Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Not 'arf, mate!
So, farewell then, Top of the Pops. BBC TV's flagship chart pop show is being put out to grass after 40 years in a peak-time slot.
Top of the Pops has, for a variety of reasons, long ceased to be a 'must-see' show. The slow decline in the show's fortunes began in the 1980s. And, as Stuart Jeffries pointed out in yesterday's Guardian, it was never much good anyway.
Top of the Pops was first aired in January 1964, at a time when pop music in Britain still had almost a samizdat quality. There were a few other TV pop shows at that time (Juke Box Jury, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Ready Steady Go) but the only legal radio stations were the BBC's three national channels. Of these, only the Light Programme (the forerunner of Radio 2) played any pop music, and that was only a couple of times a week (Saturday morning's Children's Favourites and Sunday evening's Pick of the Pops). You could pick up the faint signal of Radio Luxembourg after 8pm. Or you could listen to pirate radio, which sprang up to fill the vacuum.
So Top of the Pops was lapped up by a young audience starved of broadcast pop music. It was based on the singles charts, at a time when singles were more important than albums. It was launched in an era when there was still one shared pop culture, before pop music fragmented into different genres. Once these conditions ceased to apply, Top of the Pops was doomed. The show's demise is not a surprise; what is remarkable is that it survived so long after its sell-by date.
Today, young audiences for pop music are spoiled for choice. There is a wide choice of radio stations and music TV channels, extended through cable, satellite, digital and the internet. That is, if young audiences are still listening.
Pop music is no longer central to youth culture in the way it was in the 60s and 70s. Young people have a choice of competing leisure options. And because of the fall in the birthrate since the 70s, there are fewer young people around.
Conversely, the baby boomer generation is buying music in increasing quantities. I had always prided myself on never fitting into one of the advertisers' handy stereotypes, until I discovered that I am a 50-quid bloke, one of the 40- and 50-somethings who are now the main market for CDs. And we're buying albums, not singles.
In the 60s, a single would have to sell hundreds of thousands of copies to reach no.1 in the British charts. A no.1 hit by the Beatles would sell more than a million copies in the UK. Nowadays, a single can reach no.1 with as few as 30,000 sales and can enter the lower reaches of the charts selling fewer than 10,000. Such is the decline in sales that, this March, WH Smith announced it would stop selling singles altogether. What's top of the pops this week? Who cares?
The answer is your 10-year old daughter. Britain's biggest sales outlet for singles is not a record shop chain but Woolworths. This is because today's main buyers are pre-teens, 10- and 12-year olds clutching their pocket money.
As a 40-something chronic CD buyer, it is gratifying to walk into a large record store and see one's tastes validated. But this is only possible because the few young people still buying pop music are turning to downloads or formats as ephemeral as mobile phone ringtones. In the future, pop culture will not be a shared culture. And that's no culture at all.