms of her image and persona, the most obvious recent predecessor of Halsey is Charli XCX, who also fits the description of the intelligent, outspoken rebel. Charli may be popular, but she hasn’t conveyed her identity in as clear and simple a way as Halsey (there’s nothing subtle about these music videos), and her music isn’t as well targeted to the audience, which is why I think Halsey will usurp her success in a matter of months. If Halsey’s persona is comparable to any artist resident on Planet Pop, I’d say she’s a new generation’s answer to Pink, though I doubt she would find the comparison flattering. Halsey might seem edgy now, but it won’t take long in the mainstream pop world for those edges to be smoothed out. And if Halsey’s edges refuse to be smoothed, once the novelty of her character wears off, the obnoxious side to her personality will get her in trouble. Those reckless tweets that seem honest and brave coming from a hot up-and-comer could read as unpleasant and ungrateful from a worldwide star.

She also has musical obstacles to overcome. To an adult pop fan (for example, me!), Halsey’s album Badlands is pleasant but average. Each of her songs sounds like a different established artist, such as Lana Del Rey, Ellie Goulding, or even ironically Taylor Swift, yet somehow the tracks also sound very samey. The singles are her strongest songs by far, but they’re not spectacular to my ears. There’s a clear disparity between the quality of Halsey’s music and the adoration of her fans. But having seen those fans react to her in a live setting, I’ve come to understand that they are fans of Halsey as a person, and her music is a product that they love by association. They consume her music in the same way that they would buy a t-shirt from her merch stand (the queue for which was epic at last night’s gig), like her social media posts, read her interviews and watch her perform on TV. These are simply acts of creating attachments to a person they admire and want to feel connected to, a nominated leader of a tribe they want to belong to.

It may be that Halsey is just “having a moment,” and she’ll never get the hit single that so far has eluded her. It may be that everyone in the UK with any interest in an intelligent, outspoken rebel pop star was at those two sold out London dates, and the rest of the music-buying public aren’t that bothered. But from the evidence I saw at last night’s gig, Halsey has the ability to connect with a demographic that is highly valued by the advertising and entertainment industries, teenage girls who are influential to their peers. She has very passionate fans who will certainly be spreading the word, and actively growing the Halsey fanbase within their online and real life communities. While the Halsey story has been ongoing for the past three years, a new chapter has begun that’s going to prove whether a girl who can strategically drive herself to stardom is also able to manage and retain the level of success she has achieved.

Click here to read more of my Popping the Question posts, including my thoughts on Taylor Swift’s year as a pop superstar, the artist-fan relationship, originality in pop music and much more.


Being a Taylor Swift fan has been a strange experience over the past year. While she had completed the crossover into mainstream pop stardom in the Red album era, it’s in the current 1989 era that she has reached superstar status. Several times recently I’ve seen her described as the biggest pop star on the planet, and it seems weird, but it’s probably true.

There are many different types of artists sharing the top tier with Taylor, from the Adeles and Kanye Wests to the One Directions and Coldplays. But there is a special type of fame reserved for female pop superstars, an extra level of scrutiny and expectation, and a responsibility to their fans and their gender that they could never fulfil. When Taylor made the transition from country artist to pop star and achieved a new level of success, she automatically took on that responsibility.

Taylor’s years in the music industry and the media spotlight meant she was better prepared for superstardom than most, in the same way that Beyoncé was prepared by her time in Destiny’s Child, and both have dealt similarly well with the bizarre demands that a woman faces in this role. Taylor handled her new situation so expertly that for a while she seemed almost untouchable, but in recent months the strain has inevitably started to show.

The success of the Red era had put Taylor in a rare position where the world was waiting for her follow-up with high expectations. Even more unusual was the fact that she fulfilled those expectations, and in fact exceeded them, with 1989. It was the best work of her career, released at the perfect moment. In 2014, the stars aligned and the results were magical. From the exuberance of Shake It Off to the emotional power of Out of the Woods, and the perfect pop of Style, 1989 rightfully earned critical acclaim and commercial success. It was the biggest-selling album of the year in the US, and has so far sold over 8 million copies worldwide.

Having waffled on to anyone who would listen about Taylor’s underrated brilliance for the previous five years, I was proud to see pop fans, from the obsessive to the casual, declaring themselves Swifties and scrambling for tickets to her 2015 tour. I not only had a feeling of redemption as the potential I’d spotted in Taylor was revealed, but it was also a great experience to be able to discuss my favourite album of the year in depth with fellow pop geeks. These days I often feel out of tune with the musical zeitgeist, as my ongoing search for the next big thing leaves me listening to artists others don’t care about yet, and in some cases never will. For these reasons, I was happy to share Taylor with the world.

However, Planet Pop turns quickly, and like on Earth, night always follows the day. And, to throw in another analogy, Taylor was flying worryingly close to the sun. The press is famous for building up celebrities only to bring them down, and a few months ago I wrote about my observation that social media has given fans the power to behave in the same way. I remember in a meeting in July, speaking about being a Taylor Swift fan, I expressed my fear that her golden girl status put her next in line for a takedown. As the 1989 campaign was no longer shiny and new, her fall felt inevitable, and the wait was making me nervous.

It was less than a week later that Taylor made her biggest mistake, her misjudged response to Nicki Minaj’s VMA rant on Twitter. She resolved it as well as she could by apologising, but the damage was done – like Gary Barlow’s tax evasion and Jamelia’s fat-shaming, it wasn’t a mistake she could own. Although this was the most high profile and obvious error in the 1989 era, I saw it as a follow-up to the first mistake of the campaign, which took place in one of the earliest promotional interviews. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Taylor gave away details about the inspiration behind the song Bad Blood which made clear it was about Katy Perry.

The reason this was such a big mistake was that the broad PR campaign around 1989 has a theme of female friendship. This is similar to how the Red era had a PR theme of celebrity boyfriends, which functioned to push Taylor firmly into the tabloid world. Typically self-aware, Taylor knew when the celebrity boyfriends theme was getting tired, and the female friendship theme was the perfect antidote as she subliminally assured her (mostly female) fans that she prioritised them over any romantic relationship. Even now she’s dating Calvin Harris, that relationship is portrayed as secondary to her friendship with Karlie, Cara, Selena and the rest. However, as Katy was happy to point out, calling out a rival pop girl was a glaring contradiction and over time has undermined the theme.

