Desperate Marketing

How The Music Industry Killed Pop Music

It is the unwritten goal of any major record label to achieve three of more hit singles by one artist from the same album.  Whereas albums and singles were once released independently of each other, by the early 1970s it was not uncommon for an LP by a popular artist to feature several tracks that had or would be issued as 45s.  It later became a standard clause in many recording contracts that an artist should deliver albums which contained a minimum of four potential hit singles.  The formula for success is a simple one: - an album containing three or more top twenty singles will almost certainly go multi platinum and continue to sell under its own steam, minus any further promotion.  Examine any list of the highest selling popular music albums and practically every record will be sprinkled with hit singles with, perhaps, the exception of Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side Of The Moon, The Wall and anything by Led Zeppelin.
 
Now, if only there were an easier way to get a single into the charts in the first place…
 
 
“…but they’re not pressed in red
So they buy The Lurkers instead”
 
Television Personalities – The Part Time Punks
 



In July 1977, a 12” single was released in the UK by Australian new wave band, The Saints.  The record appeared on the Harvest label; on the cover of This Perfect Day was a sticker that stated;
 
IMPORTANT NOTICE
 
Due to an administrative error, this limited 12” pressing of The Saints “This Perfect Day” c/w “L-I-E-S” single contains a third, additional title not available on the normal 7” pressing.  The additional title, “Do The Robot”, has consequently been withdrawn from future release consideration and will only be available on this 12” pressing.
 
 
If the limited edition format was not entirely new, this was however the first time in memory that such a cynical marketing technique was employed by a record company in an attempt to boost a record’s sales.  Not only was This Perfect Day available in the desirable and fledgling 12” format (despite being the A-side being only two minutes long!) but here was an extra track that had been “released in error” and would never be made available anywhere else.  For those record buying teens, hooked on the punk/new wave boom of 1977, it was buy or die.  The record sold out of its limited edition and made #34 in the UK charts; the band’s highest and only UK chart placing. 
 
By the mid to late 1970s, the UK record industry woke up to the fact that pop pickers were as much interested in the ephemera and frills of an artist’s recorded output as they were the music itself.  Phony pop memorabilia had sought to hoover up pocket money for years before Punk arrived.  My sister had a Beatles magnetic hair toy – create your own mop tops with iron filings and a magnetic pen.  But the lavish packaging of LP records, let alone the addition of extra tracks, was most uncommon. 
 
From the mid-1960s onwards, many singles were indeed issued in limited runs of picture sleeves.  The Rolling Stones LP Their Satanic Majesties Request appeared in a 3D cover; John & Yoko’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) was pressed in green vinyl.  Alice Cooper’s School’s Out LP sleeve was designed to fold out like a schoolroom desk and included a pair of paper panties, wrapped around the record (a stunt that would be considered unthinkable today); the top of the sleeve to The Wailers’ LP Catch A Fire flipped up to resemble a zippo lighter.  Such elaborate packaging was, however, considered an artistic statement and was not intended to be used as a marketing tool.  Such records were not advertised with any limited edition marketing gusto.   By 1980, however, record companies knew that they could sell records irrespective of their musical content, and best of all – they could practically oblige a devoted fan to buy multiple copies of the same release.
 
It is safe to say that any record (or book, DVD or whatever) that declares itself to be a collector’s item probably isn’t anything of the sort.  One prefers to believe that true collectors pursue records (of some musical worth, hopefully) that have either: -
 
  • previously escaped the public gaze
  • slipped into obscurity
  • achieved true notoriety
  • fallen out of print
 
And although items that are issued in deliberately minute quantities might (in the face of potentially enormous demand) one day fetch high prices, any level of desirability thereof will have more to do with ownership and one upmanship rather than any particular enjoyment or understanding of the musical content. 
 
Slapping a sticker on the cover of a record, suggesting that therein lies some form of future financial investment, is surely desperation on behalf of a marketing department that knows no other way of raising awareness and demand for their finished product.  And the finished product, remember, is music.  Not the modern day equivalent of a magnetic Beatle hair toy. 
 
