Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Karl Marx and the Hot 100

America has done it, Norway has done it, Sweden has done it, Germany has done it. The UK is still making its mind up.
            The big decision is whether to include streaming data when compiling the singles charts. This is tougher for the UK than the US. The principal American chart – the Hot 100 – was founded by Billboard in 1958. It has always been more than a sales chart. From its outset it has been made up of airplay statistics alongside sales data. Since 2012 it has also included audio streaming figures, and since February last year it has included statistics from YouTube, the world’s biggest music distributor.
            The UK’s music chart was first complied by NME in 1952 and has changed ownership several times since then. One thing has remained constant, however. In the UK it is the sales of recording formats that are counted, whether these have been shellac records, vinyl, CDs, cassettes or downloads. If the current governing body, the Official Charts Company, were to incorporate streaming figures, they would be making a fundamental change. As well as mixing up sales and streams, they would be collating exchange-value and use-value.
            What’s the difference? For Karl Marx, use-value is the ‘utility of a thing’, but when items are commodfied and sold, ‘their exchange-value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use value’. In the past, the UK charts have quantified exchange-value only. They have counted the number of times an item is sold rather than how often it is used. And when it comes to downloads or physical formats they will continue to do so. Streaming is different. The Official Charts Company isn’t going to examine Spotify or YouTube’s monetary transactions. If they are to include streaming figures they will do so in the same manner as America, Norway, Sweden and Germany: they will count the number of times a song is played.
            Why does any of this matter? Well, Marx is right: exchange-value is independent of use value. In the past, the British charts have been distorted by the games that can be played with physical formats. The commodification of music has enabled record companies to build up artificial demand. Records have gained high chart positions because of their special features (coloured vinyl! picture discs! posters!), because they are available for a limited time (buy now while stocks last!), or because they have been discounted (£1.99 for one week only!). These records might sell in large amounts for a short period of time, but their general utility is not known.
            Some people have nevertheless maintained that the exchange-value of physical formats intensifies their use-value. Bob Stanley concludes Yeah Yeah Yeah, his excellent history of popular music, with the demise of the physical single format in the early 2000s, as he believes that downloads diminished the pop experience. He argues, ‘Instant downloads require no effort, and so demand less of an emotional connection – it’s less likely that you will devote time and effort to getting inside a new record, trying to understand it, if you haven’t made a physical journey to track it down the first place’ (for more on this, see my previous blog entry). 
            And yet it’s becoming apparent that downloads are more like physical records than they first appeared. People do make a concerted effort to track them down. This effort becomes clear when we look at the British singles charts. Despite their almost total reliance on download sales, these charts provide evidence of pent-up demand, the sort that can only be built up through commodification and exchange-value. Many new releases go straight into the top 10, rather than rising up the charts. Last year there were 31 chart-topping singles, most of which debuted at number one.
            It is streaming figures that have made the similarity between downloads and physical formats apparent. In countries that have incorporated streaming data in their charts, there is a much slower turnover of chart singles and fewer songs debut in high positions. The British trade journal Music Week has found that the same would be true of the UK. Comparing sales figures with streaming figures for 2013, they discovered that in the separate streaming charts 50% fewer titles reached the top 10, while only nine separate songs reached number one.
But what about the point raised by Bob Stanley – is the use-value of streaming less than the use-value of physically-purchased goods? Here, I think there’s a great deal to be positive about. Streaming figures provide ample of evidence of time being spent on music. The single at the top of the exchange-value charts is Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’, which according to Guinness World Records has sold over 50 million copies. The single at the top of the use-value charts is Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’. In statistical terms it dwarfs ‘White Christmas’ - it has attained nearly 2 billion views on YouTube. I could be accused here of failing to compare like with like, but that’s exactly the dilemma that the Official Charts Company is facing. 

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