The day after Taylor’s fateful tweet to Nicki, even though I had seen it coming, I watched my Twitter timeline in shock. I have never seen the tide of opinion turn so quickly and dramatically. Pop fans gleefully tore into the golden girl, seizing the opportunity to bring her back down to earth and remind her of their power. Personally, I agreed that Nicki’s point about race shouldn’t be swept aside and that Taylor handled the situation poorly, but felt the reaction to Taylor’s ill-advised but well-meaning tweets was overblown. Members of the fan community who were unhappy with Taylor’s rise to superstardom used her mistake as an excuse to try and right this apparent wrong. Taylor, at the height of her career, was too secure to be dethroned, but the keyboard warriors did succeed in proving that no celebrity, not even Taylor Swift, is untouchable.

I didn’t comment on the drama between Taylor and Nicki at the time, because yet again I was feeling out of tune with the zeitgeist. But now, looking back, the whole situation has made me realise that I judge artists differently to most people. I think one of the driving forces behind the backlash towards Taylor is a dislike of her manipulative nature, which became apparent to many of her new fans for the first time in recent months. The increased press attention has highlighted something she doesn’t want us to see, but depends upon to stay at the top. Taylor has certain tricks she brings out time and time again to assert a chosen perception of herself. The first example that became well known was the “surprised face,” an exaggerated response to fan adoration that unsubtly proclaimed her humility. She regularly uses the social media strategy of “surprise and delight” to show she cares about her fans. Now she has the ever-growing “squad” and the self-empowerment speech during the 1989 tour to show she supports other women.

At surface level a manipulative nature seems like a good reason not to like a pop star, but it doesn’t hold up to analysis. If you’re a pop star, being manipulative is smart. Business, PR and marketing are all about manipulation, and the more effectively you do it, the more successful you will be. To criticise a pop star for being manipulative is like criticising an academic for doing research for their paper, or a builder for getting the right materials to complete their job. To tell a pop star not to be manipulative is to ask them to stop trying to be successful. It’s an inherent part of the job, and Taylor’s expert manipulation is what put her ahead of every other talented, pretty young girl who wanted to achieve what she has.

Not only do I believe that manipulative qualities are unfair grounds for criticism, but I would say that they are among the main reasons (aside from my love of her music) I support Taylor over other artists. Although I don’t really believe it, the idea that she might be an evil genius masquerading as the nicest person is pop is quite appealing! I don’t care if pop stars are genuinely nice (as anyone who did Nietzsche for A Level philosophy knows, there are no selfless acts anyway!), but it thrills me to see them convincing the world that they are. I was obsessed with Jennifer Lopez’s reinvention of herself as a sweet, down-to-earth girl on American Idol for the same reason.

The artists I have the most admiration for are the ones who control their public image masterfully, and Taylor does a fantastic job, especially considering the level of attention she receives. She destroys the preconceptions that as a young female pop artist she wouldn’t be business-savvy. Anyone can employ a good PR, but only a highly intelligent artist obsessively in control of her own career could play the media game so well. As a girl working in the music industry, particularly with female artists, I find it very inspiring.

Taylor is at a tricky point right now, as her career needs the refresh that the move into a new album cycle would bring, but she still has more than three months of her world tour left to complete. Although the special guest duets and “please welcome to the stage” celebrity appearances are getting a lot of press attention, and undoubtedly helping to sell tickets and music, it’s making the 1989 era feel like it’s dragging on, only 10 months after the album release. All artists do the same thing on their tour every night, but with such intense scrutiny, Taylor is starting to seem like a parody of herself. Even I feel like I’ve seen enough of her lately not to need to watch the VMAs, where she won four awards, duetted with Nicki Minaj (of course) and was apparently mentioned with reverence throughout.

For the next few months, I hope Taylor will use that old self-awareness to keep her head down and finish the tour without incident. As for what the future holds, I have many ideas about where she could go, which I plan to write about soon. Whatever she does, she’s written herself into the pop history books, and with all her talent in music, business and PR, her place couldn’t be more deserved.

Edited to add: I wrote this piece before hearing about the latest Taylor Swift controversy, the accusations of romanticising colonialism in her new video for Wildest Dreams. It’s certainly a head-in-hands moment considering the racism she has already been accused of this year, but this post is long enough, so I’ll pass you over to The Guardian, who have published a good article about this which interestingly echoes some of the points I made above.


Last week I was entertained by the debacle of Jessie J unfollowing fans on Twitter, and the drama it caused, which she in turn mocked. I couldn’t believe she had broken the no.1 rule of being a pop star in the digital age: Never insult your fans. When fans get together, their ego is inflated far beyond that of any celebrity. They know they have power and they’re not afraid to use it. Jessie can survive that embarrassing Tuc advert, but spurning her fans is a mistake that won’t be forgotten.

I recently read an article which rang very true to my experiences with music fans. The writer, Paul Ford, had come up with a psychological concept he called “Why wasn’t I consulted?”. When designing websites, he found himself trying to pre-empt the complaints of users, which he seemed to be inundated with every time his work went live. He realised that these online comments were reflective of the human need “to be consulted, engaged, to exercise knowledge (and thus power).” The internet has flattered and exaggerated this need exponentially.

People have always had strong opinions about music, and believed their favourite artist would be more successful if they were in charge. The internet allows that feeling to be expressed publicly, and gives fans the opportunity to send their opinions directly to the artist. This leads them to believe they can influence the artist, and leaves them both annoyed and perplexed when they don’t get what they ask for. This is especially true when they are part of a core group of fans who agree on the route they believe the artist should take.

Artists constantly talk about how important their fans are, because they know how much they need them. That’s why Jessie’s tweets were so shocking. It’s obviously true that the artist wouldn’t have success if they didn’t have fans. However, what obsessed fans don’t realise is that, in most fanbases, they are in the minority. The casual fans are the majority, and the ones who truly determine how successful each new single or album is. But when the superfans spend their time online chatting with likeminded people, and they see other superfans getting attention from the artist, they are misled to think that their shared opinions represent the whole fanbase.