The earliest methods successfully employed in convincing fans to buy records for reasons other than what was in the groove was the use of coloured vinyl, soon to be followed by the picture disc.  Both formats had been around for years – mostly used for children’s records. 
 
By 1977 picture sleeves had become obligatory.   Coloured vinyl singles were marketed as the next must haves; issuing a single in an initial run of say 10,000 copies was never going to hurt its sales figures.  From 1978 to 1980; A&M records issued many brightly coloured singles that carried on up the charts in their unlimited black vinyl counterparts - Roxanne by The Police (#12), Up The Junction by Squeeze (#2), Banana Splits by The Dickies (#7).  RCA charted a red vinyl Stranglehold by The UK Subs (#26); Virgin scored top 40 hits for The Motors’ Airport (#4) and Forget About You (#13) in blue and red vinyl 12” singles respectively.  WEA issued the first six singles, including My Best Friend’s Girl (#3) as 7” picture discs.  A limited edition format of some kind for any new single was becoming compulsory.  Next came the combination of formats – in late 1978, Jet Records issued a rectangular shaped brown vinyl single by a group named Cirrus – Rollin’ On (#62) was also packaged to resemble a Yorkie bar (a popular candy bar, for our American readers); the music was based on that used for a TV commercial.  The next year, Jet Records issued a clear vinyl 12” single by Adrian Gurvitz. The Way I Feel was packaged against a circular image of a scantily clad model.  The effect was to make the record appear to be a picture disc; even though it was not.  It didn’t chart.  CBS/Epic released poet John Coper Clarke’s Gimmix in triangular orange vinyl (#39).  It was not his finest single.
 
By the early 1980s, 12” and even shaped picture discs were clogging up the racks in record stores.   In 1983, a heavily advertised shaped picture disc edition of Africa by Toto no doubt helped the record shoot up from #89 to #3 in a matter of weeks.  The following year, Arista released three separate jigsaw shaped picture discs of You Take Me Up by The Thompson Twins.  The record reached #2  in the charts. 
 
Meanwhile, the novelty value of coloured vinyl and picture discs was utilised to flog a few more albums from the back catalogue as well as from the new release schedules.  Hence, initial copies of The Police’s Outlandos D’Amour were pressed in blue and Bob Seger’s Stranger In Town was in silver.  In 1979, a limited run of The Beatles’ self titled double (aka The White Album) was pressed in – blimey – white vinyl.  The UK Subs, seemingly unable to sell a record in black vinyl – issued Another Kind Of Blues in - well, the rest writes itself.   The Dark Side Of The Moon, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tubular Bells and Parallel Lines were all issued as picture discs. Nobody seemed all that concerned that picture records sounded awful, wore out quickly and were (largely due to their laminated construction) inevitably warped.  Gold, silver and other metallic coloured vinyl (i.e. The Electric Chair’s Blatantly Offensive EP) contained unbearable levels of surface noise. 
 
In 1978, Virgin records issued the debut album by Devo in a multitude of colours (at least six) plus a picture disc edition.  A black vinyl copy was available in – surely not – a limited edition.  The LP reached #12 in the UK albums chart.  It was the only top 40 album enjoyed by this quirky (some say novelty) new wave outfit. 
 
Meanwhile, Barry White’s 1978 LP The Man was pressed in an extremely limited run of – hold on – chocolate.  Disk jockey Paul Gambaccini claimed to have cut his copy into small pieces and served it to some party guests.
 
The otherwise highly principled Elvis Costello, during his stay at Jake Riviera’s F-Beat label, saw multiple formats of his records issued – New Amsterdam (#36) appeared as a 4-track EP; 2-track single and 4-track picture disc.  I’m Your Toy (#51) was issued as a 7” and 12”; the B-sides of both record contained completely different tracks; thus requiring his many completist and dedicated fans to purchase both copies. 
 
