Beyond the Mainstream: Musical Audiences in the Digital Age, by Stephen Hill
The death of the BBC television series Top of the Pops (TOTP) on July 30th 2006 marked a major shift in the way in which audiences consume popular music in the UK. Experimentation with the programme's format had, for a number years, revealed anxiety about the waning appeal of Top of the Pops to a contemporary media audience: the passive experience of watching a pre-fabricated selection of pop hits had begun to seem outdated in an age of digital television and the Internet. This article looks at the reasons for Top of the Pops decline and what this says about the way in which contemporary audiences consume popular music. Emerging as a key concept is the idea that the end of TOTP heralded the end to the mainstream and the rising importance of minority audiences in the production and promotion of pop music. Over the course of this article, I will argue that the ‘choice’ offered by narrowcasting media is highly restricted and that the segregation of audiences in discrete communities of consumers is potentially stifling creative exchange. First, however, I want to consider the legacy of TOTP and what we mean by the term ‘mainstream’.
Top of the Pops
First broadcast on the 1st January 1964, Top of the Pops reached the height of its popularity in the 1970s, with audience figures regularly exceeding 15 million. Its bandstand format, which showcased a broad-spectrum of bands and artists, played a key part in shaping what Simon Frith (2002) has described as the “televisual aesthetic” of popular music. According to Frith, in an age before MTV, the forms and conventions of a “good television performance” came to symbolise what audiences understood by a “good rock performance”. That for most of its history it was typical for bands on TOTP to mime, did not diminish the excitement that surrounded the programme. As Blur bassist Alex James suggests, the significance of TOTP as a brand remains strong, even after its demise:
“Top of the Pops was the other fundamental force. It was more than a TV show, and it's hard to believe it's actually gone. It's still probably the most powerful brand name in music broadcasting. There weren't many things that were exactly as I thought they'd be, but appearing on that show was just like walking inside the television. It was almost magical. Practically everyone there seemed hardly able to believe they were inside it. There was always a wide-eyed open-mouthed glee about the studio audience. The acts on TOTP were just part of the spectacle. Everybody mimed, which made it even more unreal and dream-like, but it was all the bit-part players and extras who made it special: a mammoth blast of bright lights, cameras, smiles and flesh.”Alex James, Bit of a Blur (2007) p114
And indeed, TOTP's celebration of the ‘surface culture’ of pop is perhaps best understood as a metaphor for the constructed ‘post-modern’ nature of the popular music recordings in general. Records are, after all, simulacrums: copies without originals, assembled in the studio from multiple tracks to give the illusion of an original performance. For this reasons alone the death of TOTP is highly significant: suggesting a more singular understanding of the way in which pop texts make meaning. However, like Smash Hits and Radio 1, TOTP was a champion of the mainstream: a bandstand showcase of the current Top 40; a variety show of delights in which every favour was on the menu and now style seemed to clash.
Post-punk and the Slow Death of the Mainstream
In part, the death of TOTP can be attributed to a shift away from a consensual view of the mainstream as fluid and diverse, towards the individualised branding of popular music as a niche market product. To be successful in the Digital Age requires a strict adherence to genre conventions, be that indie, R&B, hardcore or dance. This not only challenges the eclectic spirit that has characterised the pop music scene in the UK since the late 1950s, but takes pop music back to a much earlier era, when consumption was less visible and culturally significant. As composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall argued, on his 2004 Channel 4 television series Twentieth Century Greats, before the Beatles “Pop was still in it [sic] infancy belting out a raw and primitive sound” (Howard Goodall, Twentieth Century Greats, Channel 4, 2004). In this sense, the death of TOTP is perhaps the most significant moment since punk: a movement that levelled the playing fields of pop, knocked down hierarchies of genre and opened up a space which innovation and experimentation could find their way to the into the mainstream.