Artists themselves make a similar mistake. I’ve heard many artists I’ve worked with talking about superfans as though they represent the whole fanbase. Social media has not only given fans access to the artist, but the artist access to the fans, and they take their opinions on board like market research. However, they only see the fans who care enough to engage with them online. This is not akin to the carefully composed focus group that would be used in real market research.

Managers and labels will often choose not to show market research to their artist. It’s not healthy to read about yourself being discussed as a brand, and the comments are honest and harsh, as is necessary for the research to be productive. Social media has exposed artists to an endless array of opinions, which many get obsessed with reading. Even artists who don’t go looking for comments will see them every time they log into social media, an activity they cannot avoid if they want to remain relevant in this age.

However hard the artist tries, they can’t escape being influenced by fans’ opinions. This is why the fan is more powerful now than they ever have been. We used to talk about the media, particularly tabloids, building up a celebrity, only to later bring them down. Now, thanks to social media, this is also done by their own fans.

The line between a fan and a critic has become blurred, and I think many people aren’t sure which side they’re on when it comes to certain artists. In TV journalism, there is a new concept called “hate-watching,” and I think pop fans do a similar thing. I’m guilty of it myself. We follow the artists we hate as much as those we love, and when the artists we love do something we hate, we’re quick to highlight it and complain about it. I saw it this weekend when Britney Spears’ new single leaked, and it was some of the biggest Britney fans on my Twitter timeline who were first to point out its flaws. It’s natural to have conflicting opinions on one subject, but the fans often seem to be more critical than the critics these days.

I think this is an expression of that “Why wasn’t I consulted?” feeling. The fans get angry because the artist didn’t do what they wanted, and they’re confused because of the reasons I explained earlier. The fans know that other fans agree with them, and they know that they’ve sent their opinion directly to the artist. So WHY weren’t they consulted?!

Deciding how much to listen to fans’ opinions is increasingly tricky for artists. Those opinions are harder to ignore, and the fans have a bigger platform to express their dissatisfaction when they feel it’s necessary. However, artists are used to being inundated with opinions. They get them from the people they work with, the media, and their friends and families. Part of their job is learning when to listen, and when to tune them out, and that’s key to making the right creative and business decisions. Artists must now apply that intuition when dealing with their fans.

One of the risks of reading too many fan comments is that creativity can be stifled. Some artists work best when they hide themselves away from outside influences. Others take influence from everything that’s going on in music, from the latest releases of their competitors to obscure new genres coming up in the clubs or on the blogs. The best try to balance the two, bringing their own artistic identity to the sounds and styles of the moment.

Taking a bit of objective criticism is healthy for an artist, but superfans aren’t as well equipped to give it as they think. When you’re obsessed with an artist, you think you know everything about their personal and professional lives, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working in the industry, it’s that fans really don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. However much they stalk and speculate, they will only ever have part of the full picture, and that’s how it should be. Fans don’t need to see behind the curtain.

I always had a big interest in the workings of the music industry before I was involved in it, but I realise now how little I really knew. It’s such a complicated beast that you can’t fully understand without being part of it. Unfortunately, because the music industry is a part of popular culture, people overestimate how much they know about it. Some of the misunderstandings I’ve seen from fans are hilarious, yet infuriating when they’re in relation to an act I’m working with. The most ridiculous, and bizarrely common, is when fans get angry with an up-and-coming or mid-level artist for not doing more promo. Do they really think they’re turning down the chance to perform on The X Factor, appear in the Radio 1 Live Lounge and play at Glastonbury? Believe me, no-one less famous than Beyoncé would reject these offers if they got them.

Artists today have a choice to make. One option is to focus on their superfans, keep them happy and keep them loyal. If there are enough of them, this means the artist can continue working as a musician indefinitely. However, they risk alienating casual fans, as the aspects of the artist’s music and persona that superfans love are usually their extremes, not the watered down, lowest common denominator version that appeals to a mass audience. The other option is to basically sell out, and be more accessible and palatable. This often means more success in the short-term, but they risk alienating the superfans in favour of the fickle casual fans.

An intelligent artist will spend their whole career attempting to balance the two. Business-savvy Taylor Swift has done this masterfully, moving into the mainstream gradually, allowing her country fans to grow with her. Rihanna is not such a good example, as she’s bounced back and forth between pure pop and edgy rebellion, only occasionally, such as with We Found Love, ticking both boxes in one move. But what’s kept them both at the top is their star quality and the smart people around them. If you have those two things, you can survive the opinion avalanche and re-emerge unscathed every time.


Originality has been a hot topic in pop music lately, from the contentious court verdict over Blurred Lines to the hilarious irony of Natalia Kills criticising an X Factor contestant for copying Willy Moon. These incidents seem to have inspired a trend among social media’s pop culture commentators for pointing out instances of unoriginality: Meghan Trainor has ripped off Olly Murs. Måns Zelmerlow has been listening to David Guetta. Ed Sheeran copied Marvin Gaye too! Why isn’t he being sued?

I’ve found that these discussions have done nothing to change my personal opinion about originality in pop music. I see originality as one of many positive attributes that a song might have, but certainly not a necessity. Good songs are often catchy, but they don’t have to be. Good songs are often performed with passion and emotion, but they don’t have to be. Good songs are often original, but they don’t have to be.

I find it strange when people criticise a new song for sounding like a song they like. If the copycat song is rubbish, then I can understand why you might mock the artist for copying a good song and missing what was good about it. But if they’ve captured the essence of the original, it’s a new song similar to an old song you like – surely that has to be a step in the right direction. Isn’t it better for songwriters to take inspiration from brilliant pop hits than aim to write a song that sounds like nothing that has been a hit before? In fact, the latter sounds like a recipe for disaster to me, and I doubt any songwriters have ever written a hit using that approach.

Old moany people often point out that most contemporary hits use the same four chords, and there is less variety in melodies than there used to be. And with the increase in the number of songs being produced and released, every song is bound to sound like something. Dance and hip-hop artists are ahead of the pack in embracing this idea, as most of their music is based on samples. They are not shamed for cherry-picking the best bits of other artists’ work to create something new.

