Monday, 25 December 2017

Just Like Christmas?

Four years ago I wrote with optimism about the way downloading was shaping the UK’s Christmas charts. It was allowing old songs to nestle alongside the new, thus there were 14 festive classics in the 2013 charts. Mariah Carey was at number 13 with ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl were at number 14 with ‘Fairytale of New York’ and Chris Rea was at number 53 with ‘Driving Home for Christmas'. I argued that ‘One effect of the permanent availability of “singles” is that, more than ever, the charts are reflective of what is going on in the world’. I found it ‘hugely pleasant’ that ‘it is the right Christmas songs that are doing well’.
            In July of the following year the Official Charts Company began to include streaming figures as part of their tabulation of the UK charts. The effects have been criticised. The charts have slowed down (Drake’s ‘One Dance’ was number one for months) and pop tyrants have taken them over (Ed Sheeran had 16 songs in the top twenty in a single week). As a result, the formulas have been changed. The ratio of streams to sales has been increased from 100:1 to 150:1. Longevity has been handicapped: if a record has been on the charts for more than 10 weeks and its sales have declined for three consecutive weeks, its ratio of streams to sales is increased to 300:1. Profligacy has been penalised too. Artists are no longer allowed to have multiple chart entries. They are instead restricted to their three most popular tunes.
            But what can be done about nostalgia? The trend that I identified in 2013 has been amplified by streaming. Downloading made all songs available as singles. Streaming has made all songs available for free (if using ad-supported services) or for rent (if using subscription services). The charts used to monitor exchange value only. Now, with streaming figures included, they increasingly monitor use value. This usage is increasingly shaped by playlists. And the playlists of the streaming companies are oriented towards the hits of Christmas past.
            The results are there for all to see. This week’s Official Singles Chart Top 100 includes 26 Christmas songs. The vast majority of them are old. Wham! are at number three with ‘Last Christmas’; Mariah Carey is at number 4; the Pogues at number 7; and Chris Rea is at number 20. In the age of physical formats most of the Christmas songs that made the charts would have been new releases. In this week’s charts only a third of the Christmas hits come from the current decade, and just two were released in 2017. These new songs have not done well. Sia’s ‘Santa’s Coming for Us’ is at number 65. Gwen Stefani’s ‘You Make It Feel Like Christmas’ has edged into the charts at number 100.
            There has been outcry: newness is being thwarted. Writing in Music Week, Mark Sutherland asked: ‘What point is there trying to write a new Christmas song when the public is likely to just stream the classics non-stop instead anyway?’ I have been invited to comment on this phenomenon, contributing to Tom Fordy’s ‘Ed Sheeran versus Ed Sheeran: Why We're All Losers in the Race for Christmas Number One’ article in the Telegraph and Eleanor Lawrie’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas? Where are the New Festive Classics?’, which is available on the BBC website.
            There is still cause for optimism, however. On the one hand, these classic Christmas songs offer great collective enjoyment. On the other hand, canons are ever-evolving things. As James Masteron points out in the BBC article, ‘You consider something like the Mariah Carey song - it was a huge hit back in 1994, but I don't remember it being particularly notable as a cultural touch-point for another 10 years after that. It was only in the middle of the last decade that people began to wake up to the fact that, actually, this is a classic’. The same is true of Chris Rea’s single, Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ and even ‘Last Christmas’ by Wham! They resonate more deeply now than they did in the years they were released. The past is always changing and nostalgia isn’t what it used to be (Ho! Ho! Ho!).
This slippage between the old and the new is captured brilliantly in Low’s ‘Just Like Christmas’:
On our way from Stockholm,
            It started to snow,
            And you said it was like Christmas,
            But you were wrong
            It wasn’t like Christmas at all

            By the time we got to Oslo
            The snow was gone
            And we got lost
            The beds were small
            But we felt so young
            It was just like Christmas

In fact, this Christmas song is another that grows in stature with every passing year. It was released in 2004. It didn’t make the charts then, and it didn’t make the charts this year. Surely, however, it is only a matter of time before it makes a Spotify playlist. And then it is only a matter of time before it enters the mainstream canon of Christmas favourites. That’s unless they change the chart rules . . .

Monday, 4 December 2017

When do Productions become Productions?

Following on from the last entry, I’ve been wondering when it is that we realise that records are produced? My guess is that it’s the opposite to Jimmy Webb’s thoughts about songwriting. He realised that there was a process to composing songs because some of them sounded the same. In his case, it was follow-up singles that revealed the mechanics of the songwriters’ job.
            I think that we start to think about production when we notice that records sound different from one another. This is most revelatory when we hear two records by the same artists but they don’t feel like kin. It is then that it dawns on us that the artists are not solely responsible for the sound of their records. There is somebody else at work.
            I thought about producers later than I thought about songwriters. This may have been to do with the genres that were dominant when I was growing up. As I have previously stated, it was glam rock that sound-tracked my earliest years. Although the glam rock artists sounded different from one another, they all sounded like themselves. This is because they had the same producers throughout their runs of hits. Chas Chandler produced all the Slade singles. Tony Visconti produced everything for T. Rex. Phil Wainman, Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman were responsible for singles by The Sweet. Mike Leander sculptured the Garry Glitter records. These records were brilliantly produced, but the consistency of production masked the producers’ art.
            Punk was my next musical love. It was different from glam. Here, most of the bands had different producers from project to project. The Clash albums all have different producers and they have different sound worlds as a result. The same is true of the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Fall, Stiff Little Fingers and many other punk and new wave acts. The results often felt like a betrayal. As a fan, you had bought into the particular sonics of a band. You also felt that the band was responsible for those sounds. You were let down.
            But then you started to reverse the process. Maybe the reason why those first records sounded great is because of the work that was being done by the producer. Maybe future records could also sound great if the right producer landed the role. Maybe I want to be a producer too.