For the mainstream in Britain, the late Seventies represents a high point. In sales terms, more singles were sold in this period than any other, culminating in 1979 with sales of 86 million. The late Seventies was also a time in which Radio 1, a station orientated squarely at the mainstream, was at the height of its popularity, with audience figures regularly surpassing the 20 million mark. However, it was also a time of unprecedented music diversity. Surveying the covers of Smash Hits, for example, reveals the range of acts enjoying mainstream success: The Jam, Blondie, The Clash, The Police, Bob Marley, Donna Summer etc. As Gary Mulholland suggests in This Is Uncool, the mainstream was extremely eclectic at the end of the Seventies.
“1979 was, in pop music terms at least, gloriously nuts. Though anything can be applied to anything through the benefits of hindsight, it seems as if artists from all sides of the spectrum understood that things would soon change, and made hay while the last rays of the sun were still shining. Punk and disco had taken the music industry by surprised [sic] and, as they struggled to understand what kind of strange noises and voices pop fans wanted they allowed artists a degree of freedom that echoed the joy and tumult of the mid-60s. 1979 saw the peak and the end of that process.”Gary Mulholland, This is Uncool (2002) p76
The slow demise of the mainstream is the subtext of Mulholland's highly personal book, which catalogues the 500 greatest singles since punk and disco. However, it is fair to say that the separation of the mainstream from the cutting edge of music has characterised the intervening years: in much the same way that classical music had parted company with its
EMAP: Niche Marketing and Defined Communities of Consumers
In the UK it was perhaps the proliferation of digital technology at the end of the Nineties that finally reframed the relationship between the producers and consumers of popular music. Until that point, from Radio 1 to MTV, the dominant outlets for pop music were steeped in the mainstream sensibility of broadcast media. However, the deregulation of licensing laws at the end of the Nineties opened up a new space in which narrowcasting became a viable option. At the forefront of this revolution was EMAP: a publishing house formed in 1947 as the East Midlands Allied Trade Press and home to some of the UK's biggest magazines including Smash Hits, Q, Empire, FHM and Kerrang!. Pioneering the concept of ‘multi-platform branding’, EMAP extended the remit of their print titles Kerrang!, Smash Hits and Q to launch synergised television and radio channels throughout 2001 and 2002. With a specific play-list and editorial policy, these channels are ‘niche marketed’ towards the pre-existing tastes of specific groups of consumers. In theory, this narrowcast strategy offers more consumer choice and it was certainly a contributing factor to the death of TOTP. However, the irony of narrowcasting is that it does limit musical diversity, by fixing ideas about genre and how music is marketed. There is, for example, much less scope today for the eclecticism that characterised the musical mainstream of the late Seventies, a time when Radio 1 dominated broadcasting in the UK. However, for EMAP diversification was a good business strategy. As Stuart Williams, publishing director of EMAP's music magazines points out; the expansion of entertainment's coverage at the end of the Nineties drastically altered the landscape of media production in the UK:
“For the first fifteen years of Q's life if you managed to get the biggest band in the country with an exclusive interview and a good photo shoot, that would sell you copies. And that worked. With the media fragmentation that went on in the late Nineties/ early Naughties that meant that those artists were appearing everywhere. So previously, there would be genuine exclusives in Q magazine. That balloon was popped. The turning point for us was Coldplay. Coldplay came back with X and Y a couple of year ago and it ticked all the boxes: the biggest band in the world at the time, sold millions of records, they could fill venues around the world. You could argue they were interesting: celebrity girlfriend, had opinions, does charity work. In a previous era it would have been a very strong seller. At the time of that campaign, they decided to do Rolling Stone in America, Q in the UK, Jonathan Ross TV and Radio 1. That was it. There was nothing else. We thought great, we've got a genuine exclusive and yet it was [sic] very poor selling issue of the magazine.”Stuart Williams interview 2006
For EMAP, the decline of what Stuart Williams defines as the “bankable cover star” on a magazine like Q, has been offset by the tremendous success of Kerrang!. As a niche market product aimed at a very specific sub-cultural audience Kerrang! has become something of a ‘hero brand’: its synergised TV and radio stations attract large audiences; it is also one of the few print titles not in terminal decline, with a steady readership of around 80,000 per issue. Key to this has been the interactivity offered by the Internet. While other magazines, particularly titles in the men's market, have lost out to online editorial, Kerrang! uses the Internet to market the more traditional and ‘tactile’ qualities of the magazine. For example, the magazine message board influences decisions about the cover star and which band's poster to include. In the case of Smash Hits, the synergy of web-content and hard copy has reached its ultimate conclusion: the print title closed in February 2006, but the brand lives on as an online portal, www.smashhits.net to the television and radio channels. Like TOTP, Smash Hits was a casualty of the decline of the mainstream and the rise of the Internet: with music available for download at the touch of a button traditional conduits like radio, television and the music press are increasingly irrelevant to the audience.
