Who Controls The Charts Now?

Rage Against The Machine will be number one in the UK charts at Christmas, and it’s all thanks to a Facebook campaign. After years of being forced to choose from a bland selection of safe audio produce imposed on us by the major labels, does this mean that the charts are becoming more democratic?

Blast From The Past

As a sort of counter-culture protest against the stranglehold of anemic popitude that the X-Factor held over the charts for the past four years, a Facebook group was created with the aim of ousting the new in favour of something a bit more passionate. The title of the group is fairly self-explanatory – “RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE FOR CHRISTMAS NO.1”.

‘Killing in the Name’ is a 17-year-old song from RATM’s eponymous debut album – the single was originally released in November 1992.

This week, ‘Killing in the Name’ sits at the top of the UK charts, having outsold Joe McElderry’s cover version of ‘The Climb’ by 500,000 to 450,000.

A Short Term Win-Win For Sony

The X-Factor is not really about music, it’s about celebrity, but most of all it’s about making money for the show’s creators and their partners. It pitches itself as a platform for revealing undiscovered talent, and to a certain extent it is – but that is not the main driver of the show. If it wasn’t popular and making money, it would be taken off air.

The RATM campaign is generating funds for the charity SHELTER, so at the very least, we can see that some tangible good has come out of this social media campaign to rescue the charts from the X-Factor.

However, in an interesting twist, both RATM and McElderry are signed to Sony – so this is actually a double win for one of the bastions of the old recording industry. It’s unlikely that anyone who was going to buy McElderry’s single would have chosen to buy ‘Killing in the Name’ instead, no matter what Facebook group they were exposed to, so it’s fair to suggest that his single would have sold 450,000 copies regardless. For Sony, they now have an extra half million downloads to add to that Christmas bonus.

Gaming The Machine

This might be a good week for Sony, but the underlying message is far less positive. The RATM Facebook page is proof – if any further were needed – that the Internet is indeed a very powerful marketing tool, and it is available to almost everyone.

Gaming the charts is by no means a new phenomenon – this has been going on a long time before the advent of the digital download, but it previously required significant industry connections and investment. However, now that mp3 downloads are counted towards chart positions, it means that gaming of this magnitude is officially open to the public – or at least, any web-savvy network of individuals with a common goal and powerful rallying cry.

4chan’s impressive orchestrated gaming of Time magazine’s person of the year poll showed how technical loopholes can be exploited in Web-based surveys, but the Facebook campaign is an entirely straight-up, above-board leveraging of people power.

The majors (and associated organs such as the RIAA) do need to re-evaluate their business models – and stop trying to sue people for P2P downloading. The evidence is building that there are many ways to get people to buy music online – I’m sure RATM will attest to that, but so will NIN, Radiohead, Imogen Heap, Johnathan Coulton and plenty of others who see opportunities in the places where the industry simply sees their status quo being eroded.

Does This Actually Change Anything?

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the charts are suddenly going to be dominated by Facebook groups – being the first is a crucial element in the saturated Web promotion arena, and further groups attempting the same trick will find it more difficult to replicate this level of success. The charts will always cater to the tastes of the majority, but if we can somehow add a bit more variety to those tastes, and wrest some influence away from the formula-driven hit predictors, then perhaps the culture of popular music will begin to show signs of innovation once more…


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