An Interesting Idea

Monday 31st July

When I was back in England about a week ago I watched an interesting programme on BBC4.  This channel seems to be the home for all sorts of strange stuff, things you might have expected to be on BBC2 once.  There seems to be no pattern or even regular programming.  Anyway the programme was the idea that through using statistics you could predict a chart hit.  Of course, record companies and producers have been doing this in their own sweet way for decades.  Artists were persuaded and pressured into re-producing ‘Hits’  – ‘Just like the last one’ or ‘Copy the Beatles’ – and many have succumbed, but this is also inevitably the kiss of death as their ‘fans’ move on to the next group, the next sound…

Anyway.  The statisticians ‘analysed’ every top 40 record over the last 60 years and plotted them according to various parameters.  In fact, the charts were all over the place, as any music fan could tell you.  In 1967, the year of ‘flower power’ you had hits by Ken Dodd and Englebert Humperdink, sentimental drivel to all us hippies, but there you go. The only things they really came up with were ‘Beat’ music in the Sixties, with the drums progressively higher in the mix, the rise of Disco in the Seventies and Electonica in the Nineties.  The strangest statistic was that the closer to the ‘average’ sound at the time (whatever that was) the more likely a record was to be a hit.  Seems obvious, but there you go.  What they couldn’t really measure was the effect of a band or artist’s popularity; the Beatles used to be Number One on pre-orders before the next record was even released.

Also of course they had no real way of measuring originality, the way that quirkiness, or a different voice, a strange musical hook can capture an audience.  Then, of course there would be the influence of Radio D.J.s, who largely and especially after Pirate Radio was silenced were the sole arbiters of what was heard, in fact they largely decided what was ‘Hit’ material.  And repetition must also play a large part in the mix; quite often the first time you hear a record it makes little impression, but by the third or fourth listen you begin to recognize it and want to hear it again.

This statistical analysis was combined with producer Trevor Horn, who was producing a new black girl singer-songwriter.  But when they applied the statistically most likely sounds like a touch of rap, or electronic beats, it ruined the song.

Thank goodness too.  Music is bland enough anyway these days with most Artists keeping to their safety zone, endlessly repeating similarities to a small fanbase.  We need those mavericks, those weird musicians, people who can take the music somewhere different – or real music fans like me will simply keep on buying the old stuff, endless box-sets, bootlegs, radio concerts at last available on CD etc…

If music has any future it must come from the ground upwards, and not be dictated from above.