Napster, iTunes and Digital Downloads
More so than television or pop music videos, the proliferation of the Internet has had the most influence on the way in which audiences consume popular music in the twenty-first century. Since the advent of Napster, the original file sharing software, in 1999, the Internet and online downloading has also disrupted the workings of the music industry by laws of violating copyright and licensing. The fundamental premise of Napster and subsequent incarnations like Limewire is that users are able to easily distribute MP3 format song files, thus by-passing the need to buy a licensed copy of the music on CD, cassette or vinyl. While Napster was shutdown in 2001 following legal action from A&M Records and artists as diverse as Madonna, Metallica and Doctor Dre, this mode of distribution has become the industry standard for all professional musicians. Unsurprisingly, with so much music available for free, sales of physical CD singles declined steeply in the early Naughties. Sensing this shift Sony was the first record company to offer official online sales of MP3 in 2000. However, it was the proliferation of Apple's iPod (launched in 2001) and the iTunes stores that really altered the dynamics of popular music consumption. Mirroring the strategy deployed by VHS in the war against BetaMax in the early Eighties, Apple became a market leader by offering a greater choice of downloadable content than rival online stores and the use of a digital right management software (DRM) preventing iTunes downloads from play on portable MP3 players produced by rival manufacturers. In the UK, the price of a download (typically 79 pence including VAT) undercut the price of discounted CDs by 20 pence, resulting in a serious encroachment on the sales of traditional singles eligible for inclusion in the singles chart. This repositioning of consumer behaviour prompted the launch of the UK Download Chart in 2004 and its integration with the main Singles Chart in 2005. While the volume of legal downloads does not match the volume of singles sales in the Seventies and Eighties, there is now greater stability in the chart as a whole: the biggest selling download single to date is Gnarls Barkley's Crazy (2006), which spent 11 weeks at the top of the chart. And, for the first time since the early Nineties, records now climb the chart, instead of just entering at their highest chart position and then descending. Criteria for inclusion in the current UK Top 40 specifies that the track must not be longer than 10 minutes and must be sold for a minimum of 40 pence.
The shift to downloads has had a number of key impacts on the ways in which audiences now consume popular music. In the first instance, the size of the units in which popular music is consumed are now much smaller: albums are less important; moreover, it is now the song rather than the single (complete with B-sides and remixes) that is primary. Audiences are also less interested in owning a material artefact in the form of a CD or record. That is not to say that the visual culture of pop is any less important: rather our attention has turned to the thumbnail images used on websites. The second major impact of download culture is that it has deregulated the relationship between space, time and the scheduled release of new music. Since the beginning of 2007 eligibility for the Top 40 has not been confined to new releases or indeed nominated ‘singles’. Commenting to the BBC at the end of 2006, Steve Redmond, director of the UK Official Charts Company claimed that the new ruling “puts the consumer in the driving seat, literally any track can be a hit” (BBC News Channel, 8 January 2007). Bands that scored Top 40 hits in 2007 on the basis of this change include Snow Patrol, U2, Michael Andrews and Nelly Furtado. Initially it was thought that the charts would be infiltrated by classic tracks from older artists. At the time of writing this has not been a regular occurrence within the Top 40. Though it has to be said that the lower end of the Top 100 offers a much broader representation of the nation's music tastes with older tracks frequently making the Top 75. Determining factors in this can be the prominent use of a song on a popular television programme, its performance on a show like X-Factor or the mood of the season: certain tracks by Wham and Mariah Carey, for example, are particularly popular at Christmas.