I think this attitude is starting to cross over into pop songwriting, evidenced in the increasing use of interpolation. This is where a song incorporates part of the lyrics and melody of another song. Examples include Don’t Stop The Music by Rihanna (interpolating Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’) and the new US hit Somebody by Natalie La Rose (inspired by Whitney’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody). Not only is this a way to re-produce a classic melody to suit the sound of modern radio, but it’s also a way to get around clearing a sample, as an interpolation doesn’t require the original artist or songwriter’s permission (they still get a credit and royalties).

Writing an original hit is an admirable achievement, but it shouldn’t be prioritised over creating the best possible song. For similar reasons, my opinion on cover songs is equally neutral. I’d rather an artist released a good cover than a bad original song. Covering, like copying, is in itself not good or bad – it’s the end result that should be judged.

I care too little about Blurred Lines and Got To Give It Up to wade in on the debate over their similarities, but I do care about songwriters having the freedom to create the best possible music, without being restricted by the pressure to be original. If the best song a songwriter can write sounds similar to another song, it deserves to be released and it deserves to be a hit. If that means giving the songwriter who inspired the new work a credit, then that sounds fair to me. It’s time to stop shaming songwriters for learning from the masters of their trade.

To celebrate the brilliance that can come from unoriginality, here’s a playlist featuring ten great songs that have been accused of plagiarism. Would we want a world without pop music like this?


The music industry has been through a huge transformation in the past 15 years, but the three surviving major labels, Universal, Sony and Warner, are still responsible for nearly all of the biggest artists. Of the top 10 best-selling albums of 2014 in the UK, four were released by Warner, four by Sony and two by Universal. The internet has provided a platform for more artists to find an audience, with or without major label backing, which means sales are spread between a larger variety of releases. But independent artists lack the marketing spend, expertise and influence required to achieve a huge hit album. At the top end of the market, the majors dominate as much as ever.

Although they’re still releasing the most successful albums, the major labels are justified in being concerned about their future. The diversification of the market means they will have to downsize, accept that the profits they used to make are impossible in this new era, and focus on serving the audience of music lovers who will always exist (unless American Pie turns out to be a prophecy). As a pop fan, most of the music I listen to (and work with) comes from major labels, so I have no anti-capitalist desire to see them destroyed. Instead, I’d love to see the labels adjust to the changes in their industry with dignity and respect for music fans.

The past 15 years have represented the transition from a predominantly physical to digital music market. Now we’re moving into the second phase of the digital era, where streaming is expected to become the dominant method of music consumption. There are many reasons to doubt that this expectation is entirely valid, but it seems the music industry has decided it’s going to happen, whether the public really wants it or not. I think the reason the industry, and major labels in particular, is embracing streaming is because they see it as a chance to learn from the mistakes they made in the early days of digital downloading.

Major labels deciding to learn from their mistakes sounds like a positive development, and if they focus on finding ways to better serve music fans, it will be. But instead I’ve noticed a few worrying developments which suggest that what they’re doing differently this time is putting measures in place early in this new era, to try to regain the control and dominance they enjoyed in the past. This includes sneaky tactics that the public aren’t aware of, but because streaming is new territory, there seem to be no regulations in place to compel the labels to make their interests evident, and nothing to stop them acting in ways that feel like they shouldn’t be legal.

The discovery that inspired this post relates to a very hot topic at the moment: playlists. Although it’s not the only big streaming platform, and could soon have a strong challenger in Beats Music, I will focus on the current market leader Spotify for now. One of the primary methods of music discovery on Spotify is playlists. If you log into the desktop or mobile app, the first thing you see is playlists.

The playlists featured on that first screen, the “browse” section, are owned and curated by Spotify themselves. Spotify have a team, like the playlist team at a radio station, who decide which songs to add to these official Spotify playlists. Major labels regularly meet with Spotify to pitch their new releases for inclusion. I haven’t seen any Spotify employee’s diary, of course, but much like the meetings radio playlist execs have with the big radio pluggers (who work either within major labels, or mainly for major label acts), it’s hard to imagine the same opportunity is open to independent acts or their representatives.

Exploring the Spotify app, I found that the first ten songs on the first featured playlist, Teen Dance Party, were all major label releases except one, from large dance label Ultra. The playlists featuring catalogue (i.e. old) music are only slightly more diverse, for example Drinking Songs includes seven major label releases in its first ten songs. In their playlists for genres such as indie and dance music you’ll find more independent artists, but since the major labels were already less dominant in these genres, this can hardly be considered an impressive showing. Spotify are apparently following the philosophy of Sharpay when it comes to choosing how they use their new-found influence over the music industry.

It’s a shame, but not surprising, to see that the tradition of major labels having more access to supposedly objective platforms for exposure is continuing. It seems that the democracy of the internet has its limits – power players continue to club together and make deals to stifle their competition, and users aren’t aware or bothered enough to use the power the internet gives them to stop it. That’s a bigger social issue, but in the case of the music industry, it means new power players like Spotify are being used by old power players, such as the major labels, to extend their control and influence into the new digital world.

The prevalence of major label acts on Spotify’s official playlists suggests the streaming giant is willing to give the majors the leg up they need. But even if Spotify didn’t actively support major labels, the labels have other ways of using the platform to their advantage. The smart Scandinavians of Universal and Sony sussed out a few years ago that ownership of Spotify playlists would become crucial, and they deserve a big thank you from their international colleagues for starting up the Digster (Universal) and Filtr (Sony) playlist brands. The Scandi-geeks’ smart move was not just setting up these playlists, but avoiding branding them with the name of their employer, and including big tracks from other labels to keep them fresh and relevant. However, their own releases naturally get priority placement.

When I first realised what the labels had done, I was impressed – it’s inspiring to see people coming up with innovative new marketing techniques and finding ways to adapt to a changed industry. It was only when I started looking into the opportunities open to artists to get more exposure on Spotify that I realised that unless you’re with a major label, it’s hardly worth trying. At a recent conference, I asked a label’s commercial director, who had been involved with their playlist brand, for the tricks of the trade. I asked if the curators would take submissions via the Spotify messaging functionality, but the only way he could think of for an act not signed to that label to get on their playlist was if they were signed to another major. The labels might agree to an exchange – we’ll feature your new song on our playlist, if you feature ours on yours.