Record companies had long manipulated the top 200 single charts by bribing participating chart return stores into falsifying sales statistics and simply buying up copies of their own records.  Bob Geldof confesses to having personally engaged in this latter practice in his autobiography, Is That It?  Brian Epstein is believed to have bought up copies of The Beatles’ Love Me Do.  In 1985, shop staff were offered bottles of Tequila if the single of the same name by No Way José went up the charts the following week.  The single progressed from 72 to 47, but couldn’t crack the top 40.  The supply of booze presumably ran dry.  The Photos scored a #4 album in June 1980 – quite an achievement for a group that never even enjoyed a top 40 single.  Strangely enough, around the same time a quantity of free cameras had been distributed to chart return shop staff by teams of record company reps.  How odd. 
 
It had nonetheless always proved difficult if not impossible to get a record into the top 40 via bogus sales alone.  By ensuring that the vast percentage of limited editions were available in chart return shops, a new method of chart fraud – let’s call it what it really is – came to the fore.  Furthermore, the stated quantities of such limited pressings (say, 10,000) could not be verified.  Pop Muzik by M reached #2 in 1979 thanks in part to a double groove 12” edition.  This version of the record was practically unobtainable except in chart return stores; which enjoyed what appeared to be an unlimited supply.   M (aka Robin Scott) enjoyed a worldwide hit (#1 in nine countries); Pop Muzik is today a staple of oldies radio and hopefully earns its creator substantial royalties.  It is, thankfully, a remarkable record complete with some fabulous lyrics that in a handful of words, encapsulate the spirit of record collecting –
 
“I can’t get Jumping Jack; I wanna hold Get Back”
 
After a disappointing follow up (Moonlight & Muzak, #34 UK) MCA records released the next M single in a limited run – a handful of copies of That's the Way the Money Goes contained a recorded message that informed the purchaser that they were a winner of a copy of M's debut album and would be entered into a draw to win 7 nights in New York City.  All copies of the single – winners and losers – were shrink wrapped; one had to shell out to find out.  The rather mediocre single tanked at #45 in early 1980. 
 
The deliberate targeting of chart return stores with gaudy special editions of records went unchecked, not least by Gallup, the compilers (and enforcers) of the singles and albums charts.  I know of one small record store in rural Norfolk that had somehow attained chart return status (something of a holy grail for shop owners).  The shop was overflowing with picture discs, coloured vinyl, poster sleeves and any other giveaway/promotional tool that the record labels had dreamed up in any particular week.  Meanwhile, 30 miles up the road in the county town of Norfolk, far larger shops - mostly without chart return status – struggled to get hold of the fleetingly desirable special editions that were being advertised in that week’s music press (Smash Hits, New Musical Express et al).  A further example of such industry wide corruption was the fact that the chart return shops (including, of course, the sleepy kiosk sized store referred to above) did not have to pay for their weekly barrow load of limited edition shlock.  Such tawdry rubbish was given to the stores free-of-charge and was pre-stickered to sell for at least half the price of the regular (i.e. black vinyl, plain sleeve) edition.  Not only was this trash now (in some imaginary way) exclusive, but also to the cash strapped record buyer, irresistibly priced.  To record shop owners, much of it was unsaleable junk that actually ended up in landfill skips.  Record stores began to resemble seaside trinket shops.
 
The first real assault on the singles charts via blunderbuss formatting was in early 1984.  In November of the previous year, Island Records’ subsidiary Zang Tang Tuum (ZTT) had released a 16 minute 12” single by a quasi-S&M disco/electronic act Frankie Goes To HollywoodRelax was subsequently re-recorded (and shortened considerably) by produced Trevor Horn, using a team of session musicians.  With the exception of vocalist Holly Johnson, no members of the band appeared on the new 8 minute version of the record.  The band mimed on Top Of The Pops to the single, which was subsequently banned from the BBC’s airwaves due to blatant references about oral sex in the lyrics.  By late January 1984, the record was #1 UK and went on to stay in the top 100 for an astonishing total of 70 weeks.  ZTT had in the meantime issued several different mixes of the record across at least eight 12” versions, all of which appeared identical.  This was in addition to the 7”, cassette, picture disc 7” & 12” editions, not forgetting the really exclusive DJ copies that were nonetheless available for sale in, er, certain outlets…
 
By the time of the follow up single, the band’s ever growing band of devotees had come to expect a plethora of different editions.  Two Tribes was released in June 1984 in (at least) three different mixes spread across the usual morass of formats.  ZTT repeated the formula with diminishing success up until 1987, when the band’s hits dried up altogether.
 