MySpace: The Long Tail of Pop
Although sales of singles and official downloads have improved since 2005, the Top 40 is no longer at the forefront of new music in the UK. In spite of the best efforts of the recording industry to stop illegal downloads, in 2008 the majority of music accessed online is done so for free. Sensing this shift, many bands and artists are finding new ways to earn revenue from their work; for many, licensing tracks for use in films, adverts, television and video games is now more lucrative than exporting hardcopy for physical sale. Radiohead, for example, released their last album In Rainbows (2007) online a week before its physical release and left it up to the buyer to decide the price they paid (excluding a credit card charge of 45 pence). Though the band did not publicise figures for Internet sales, ironically, the CD release of the album went on to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic; the publicity garnered from the Internet sales ploy paid off, securing the band a hit record. That said, it is impossible to know whether the band would have sold more copies of the album if they had not leaked it so publicly in advance of the record arriving in shops. Radiohead are, however, the exception that proves the rule; for many bands T-shirts and tour merchandise remains one of the most consistent ways of paying the bills. Though radio play and chart successes are important for major league stars, the Internet has enabled smaller-scale musical producers to find an audience for their product. This is an idea explored very recently in Chris Anderson's The Long Tail (2006) in which he argues that the future of business is selling more of less. In his logic the fragmentation of media audiences into niche markets has transformed patterns of media consumption. Combined with the marketing and distribution possibilities created by the Internet, opportunities have now opened up for the profitability of fringe creative industries. The success of the Sheffield based quartet the Arctic Monkeys is particularly exemplary of the success of this strategy in today's media economy. Spurning the advances of record labels who wanted to change the bands musical style, the Arctic Monkeys embraced their online community of fans on MySpace and waited until they had sold out the 2000 capacity London Astoria before eventually signing with Domino Records in 2005. Since the success of the Arctic Monkeys, Internet based popular music culture has increasingly defined itself in the terms of its own definition: relying less upon the outmoded concepts pioneered by broadcast media and physical singles sales and embracing instead live streaming and downloads as a way of reaching the audience. It is perhaps befitting then that Top of the Pops, a programme so intimately linked to the concept of the Top 40, should close its doors in 2006: in the age of free music, the charts are an anachronism.
YouTube: The Perpetual Present, Past and Future?
On the face of things, the concurrent rise of YouTube (launched February 2005) to the decline of TOTP (and YouTube's subsequent purchase by Google in October 2006) seemed to herald a revolution all of its own, in the way in which audiences consume pop music in the twenty-first century. Like Napster and MySpace, YouTube deregulated pop music from the traditional channels of promotion and supply: encouraging users to share files and broadcast themselves. For a short period in 2006/7 it seemed as if YouTube would bring about a whole new era in which pop music could be re-acquainted with both its televisual sensibility and DIY aesthetic. And indeed, the last two years have seen professionally produced videos vie for attention with independent productions by bands and fans: in effect blurring the boundaries between producers and consumers of pop texts. The same ‘have a go spirit’, which characterised punk predominates YouTube. However, for every OK GO, whose self-produced one-take, treadmill sequence for Here It Goes Again won a Grammy Award in 2007 for Best Short Form Music Video, there is a Chris Cocker. A fan of Britney Spears, Cocker's now infamous defence of the pop star following a desultory appearance at the MTV Music Video Awards, propelled the Tennessee teenager into the media spotlight when his broadcast on YouTube reached 4 million views in two days. While YouTube had the potential to reinvigorate pop, in many ways it has become just another cipher for celebrity-focused trivia: proving Andy Warhol's famous proclamation that “one day everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes”. And, like many evolutions in pop music technology, including home taping, MTV and Napster, YouTube has since been assimilated into a routine form of pop promotion. Record companies have their own ‘channels’ and established artists commission videos with specific YouTube appeal. However, where YouTube has been most transforming has been the habilitation of archive footage from the video vault.