Spotify doesn’t list the most subscribed playlists, so we can’t quantify exactly how much control the majors have on the platform. But don’t assume it’s only the playlists set up by the labels which are controlled or strongly influenced by them. The labels are using their wealth to give the smart/lucky owners of popular playlists a nice payday. We already know that Warner has bought the company Topsify, which owns and runs a huge number of playlists, and playlists.net, which they claim will remain an “independent platform” but currently gives a lot of promotion to Topsify playlists. I have also heard of major labels buying individual playlists with large followings, or paying the creators to add songs by their artists. I recently found out that in Scandinavia, where streaming already dominates music consumption, 60% of plays are from playlists personally owned by the user, but that still leaves 40% of their listening time to be unwittingly influenced by major label marketing tactics.

The major labels’ control over popular playlists is worrying for many reasons. The more playlist subscribers a song reaches, the more money it earns for the label. If a user doesn’t know the playlist is owned by the label, they’ll assume it’s an objective list of recommendations, so the label profits from a hidden bias. Their tactics could also skew the Official Charts against independent acts, since streaming data is now factored in. As if there weren’t enough reasons that introducing streaming to the UK charts was a stupid idea (see my 2014 post on this for my full rant), now we have another one. Every time a song is listened to on a playlist it counts towards the charts. Streams may only make a small difference to the charts now, but that will increase as streaming becomes more popular, and so will the major labels’ influence over the charts. How could independent acts possibly compete?

It’s one thing when the dynamics of radio plugging are recreated on streaming platforms, the new industry robotically replicating the old. But this is the equivalent of a major label buying popular radio stations, magazines or TV channels to ensure their new releases get plenty of exposure. Not just buying clearly branded advertising space, but actually buying media platforms in order to control them. And doing so without clearly informing consumers when they’re promoting their own wares. Wouldn’t there be outrage if that happened?

The music industry has never been a fair game, so perhaps it’s silly to even bother questioning this sneaky behaviour. Maybe we’re now so used to big companies pulling tricks like this that we’ve given up and we’re just letting them get on with it. The current theory in sociology is that teenagers no longer have a concept of “selling out.” Maybe we’re all willing to trade our integrity a little more easily these days, when it feels less and less avoidable anyway. But I find it sad that a new playing field has been made uneven before most people have even started playing.


As soon as I heard All About That Bass, I loved it, and I bumped whoever I was planning to feature in Future Pop the next Monday to put Meghan Trainor in their place. But in my write-up I had to express a concern: Did her label, Epic, intend to use her weight to create a novelty hit? Would the success of All About That Bass actually be a groundbreaking moment, or were they setting Meghan up for a fall? If she became a one hit wonder that would be seen as a joke in years to come, it could do more damage than good for larger ladies hoping to pursue a pop career in the future.

(Note: Meghan is actually about average size for a British woman and smaller than the average American, but for the sake of this article we will say she is representing larger women, as she is bigger than the typical female pop star and she says herself, “it’s pretty clear, I ain’t no size two”)

Over the next few months, All About That Bass became a worldwide hit. During this time, there were moments which made me feel my concern about her future had sadly been justified. For example, in an interview, Meghan named a song called Dear Future Husband as her next single. Soon this track, along with others from her debut EP Title, were premiered online. No matter how much I wanted to like these songs, to believe that she could prove my suspicions wrong, I had to admit they were very weak. If released as the follow-up to All About That Bass, Dear Future Husband would have ensured Meghan would be a one-hit-wonder. It sounded like an Olly Murs b-side. Hearing a disappointing new song from an artist you like is never fun, but in this case it was depressing.

However, there was a twist. If Epic had thought they had nothing more than a novelty hit on their hands, they were wrong. All About That Bass didn’t just fly up the charts and right back out again. In fact, it spent eight weeks at no.1 in the US and four in the UK. It topped the charts in 58 countries worldwide. Although All About That Bass has the criteria for a novelty hit, a very specific, topical theme with strong catchy hooks, it has such a great melody that I believe it could have been a hit even with different lyrics.

That theory has been proven by the success of Meghan’s follow-up single. As All About That Bass kept their profits healthy, it seemed like Epic started to see Meghan as an artist who could have a long-term career, competing on an equal playing field with her slimmer contemporaries. Once they realised that the public didn’t just see her as “the fat girl,” and there was anticipation for more music, Dear Future Husband was out of the picture as single two. It was replaced by a top quality pop song, Lips are Movin. It’s a track that could have been released by an artist of any size or shape, featuring no reference to Meghan’s weight. It has a fun, easily communicated lyrical concept, which is an attribute that helps to make pop songs memorable and enjoyable, but it’s definitely not a novelty song. It’s similar enough to All About That Bass to give Meghan a signature sound, but different enough to show she’s not a one-trick pony.

Lips are Movin was released today in the UK and is currently no.2 on the iTunes chart. It has peaked at no.4 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Considering that even the biggest name artists can’t be confident of getting a US top 10 hit every time they release a single, this is a real achievement. A few days ago Meghan was on The Ellen Show as a guest, and she actually got to sit on the sofa. She was there to talk about her life as a successful artist, not just wheeled out to perform her novelty hit to get viewing figures, like PSY and Ylvis were in previous years. This was when I realised she’d crossed a boundary, and it was so nice to see.

The success of Lips are Movin shows that All About That Bass could have been a hit if it had different lyrics, but that would only be the case if the public still got to hear it. Lips are Movin was added to radio playlists because of the hit single that preceded it. All About That Bass was a song by an unknown artist who didn’t fit the pop star mould, and the song itself is pure pop – much poppier than what commercial radio stations usually play. It wouldn’t have been played on the radio if it hadn’t already been an online viral hit, and that wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t stood out due to its subject matter and video.

