ANALYSIS: Why charts are not the best yardsticks for judging artistic quality

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The hip hop chart-topper, hits maker and business mogul, Jay Z, in his track “Tom Ford” off the album Magna Carter (Holy Grail) raps: “International bring back the Concorde/ Numbers don’t lie, check the scoreboard.” In another song titled, “Reminder,” from the Blueprint III album, Jay Z says; “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.

This is why we live in a world of numbers, a world where people are obsessed with the number of followers on social media, streaming numbers, rankings, and all sorts of calculations. This obsession has translated into attaching societal relevance to other people based on their followers – in other words, numbers of people they could influence. After all, endorsement deals are sometimes conscious of the artiste’s following on social media among other networks. Numbers make up charts and charts are the determinants of which album goes gold, platinum or diamond. Does this ring a bell to why some artistes and fans are obsessed with it?

The quest for relevance has pushed people into doing unimaginable things, especially on social media. Why numbers? Are they mandatory to the achievement of one’s predetermined goals?

While discussing with some music critics – arguments that led to the penning of this article, questions were asked: Is there a nexus between an artiste’s talent and his numbers on charts? Before we go into this argument or seek answers, let’s look at how music has transitioned over the years.

Before the advent of streaming platforms, there was vinyl, then cassette and the much-loved era of the compact disc (CDs) which saw unbelievable progress and profits in the music business. But with the arrival of file-sharing, compact discs among others were relegated, all thanks to the switch in technology.

This rise in technology and streaming platforms revolutionised how people perceive music, how music journalists and critics make comparisons, judge and make informed decisions concerning music in any genre.

Though a development in its own right, technological advancement birthed a new problem. A problem of who should be named the best in various music categories ensued.

In an article in the Economist titled “The Meaninglessness of Music Chart, the argument concerning top or popular song/ album is illustrated thus: “It used to be easy to know who the champions of Pop were: it was whoever was number one in the singles chart and number one in the albums chart. But Pop music, like boxing, has moved to a model of multiple champions’ belts. Older fans may still regard the list published by Official Chart in Britain, or by Billboard in America, as crowning the undisputed victor, but that is no longer the case.” This to a large extent has been shifted by the technological spirit of time. The barometer for judging popularity and significance is no longer the same, so also are the artists.

Why Numbers On Charts Are Good

No one in the know will dispute the importance of charts, especially in the music business. Music charts are important in the sense that they serve as indicators to know whose music is trending, the kind of reception it is getting and also serves as the benchmark of its success. By success, we mean the depth of monetary compensation on all sides. This success serves as an incentive for artists and record labels investing in music.

The information gathered on streaming sites play a pivotal role in the decision-making process of artists, record labels, show promoters, and even companies offering endorsements. A Nigerian music blogger, Nuel Ugbebor, among many factors that influence chart-topping hits, emphasised on listeners’ opinions, “people’s opinions influence listening, which boils down to charts. Increased listening of a song makes others want to listen too.” His perspective is valid because listeners’ behaviour serves as the DNA of streaming data and how the algorithm delivers music.

Other factors like a budget for promotion, trends, representation of music culture, and the reputation of the artist, also play a significant role on streaming sites.

How Streaming Platforms Work – Pitfalls

People’s listening choices and habits are subject to curators’ playlists, and these choices are sometimes, if not subconsciously, manipulated.

When asked about how streaming sites work, their loopholes, and how it affects the positions of artistes on charts, Emmanuel Ogala, a software developer and founder of JosPlay, a streaming platform, posits: “The foundation of most existing playlist and discovery engines are biased against upcoming and culturally distinct artists. These algorithms tend to rate tracks based on what’s currently hip. Therefore, if you don’t sound like that, you’re not. The result is that listeners are confined to what’s familiar to the algorithms, denying newcomers and distinct musicians exposure to the listeners. But it should not be like that. Just as our tastes in food are different, so is music. Algorithms need to treat all music equally and only apply weights as proportioned by the listener and not by some predetermined concepts of what’s good or god.”

That’s a very important point and it shows the shortcoming of a machine that has to be fed with current information for it to properly assess artists, but what if the artists are not having access to persons responsible for running these platforms?