The hit parade as we knew it was not long for this world.  Record companies had largely saddled themselves with a roster of semi talented chancers with no appeal except to those that collected fancy limited edition oddities and gewgaws. 
 
The make-up of the top 40 was soon to be decided by the appetites of diehard fans rather than the tastes of casual record buyers.  By saturating an eager and determined fan base with several different limited edition formats, records that were otherwise unlikely to trouble the top 40 could be propelled up the charts.  In 1991, Iron Maiden’s wholly unremarkable (and to non-fans, totally forgettable) single Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter was issued in 7”; 12”; 12” with calendar; 7” picture disc; 12” picture disc; cassette single; CD single and 1-sided etched/autographed editions.  The record spent 2 weeks at #1 and disappeared from the charts altogether three weeks later.  A new phenomenon had been created – a #1 hit single that no-one could remember. 
 
Meanwhile, behind the counter, it was noticeable that Mums & dads were no longer buying singles on the Saturday morning following Thursday’s Top Of The Pops (TOTP).  The demographic of the top 40 was shrinking alarmingly.  This trend was compounded by the rebranding of BBC Radio 1 (to One FM) by station bosses Matthew Bannister and Trevor Dann, in an effort to make the station appeal solely to the under 25s – the yoof contingent.  In 1995 the station stopped playing music recorded before 1990 (Stone Roses, Joy Division and the like excepted, naturally) and dispensed with its roster of personality DJs, in the process losing 30% of its listenership.  Parents & kids headed off to independent local radio and before long, BBC Radio 2.  Shop staff, builders and cabbies alike deserted the station following the voguish, but questionable intake of new presenters, not least the appointment of highbrow journalist Emma Freud to the weekday lunchtime slot.
 
In 2004, Radio 1 (rebranded yet again) recovered a large number of over-25 listeners with the successful launch of The Chris Moyles Breakfast Show.  Having added millions of listeners to the station, broken ratings records and won numerous awards, in 2011 the BBC finally recognised and rewarded Moyles’ efforts by sacking him, for the unspeakable offence of appealing to listeners outside of the target age group.  Simply put, having too many of the wrong sort of listener. 
 
How very BBC. 
 
The significance of Iron Maiden’s first and only #1 cannot be overstated.  Record companies had finally achieved what had previously been thought impossible – a #1 single that had achieved no radio play, had zero notoriety (i.e. being banned by the BBC) and had not been featured on TOTP.  Nonetheless, the album from which the single was issued – No Prayer For The Dying sold well (gold, >100,000 copies UK) but crucially did not encroach into the mainstream album market.  And achieving such a crossover (attracting a new swathe of album buyers, those outside of the group’s regular fan base) is the ultimate aim of hyping a record into the charts in the first place.
 
In response to the ever growing format wars, in June 1991 BPI reduced the number of chart qualifying single formats to four.  Record companies thus cut their excesses typically to a CD single, 12”, 7” and cassette.  With the decline of vinyl and the growing popularity of the CD format, the 2-part CD single release was born – different versions of the same record were released in subsequent weeks; aimed squarely at wannabe collectors, anxious to own anything issued by their idols.  In 1993, RCA issued Cold by Annie Lennox across three different CDs – Cold, Colder and Coldest contained a total of nine otherwise unavailable tracks that had been recorded for MTV’s Unplugged programme.  The record was shovelled into chart shops with the usual fanfare (counter display boxes, posters, free T-shirts for the staff, product stickered at half price) but peaked at #26 and spent all of 2 weeks on the charts.  Annie Lennox clearly had the wrong type of following to make such a phony stunt pay dividends.  Today, considerable quantities of such 2-part CD sets clutter up the racks and tables at charity stores and car boot sales respectively.  
 