I have a theory about pure pop music: The public love it… when they get to hear it. By “pure pop,” I don’t mean Clean Bandit or Sam Smith or 5 Seconds of Summer; I mean songs that could not be considered anything but pop. They’re pure, because they’re not filtered by the need to be presented as something other than pop to make people think they’re cool. Call Me Maybe and Ugly Heart are two examples that spring to mind, and All About That Bass is certainly in this category. These songs have to get through a lot of barriers in order to reach the audience that would enjoy them. Pure pop music doesn’t have its own niche radio stations – it’s competing for exposure on the biggest stations, such as Radio 1 and Capital FM in the UK, which are the most competitive to get onto. On the rare occasion that a pure pop song makes it onto mainstream radio, it sounds refreshing and uplifting to listeners, and it’s almost always a hit. If All About That Bass had different lyrics, it probably wouldn’t have been noticed by the playlist overlords at all – in fact, Meghan would probably never have even been signed. But if she had and it had somehow been playlisted, I’m sure it would have been a hit.

There is another variable which I think could have led to a different outcome for All About That Bass. Imagine if it had been about body confidence, but had no reference to her “booty” or “bass.” Would Meghan have got a record deal? Would All About That Bass have gone viral? I’m not convinced. In fact, I wonder if the average listener even thinks of All About That Bass as a body confidence anthem, or just another symptom of what Vogue labelled “the Era of the Big Booty.” The perception of an ideal female figure has been changing for the past decade, with celebrities like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian leading the trend, and the transition seemed to reach completion in 2014, marked by a number of notable hit songs. With Anaconda, Nicki Minaj played up to her own reputation for having a sizeable derriere, and Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea jumped on the bandwagon with Booty. Looking back over 2014 as we now can, it seems more logical to view All About That Bass as a more clean-cut, poppy angle on the booty trend than a standalone body confidence anthem.

If we see it now as just another “booty song,” All About That Bass hasn’t really acted as the celebration of plus size beauty that it could have been. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t had a positive effect. There’s no doubt that there are women and girls around the world, and even some men I’m sure, singing along to All About That Bass and feeling better about their body shape. She might have had to jump on a passing bandwagon to do it, but Meghan has sold a message of body confidence to over six million people. That’s nothing to be sniffed at! And this week, as her album sits at no.1 in the US iTunes chart, and Lips are Movin becomes another international hit, we can say that one of the biggest pop stars in the world is someone who represents an image you don’t usually see in a pop video. That’s got to be a good thing.

Meghan Trainor probably won’t have a career spanning decades. She will probably never have another hit as big as All About That Bass. But the world isn’t going to change overnight, and if nothing else, we now have proof that the public don’t care how much their pop stars weigh – it’s actually the industry’s assumption that they care which is preventing other artists who don’t “look the part” from getting the opportunity to break through.


When I first heard the news that streaming was to be included in the UK’s Official Singles Chart from July, I was concerned, but I wanted to wait to see the effect of the change before I made my judgement. I don’t like to be negative in my Popping The Question posts, but I also have to be honest, and following the publication of the first chart incorporating streaming, I’m ready to say that I think it was a mistake. I wrote earlier this year about why the Singles Chart is still important in 2014, so it’s sad to see that its validity and its value have been damaged by a poor decision.

I understand that the Official Charts Company are trying to keep up with the changes in music consumption as technology develops. They were quite slow to add download sales to the charts, and perhaps that’s why they jumped in headfirst with streaming, not wanting to seem out of touch. However, in doing so I think they have missed the point quite spectacularly.

Downloading a song is buying a song – it might be a different format, but it’s the 21st century equivalent of buying a CD, cassette, record etc. It made perfect sense to add download sales into the Singles Chart. Conversely, streaming a song is not an act of buying, but an act of playing. It is essentially the same as playing a track on your iPod, or putting on a record from your collection. If we are going to include streaming in the charts, we might as well include Last.FM play counts too. And then, to make it fair, we’ll have to get everyone who still listens to CDs to make a diary of everything they listen to and submit it to the OCC each week. Now you’re starting to see why this is ridiculous, right?

There are a few ways that adding streaming to the Singles Chart could be appropriate. For example, if the OCC only counted the first ever play of a track by an individual listener, or when they added a song to their favourites/library/playlist. I tried to check the chart rules online and they hadn’t been updated since 2013, but I assume this is not how streams are being counted.

As well as the Singles Chart, the OCC have decided to continue publishing the sales-only chart, now known as the Official Singles Sales Chart. This means that we can directly compare how a song would fare on the old chart to the new chart. I went through every song in the Sales Chart top 40 to see if the new Singles Chart rules worked in its favour or not.

My research found that the new rules are most beneficial for the year’s big hits. Songs such as Rather Be, Hideaway, Fancy and Nobody To Love are significantly higher in the Singles Chart than the Sales Chart. This suggests big singles will enjoy more longevity, slowing down the turnover of hits overall. It makes sense, as people go back to songs they love week after week. In the old chart, your love of a song would be counted only on the week you bought it, but now it counts every week that you choose to listen to it.

In contrast, it seems that tracks by big artists that haven’t caught on as massively as they might have been expected to, will fall out of the charts more quickly. Some of the songs which were notably lower in the Singles Chart than the Sales Chart included Usher’s Good Kisser and Here For You by Gorgon City – both top 10 hits, but not the kind you’ll be hearing again and again for the rest of the year. To be fair, it’s not a big loss for the charts if over-hyped, underwhelming songs don’t stick around, but it could be the end of “the grower.”

All four of the tracks from Ed Sheeran’s new album X that are currently in the top 40 are higher in the Singles Chart than the Sales Chart, which shows that the new rules also help big, established artists dominate the chart more than ever. It won’t be every week that an album will be released which is highly anticipated enough to have several tracks in the top 40, but we can expect to see this happen increasingly often. Many people use streaming as a way to “try before you buy,” so a new album should logically have very strong streaming numbers in its first few weeks. This could cause a decrease in the number of artists who have a song in the Singles Chart each week, blocking new and smaller acts from reaching the top 40.