According to Mario J. Lucero, Cofounder of Heaven Sent Gaming, “Algorithms that power our digital choices are only as comprehensive and effective as the humans behind them. Because music streaming companies generally do not have an established presence within the communities that produce subgenre musical genres, the people who create the algorithms and define music categories often don’t even see what they are missing.” The aforementioned lends weight to the question asked in the paragraph above.

Lucero argues as the headline of one of his articles that “Music streaming services mishandle our data—and our culture is paying for it.” We have seen songs with lackluster reviews topping charts while those with rave reviews completely ignored or absent. According to Travis M. Andrews,” records on charts are a function of the charts desperately trying to figure out how to rank music in the streaming age.” We can argue that it is a relatively new technology that is still developing though some of the loopholes are not helping talented artists to gain either popularity in terms of topping the charts or materializing their mass appeal into chart-topping records.

Why Chart Numbers Don’t Necessarily Represent the Talent of Artists

Though charts have their shortcomings, but having looked at how instrumental streaming numbers are to economic success in the music industry, it begs the question: is there a nexus between how good an artiste is and his position on the charts?

Various artists make it to the top positions for various reasons. Whether they’re there for organic or inorganic reasons, it will be fallacious to think that artists are on or off the charts because of their talents. Others might argue that some artists on charts have used payola – which is the practice of bribing someone in return for the unofficial promotion of a product in the media. It is usually argued that when a record company spends a lot of money on payola, it can make any record a hit. There are two sides to this coin. However, from the foreboding arguments, we know that talent is not enough, it’s similar to the arguments made about genius being 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. It depends and it is determined by a lot of factors both within the artists’ control and outside their control.

According to popular Nigerian blogger and A&R, Ayodeji Adedeji, “saying an artist should be judged majorly by his numbers on the charts is not a valid argument because the charts are doctored.” This is because we have seen cases where very good artists couldn’t make the charts, and average artists amassing huge numbers. To a large extent, some of the reasons could be gleaned from the observations made in the beginning of this article.

With these existing pitfalls, listeners are confined to what’s familiar to the algorithms, denying newcomers and distinct musicians exposure to the listeners.

However, it shouldn’t be misconstrued, some artists make it to the charts because they’re just good and music lovers are always waiting for them to churn out formidable contents. Some artists also seem to understand the mood of the industry or the zeitgeist – the spirit of the moment and have capitalized on it to make waves through reviews and charts. A perfect example in recent times is Mayorkun and his trending single titled “Geng.” Other artists have also gauged such moments and have been enjoying the appeal that comes with it.

Another factor that affects listeners’ choice is proper representation. Proper cataloging and data representation by streaming platforms, form a vital role because “as these talents continue to produce results, will the formal music industry catch up, follow suit, and lend coverage where appropriate, or will listeners, fans, and community members have to remain vigilant for the next blind spot?” (Lucero). One could call certain successes a fluke, other times its opportunity meeting luck.

Do Fans Even Care?

While the charts have created a platform for Music Journalists to make either informed or baseless comparisons over the years. Some charts results are better left untouched, a good example is the comparison between Fela and Wizkid. Most fans aren’t entirely bothered about the charts.

On another plain, while Naira Marley fans are crazy about his songs and not necessarily bothered about his numbers (even though he’s amassed them over a period), AQ fans are also enjoying his music even though his numbers aren’t as great or climbing up as expected. We are then prompted to ask; should AQ, be rated as an untalented or lesser talented artist because he has a lesser crowd? You should know the answer by now.

In conclusion, charts are important but they seemingly expose how temporal certain trends are. It also shows the economic aspect of the industry, because at the end of the day, chart-toppers are said to sell more records, gain popularity, endorsement deals by virtue of becoming household names and amassing wealth for their record labels. While on another plain, some artists shouldn’t be bullied because they have not in popular parlance “blown” as artists, or are not yet topping the charts as expected. However one looks at it, it’s a narrow gate, just as not every song on an album will become a hit, so also, not every artist will make it to the top of the charts. In fact, some unknown artists might have lasting records than some artists that are currently celebrated. It’s only a matter of time because every generation comes with its listening ears and it’s own modified, if not different set of drums as well as style of approaching their sound.

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