In 1995, the number of qualifying formats was reduced to three.  With vinyl and cassette disappearing from the high street, formatting was largely reduced to the fancy packaging of CD singles and the occasional shaped CD single - AC/DC’s Cover You In Oil (#85), Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box (#5) and The Spice Girls’ Mama (#1). 
 
By the mid '90s, records were spending fewer weeks on the charts; entering at #1 became commonplace.  Between 1952 and 1979, only eight records had achieved this feat – The Beatles only managed it once.  From the '90s onwards, it became an achievement to stay at #1 for a second week.  Record companies then engaged in another dubious practice – issuing radio play copies of singles with no fixed release (or street) date.  Records could be heard on air months before they were available in to buy.  Previously, a three week delay between radio and street dates was considered the maximum.  In 1995, the respective management of Britpop sensations Oasis and Blur decided (agreed?) to release both groups’ new (and somewhat underwhelming) singles on the same day, thus creating a spurious band war and media based slanging match.  The combined first week sales of Roll With It and Country House – nearly 500,000 – far exceeded expectations.  Neither band had managed such sales figures previously; the colossal amount of units shifted was down to the clever choice of release date, the media storm and the resultant blanket pre release airplay of both songs. 

From that moment, release schedules were torn up; record companies sat and waited for the optimum moment to ship their new product into the shops, whilst all the time the records clocked up airplay.  In turn, the eternal hipsters at One FM chose to to make their playlists 70% pre release i.e. records that one couldn’t buy yet.  The demand created for a soon to be released single wound up to the point where the vast majority of sales would occur in the first week.  The initial chart placing would thus invariably be the highest, any newly released record was also practically guaranteed to drop the next week. At which point, One FM would, of course, stop playing it.  TOTP were far too trendy and sniffy to feature records that were sliding down the charts.  New singles became old and stale a week after release.  Ironically, many of the ever grander promotional music videos only became available after the accompanying record had dropped in the UK charts – by the time that the dazzling video to The Rolling Stones' 1994 single Love Is Strong was made available, the single had already disappeared from the charts.
 
In October 1996, The Chemical Brothers’ Setting Sun entered the charts at #1 (thanks in part due to a guitar overdub by Noel Gallagher).  The record disappeared from the charts within 4 weeks; it is rarely heard today.  Singles sales were dropping dramatically – Wikipedia notes that by 2004, singles sales in the UK were at a 35 year low and that in 2005, a mere 22,000 sales were enough to secure a #1 chart position.  In March 1996, in the space of six weeks, Mark Morrison’s Return Of The Mack climbed to #1.   Otherwise, records that actually rose up through the charts were by now few and far between. 
 
Nowadays, since the inclusion of digital downloads to the charts, whilst first week #1 chart entries remain commonplace, singles are now also climbing to the top spot.  Some sense of normality has returned, but record sales can still plummet on the second week.  In May 2007 McFly entered the charts at #1 with a carbon copy recording of Baby’s Coming Back, a song written and recorded some years earlier by the group Jellyfish. The following week, the record dropped to #20 – the biggest ever drop from the #1 position.  The next week, the record fell to 39, then out of the top 40 and into obscurity. In January 2012, Forever Yours by Alex Day fell from #4 to #112 in the space of one week – the highest recorded drop of any record in the UK charts. 
 
With CD single sales in rapid decline, the inclusion of downloads in 2005 effectively doubled the number of chart singles sold in any week.  And whilst the (tangible) special limited editions were still around, they were harder to find on the high street.  Today, you’d have to first find a record store that is still trading and then, possibly wait for the annual Record Store Day to fill up on coloured vinyl and picture discs. Which is to say that nowadays, the record industry produces such novelties as a nod to deep pocketed fans rather than as a tool for hyping a single into the charts - the retail price for such items now reflects the high manufacturing costs.  There is no longer any need to give away thousands of copies to a select tranche of stores.  The 99p 12” picture disc is a distant memory.
 