Another reason I think the addition of streaming to the chart is damaging to new and less established acts is that my research suggests new entries will, on average, chart lower. At the top end of this week’s chart, probably because the difference in sales is so large, streaming didn’t have an effect on the new entries. Problem by Ariana Grande and Chandelier by Sia charted at no.1 and no.6 in both the Singles Chart and Sales Chart. However, DJ Fresh’s new single reached no.10, whereas it would have been no.7 if the rules hadn’t changed, and Milky Chance entered the chart at no.32, rather than no.28. For a new act, or an act returning with a make-or-break comeback single, this could be the difference between a top 10 hit or just missing out – and we all know what happens to pop stars who don’t make the top 10.

The change to the chart rules is annoying for fact fans like me, because it undermines what the Official Chart is supposed to stand for, and its 45-year history as a measure of sales. But I’m perfectly aware that most music lovers are not that geeky, and don’t really care. However, I think that the effect this change will have on musicians and the UK music industry is worth caring about.

I’m proud to say that when I look over the charts of different countries when I’m compiling my Top of the Poptastic list each month, I see that the UK is much less homogenised than most others. Our chart features famous names alongside new artists from a wide variety of genres, including homegrown talent and international acts, and it has always been very fast-moving. In other countries the same songs by huge world-famous acts will dominate the top 10 for months on end. In the UK, we see new songs come and go, artists can come out of nowhere to become huge practically overnight, and the result is a fun and fascinating chart to follow.

Adding streaming to the Official Chart makes it more similar to the US Billboard Hot 100, which is based on radio play, streaming and sales. So far this year, the Hot 100 has had only six different no.1s, compared to the UK chart’s 20 different chart-toppers. Why would we want to change the rules and lose that variety, that excitement? To me, it makes no sense at all.

The change has been made now, and there’s no point crying over spilt milk, but I can say I’ll be paying much more attention to the iTunes chart and Sales Chart ongoing, rather than the Singles Chart. Considering younger music fans already follow the fast-paced, exciting iTunes chart more closely than the Official Chart, I’m sad to predict that the new rules will make it seem even less relevant.


On Monday, Radio 1 are celebrating 10 years of legal downloading by counting down the top 100 best-selling downloads of all time. The UK Official Download Chart was launched in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2005 that download sales were counted in the UK Singles Chart, and only in 2007 were songs able to chart if there wasn’t also a physical release. That rule seems crazy now, as only one single (Last Night by The Vamps) in the current top 10 is available on CD.

It’s safe to say that in 2014, the transition to the digital era in terms of single sales is at least 90% complete. Physical sales still make a difference on occasion, with boybands, charity singles and X Factor winners, but most weeks you can easily predict the official top 10 by looking at the iTunes chart. This means now is the perfect time to analyse the singles chart as a reflection of how the digital era has re-shaped the music industry on a larger scale.

I think the biggest change, and one I wholeheartedly welcome, is the fact that consumers now buy singles based almost solely on what they sound like. There used to be several other factors which heavily affected sales. Adding a CD single (or a “cassingle”, as I used to buy) to your collection was about defining your identity – would you be proud to show off this record to your friends? There was also the appeal of attractive CD covers (which often doubled as posters when I started buying music), and the desire to keep your collection complete. It never seemed weird to buy a CD just to own it, and I still have several I’ve never even listened to.

There are a few reasons you might legally download a single and not listen to it (for example, you already got it for free or illegally downloaded it, but want to support the artist on release week) but I can’t imagine it’s very common. You might let your friends browse your iTunes, but most people’s digital music collections, like most things we “own” digitally, are kept relatively private. Therefore, you could say that digital music purchases are more “honest” and true to our musical tastes, with much less regard to what owning these songs says about us.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed the effect of this change in full force in the UK chart. New artists are emerging, practically overnight, and debuting at the top with extremely impressive sales. Kiesza, Sigma, Shift K3y and Route 94 are just a few examples, with Mr Probz set to do the same next week. If you asked the average person, or even a dance music fan (note that all these singles are dance tracks), if they knew anything about those artists, they’d pull a blank face. But play them the song, and they’d probably know it.

This fact might not sit well with indie/rock fans, but dance music is the genre which, more than any other, has always been judged on the quality of the music as the most important factor. When you’re out clubbing, you don’t care who created the music, you just want to dance and have a great night. Therefore, dance acts are typically quite anonymous, and they work on a track-by-track basis rather than concerning themselves with structured album campaigns. Labels choose to release and promote only the records that are connecting in the clubs (and now also online, on sites like YouTube, Soundcloud and Beatport).

The transition to digital single sales is not the only reason dance music is dominating the chart in 2014. It’s also thriving thanks to geeky young producers who were experimenting with Logic and Pro Tools in their bedrooms before they were old enough to go to clubs. Young people who grow up with the Internet have access to a wider range of musical genres than any previous generation, and the effect of this is seen in their highly creative and innovative work. The new breed of producers mix and match genres and styles from various eras and music scenes around the world until they make a hit. Once a song goes viral online and in the clubs, it can quickly become a mainstream smash with the support of influential radio stations and DJs.

The effect of download sales on the UK Singles Chart has worked in the favour of dance artists, and the same can be said for hip-hop and rap. This is another genre where fan loyalty is rare, and a song’s success depends on how well it connects with the music-buying public. Artists use “the viral factor” to achieve a hit. A good beat or sample can sometimes go viral, but most often it’s a fun or controversial lyric. Pitbull, Flo Rida and will.i.am are among the big stars who swear by this formula.

With rock and indie music, the effect of the downloading revolution is difficult to analyse, because the artists didn’t have a strong presence in the singles chart before and don’t tend to see it as a marker of success. The only artists in the current top 40 all made their name before downloads dominated (Paolo Nutini, Coldplay and the Kaiser Chiefs), and they all fare better in the albums chart. Overall, rock and indie has little presence in the singles chart today. Both genres are surviving out of the limelight, but I suspect the difficulty of getting a rock or indie track into the singles chart contributes to the fact this style hasn’t had the resurgence that was predicted.