Though TOTP may no longer exist, it is still one of the most important brand names in music broadcasting, in part because of YouTube. While the proliferation of the user-generated site might have been concurrent to the demise of Top of the Pops, YouTube is making the show's legacy available to a whole new generation of music fans. TOTP clips that currently exceed a million views on YouTube include Queen's Killer Queen (1974), The Backstreet Boys I Want it That Way (1999), The Supremes Baby Love (1964), Shania Twain From This Moment On (1999), Petula Clark Downtown (1964), David Bowie Starman (1972), Sonny and Cher I Got You Babe. TOTP did not end because, in isolation, the content was wrong, but because collectively the format does not fit a narrowcast media landscape. Its demise reflective of changes that brought an end to traditional broadcast television in the UK and a collective sense of the mainstream. What this means for the future of pop music in Britain is, however, unclear. On the one hand, the decline of the mainstream denies the possibility for the kind of cross-pollination that made earlier eras in popular music so colourful. Innovation is taking place. However, more often than not that innovation is highly discrete and only heard by very small, defined communities of consumers. Advancement is no longer filtering through to a mainstream arena in which the best ideas compete for the attention and mutate into wondrous new hybrids because the audience has fragmented. And the death of TOTP and Smash Hits, and the decline of Radio 1 are all symptoms of this. On the other hand, the accessibility of pop music history opens up whole new possibilities for the production and consumption of popular music. While audiences have long been fascinated by revisiting earlier eras in popular music, until very recently this has been constrained to that which is made available to us. The cover version, the remix as well as the CD reissue and compilation album have long since been assimilated into the ideologies of pop. What Web 2.0 user-generated software like Napster, LimeWire, MySpace and YouTube have done is disrupt the music industry's regulation of the time space continuum. More so than any generation that has proceeded it, today's pop music fans are acutely aware of their antecedents: in part because the lives of their parents, if not grandparents, has been touched by post-war rock 'n' roll. While this may take a form that is no less superficial than the cutesy appropriation of a Sex Pistols T-Shirt or the ironic appreciation of a disco number, these are starting points on an investigative journey that digital technology invites us to take. While narrowcasting restricts creativity by dividing cultural activities into discrete chambers of knowledge, the Internet itself offers a panopticon perspicuity on the messages and values encoded in the musical renaissance of the late twentieth century.
The end of Top of the Pops in 2006 marked a key moment in the way in which audiences consume popular music in the UK. The fortunes of the BBC television show had been on the wane for a number of years: reflecting a shift in media audiences away from broadcast media towards the niche market opportunities offered by digital technology and the Internet. That the show was finally axed in 2006 is significant for a number of reasons, coinciding as it does with the demise of Smash Hits and the sale of YouTube to Google. In short, the end of TOTP indicated a shift away from a collectively understood mainstream towards the individualised consumer opportunities offered by downloads and user-generated Web 2.0 content. There is no doubt that for some this change has been a very positive thing: opening up opportunities for unsigned bands and more alternative creative enterprises. Moreover, though TOTP is in a sense a casualty of the digital revolution, YouTube and other user-generated sites are securing the perpetuity of the show's legacy in the volume of television footage that has been uploaded. However, the death of the mainstream, which is essentially what the passing of TOTP marks, is also potentially very damaging for the development of new music. On the one hand, many artists and fans are currently enjoying the freedom of direct lines of communication that by-pass record companies and promotional campaigns: defined communities of producers and consumers united by MySpace and Facebook. On the other hand, the removal of obstacles such as A+R men, playlists and promotion duties also removes both a layer of quality control and a space in which diverse musical forms can interpolate. TOTP served both these functions well and its absence has created a void in the lives of audiences that YouTube cannot fill. Projecting forward, into a future where audiences are tired of naval gazing at their own spurious ‘creativity’ and the inevitability of niche product marketing, there may be a time when TOTP and the principles that underpinned this and other bandstand broadcast phenomena will be re-evaluated.
- Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail (2006, Random House, London)
- Firth, Simon, Look! Hear! The uneasy relationship of music and television in Popular Music Volume 21/3 (2002; Cambridge University Press)
- James, Alex. A Bit of a Blur (2008, Abacus; London)