If chart hyping is remains theoretically possible, it is improbable that the top 40 can now be manipulated to any degree.  Gone are the fleets of company reps, flooding chart return stores with free stock whilst bribing store managers and singles buyers with leather jackets, cameras, tickets, cash and even holidays.  The inclusion of digital downloads effectively consigned chart hyping to history and skewed the make up of the charts irrevocably.  The typical 79p cost of a download essentially killed off the £1.99 - £3.99 CD single.  In 2006, Crazy by Gnarls Barkley topped the charts on download sales alone.  The same year, Nelly Furtado’s Say It Right went top 10 without a tangible copy being made available.  The requirement that a record should exist in a physical format was thus removed – effectively rendering any album track also eligible for chart inclusion.  The singles charts became the song charts. In 2014, the quantity of plays on streaming services such as Spotify and Deezer (and later, YouTube) became included in the calculation of chart positions.  Music that does not actually exist to buy in any form is now eligible for inclusion in the charts.

In America, a leaked copy of an unfinished and early mix of the long delayed Guns N’ Roses album, Chinese Democracy, made the charts, years before the actual release date – all thanks to the US charts including airplay as well as sales figures.
 
Before the obligatory enticements of picture sleeves, remixes, coloured vinyl and picture discs, pop picking seemed fresh and vital.  One could argue that the top 40 is now back in the hands of the record buyers; free of the sleaze that surrounded the industry for so very long.  Nonetheless, the colossal resources used by record companies in manipulating the charts – instead of the nurturing and development of real talent – has had a lasting effect.  The correlation between decades of desperate marketing and the glut of cheesy, ephemeral and synthetic music is unmistakeable.  Pop music has lost its pizazz.  The music in the charts once transcended all demographics.  Entire families watched Top Of The Pops on a Thursday, listened to Pick Of The Pops on a Sunday and many waited eagerly for the new chart rundown on Radio 1 at lunchtime on Tuesdays.  Nowadays?  I’d wager that only a small percentage of Radio 1’s target yoof listenership even has any idea which record is at #1 this week. 
 
I recall that Neil Tennant once claimed that rock music has done nothing new since Jimi Hendrix.  Today, one could argue that pop music has achieved little since, um, The Pet Shop Boys, thanks in no small part to an industry that set out to deceive itself about what the public actually wanted to buy in the first place.
 
Or perhaps things really aren’t quite that bad – and I am just getting old. 
 
 
As a footnote, I should add one of my favourite chart hyping stories.  Facebook records that in December 1993 a record dealer in Newcastle placed a series of large bets on the rather frightful children’s record Mr Blobby achieving the coveted Christmas #1 slot.  The record had already topped the charts; by the third week of December it had slipped to #2.  It was improbable that a record could ever return to #1.
 
The dealer then contacted every other record store that he knew and suggested that they should also place similar bets.  The word spread, bets were placed and odds were slashed - Mr Blobby returned to #1 for Christmas week plus the first week of 1994.  Record dealers throughout the land cashed in their winnings.  What is not known is just how many bogus sales for the record were entered into the chart terminals in the week prior to Christmas

Minutes of fun...

Status single

We didn't mean to include that exclusive and unreleased track on the B-side.  Honestly.

Light 'em up

Will I need one of them rectangular turntables?

Breakfast cereal commercials ahoy!

Space available

Drink problem?

Can I listen to this one, er,  before I buy it?

It's the WARP mix.  No, hang on, it's the SEX mix.  Oh, wait...

Gone but forgotten

The Happy Sound!

Available at a thrift store near you

I like The Oasis but I think that The Blur are better

Separated at birth: - Jellyfish vs McFly

The most expensive album ever made.  (Reportedly sold more copies as  a bootleg)

Dansette-friendly coloured vinyl 78

Don't believe the hype