And finally, we come to the most important genre of all: POP! If you subscribe to the definition of pop as “whatever is popular” then it’s impossible for pop to not be in the chart, but if you’re talking about music with a “poppy” sound and presentation, you can still say the current singles chart is full of pop music. However, artists whose equivalents ten years ago would have relied on fans wanting to own CDs as band merchandise and proof of their dedication are under pressure to convince young people to spend money on something they’d quite happily just listen to on YouTube.

The Vamps, who I mentioned earlier as the only current top 10 artist to release a physical single, have been notoriously creative in finding ways to propel their songs up the chart. Their methods include signings, a wide variety of formats (some of which I’m told have broken Official Charts Company rules), and of course a genius social media campaign. The Vamps’ team give fans what they want (access to the band and physical products with photos of cute boys) in exchange for the fans doing what they want (getting them a higher chart position and making the band more profitable).

Despite The Vamps’ huge fanbase they’re yet to reach number one, and it’s notable that their singles always slip down the iTunes chart during release week, showing that their sales are based on fan loyalty more than song quality. If the music appealed to a non-fanatical audience, their presence in the iTunes chart (along with other mainstream media exposure) would generate more sales, a crossover which can occasionally happen, for example with One Direction’s Story of My Life and Move by Little Mix. With each song these acts release, they hope it will be one of those rare crossover hits, but the tricks employed by acts such as The Vamps are put in place to cover up the times when it doesn’t happen.

People outside of the music industry often say that chart positions are no longer relevant, and in a sense that’s true as acts can survive without chart success by dominating a niche market. However, anyone who has attended a label planning meeting will agree that chart positions are as important as ever in pop. A band’s success is still judged on chart positions, and a 50,000-selling no.1 is still preferable to a 70,000-selling no.2. This is because, in pop, perception is everything. You can’t sell tour tickets and merchandise or sign big money endorsement deals if you’re not perceived as a success.

The digital download market has definitely shaken up the singles chart, and I find it fascinating to analyse the changes. It’s sad that we can’t pop down to Our Price and choose the single with the most appealing cover for 99p, as I used to do with my pocket money, but these days there are more chart stats and prediction techniques than ever for us music geeks to pore over. We’re starting to settle into this new era now, but as technology develops, for example with the proposed addition of streaming to the official chart, it won’t be long before the goalposts move again and artists have to adjust to another new chart landscape. I’ll set myself a reminder in 2019 to write a follow-up to this post, as I’m sure there will be plenty more to say.


I’ve been prophesising for a few years now that pop’s reign would end and guitar music (indie, rock etc.) would return to the charts, but so far it hasn’t come true. The media has predicted it and wished for it, but it hasn’t happened. An article posted on the NME website today excitedly noted that there were two indie/rock no. 1 albums last year. Wow, two! That is an impressive number. The writer also mentioned the BBC Sound of 2013 long list, which did indeed feature a handful of guitar acts, but the only one that made the top five was mum-friendly girlband Haim.

As the NME have proven, it’s difficult to argue that guitar music has made a comeback. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the year ahead. While the public have not shown any clear signs of a desire for the return of rock, several big music influencers have decided they’re going to get it anyway. Although they will naturally have the support of brands such as NME and XFM, the ringleader is definitely Radio 1.

The current wave of music journalists and A&Rs predicting, or at least debating, the return of guitar music was initiated by a tweet from Radio 1’s Head of Music, George Ergatoudis, which said “Guitar music is definitely on the way back.” Popjustice wrote a typically insightful article about this comment in November, and as pop’s foremost opinion leader, his acknowledgement of the expected paradigm shift seemed to inspire the rest of the industry to accept it as inevitable.

Radio 1’s remit is to be a youth music station, which should mean that they play whatever genres of music are popular with young people at the present time. Around five years ago their playlist changed dramatically, as they allowed acts that would not have stood a chance of Radio 1 support to appear on the A List, perform in the Live Lounge and much more. The thought of an act like One Direction or Little Mix appearing on Radio 1 in the mid-2000s would have been laughable, but now their new singles are automatic playlist additions.

Somewhat slowly and reluctantly, Radio 1 adapted in order to survive, and despite the unfortunate decision to hire Fearne Cotton the station became pretty enjoyable for pop fans. Personally I have listened to Radio 1 almost exclusively for the past few years, as it has a much more varied playlist than the other pop stations such as Capital and Kiss FM, access to big name guests, and of course it doesn’t have advert breaks. However, over the past few weeks I have noticed a distinct change in the music policy. Alt-J seem to be whining on every time I turn the radio on, Huw Stephens somehow seems to be presenting at least half the shows, and it’s not uncommon to hear a shouty burst of rock racket straight after the latest Rihanna track.

There may be no real evidence that the public are ready for the return of guitar music, but Radio 1 have quite blatantly decided they don’t care. Although I feel they did a good job of adapting when the public went pop, they have struggled with listener figures. In 2012 Radio 1 lost listeners while Capital and Radio 2 thrived. Radio 1 has also been the subject of debate over whether it is necessary to have a public-funded radio station which playlists music that the commercial radio stations already cover successfully. In contrast, indie and rock music is not as well represented in the commercial sector, which therefore means Radio 1 is more popular and has more of a purpose when guitar music is in vogue.

Radio 1 has an obvious motive for supporting guitar music, and it’s quite understandable that they would want to do so. Every media brand is fighting for survival these days. But since when was brainwashing part of the BBC’s remit? In my opinion, a radio station funded by the public should provide what the public wants. Introducing new music and offering a variety of specialist shows is a great way to achieve that, but force-feeding your listeners music they never asked to hear is not. If and when the public start buying Peace or Parma Violets singles, then I will say “fair enough” and agree that Radio 1 should be fulfilling that demand, but until then there is no justification for pushing this type of music so heavy-handedly.

As much as Radio 1’s actions have annoyed me, I’m not going to end this article on a negative note. As Popjustice said, if guitar music returns it is not the end of the world. Pop music does need a kick up the bum, and some of my favourite pop artists emerged during the “landfill indie” era. There were even a few good indie bands, dare I say it! We also shouldn’t presume that Radio 1 will necessarily get what they want. Music trends are notoriously unpredictable, and we all remember the many massive hits of the media-hyped “nu rave” era. There was that one by The Klaxons… and, erm…