Get it on paper

Have you noticed this phenomenon? A song you don’t know by a group you’ve never heard of (or at least don’t take very seriously) ambles its way up and up the charts until it stops at some unthinkably high position, sometimes even No. 1. I have noticed, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve written before about how this happens and what I think ought to be done about it (though I’m going to reiterate some of the solution I proposed a little later). For now, I want to bear down on this problem of “paper hits,” by which I mean songs - often those tunes you don’t know by the groups you don’t take seriously - that sail up the chart but sell squat. The song may be a “hit” on paper, but nobody’s buying the thing. These cognitively dissonant moments when wildly unpopular tunes top out near the chart ceiling are depressingly familiar in sg: sometimes even No. 1 songs come from projects that never sell more than a few thousand units (that’s individual tapes or cds) a year, from groups that never sing to more than a coupla hundred folks at a time - because that’s all the more people they can rustle up to listen to them.Why is this a problem? Because chart position and “radio play” are two primary criteria by which many sg groups and artists claim success and justify their place among the industry’s top-tier groups. These are the groups that collectively take the measure of what sg is at any given time, what it sounds like, its quality, and so, the seriousness with which the music should be taken - within and beyond the industry and its fans. When a song or a project can’t sell more than a thousand or so copies a year - if, that is, a group’s “success” is on paper and not in the bank or at the ticket booth - then that group’s standing as “successful” artists is deeply suspect. More troubling, these “success stories” are a drag on the industry. If chart-position and number of chart-topping songs is an indication of the kind of music sg values the most, but if that music is not appealing enough for fans to buy, then you have to start to wonder if radio play isn’t being manipulated to gin up the appearance of success for groups that can’t generate the real thing.

Songs that won’t and can’t sell without aggressive promotional blitzes to radio stations strongly imply that that particular song (and its kind) is more popular than it really is (indeed, in some cases, that it is popular at all, when it obviously isn’t). Then when the group with the “hit” turns around and gets nominated for an award based on that “hit,” the accepted sense of what constitutes “quality” sg music is diluted. The “hits” get treated with the same deference as the real top-notch songs (ones that are both technically good and sell well) … in fact, you could pretty easily argue that one of sg’s biggest problems is how willingly everyone goes along with the polite fiction that a hit is a hit is a hit. And with every trumped up chart-topper that careens to a “hit” position, one more earnest group with average talent decides that … heck, if that song sung that way can be a hit, we can be stars, too … let’s get a bus and cut a record (in that order, alas).

Because of course you can be a star in sg even if you sing averagely or even poorly, if you perform pedestrian or even badly written and arranged tunes, if you look and act like an FFA talent-contest entry. And this is true in no small part because a mediocre song can be promoted on radio to a highly charted position without ever selling a single unit. So you can see, I think, how this issue of paper hits gets directly to the core of sg’s sales flu (which is turning into industry pneumonia). Instead of radio being a promotional ground for a label’s best songs, which in turn fuels sales of the projects from which those songs derive, paper hits disrupt the essential relationship between radio play and market sales - an equilibrium, really, that helps (or ought to help) keep a music industry sharp, help be the quality control mechanism. “Every song we’ve released has charted” is the cry from all corners … nevermind the position may be #79 of 80 on charts that seem to exist primarily so artists can say they’ve charted songs.

Part of the solution to the problem of steeply declining sales in sg (and so the viability of the music itself) is to confront the industry’s internal contradictions that artificially distort reality (i.e. paper hits). I hope you’re sitting down, because I’m about to unequivocally agree with the SN about something. Back in July of 2004, Ken Kirskey wrote in a message for the magazine’s radio promoters list-serv about “unscrupulous promoters and artists doing more than a few underhanded things to try to finagle a good chart position.” The goal of these kinds of promoters and artists, Kirksey wrote,

isn’t getting airplay for their songs and reaching more people with the Gospel. Their focus is solely on getting a high position on the Singing News chart. Maybe it’s pride or ego that drives them , but ethics and morality certainly don’t get in their way in the pursuit of chart position.

If all radio promoters were part of the same operation that produced and/or sold the songs, there wouldn’t be nearly this big of a problem, not because labels are beyond reproach but because they don’t make a habit of promoting a song they don’t think will sell. But the kinds of promoters I think Kirksey had in mind are usually independent contractors who have no stake in project sales, only in the chart positions. Paper hit men, you might call them. Groups hire these hit men to “get them a hit,” to promote a song that the group’s label may not even be promoting (and here is the place to point out how equally culpable groups are that decide to “make” “Tune X” a hit by dumping money into radio promotion even though the fake chart position merely covers up the realer reality that the song is a only hit insofar as it hit the bottom of the sales report). With the paper hit in hand, groups can perpetuate a self-fulfilling marketing myth about their own success: we have radio hits because we’re good and great; we’re good and great because we have radio hits (”Now we’d like to sing our new song that is NUMBER ONE all across America this week … Sister’s gonna do one fer ya called “I Heard it on the Radio … But Nobody Bought It”).

What Kirksey doesn’t say, though, is that paper hits are possible because of the SN’s very own method of charting tunes. By basing charts on surveys of radio-station rankings of top songs, the SN chart (like so many others) allows data to be skewed. And since paper hit men aren’t going away, the solution has to do with fixing the charting system itself so that it reflects actual airplay (airplay doesn’t exactly mimic listener requests, but it’s a much more accurate reflection of market trends than a station manager filling out a chart survey over his macho taco and a diet Coke). This is where audio fingerprinting comes in. I’ve written about it before, as I said at the top of this post, but it’s worth restating. Specifically, it’s worth saying that the SN could and should do more than complain about it. As discouraging as paper hits are, for the SN to complain about them without doing anything is a little like the Quik-E-Mart manager deciding to have “make your own change” night and then complaining because he lost money. The SN should announce tomorrow that it’s undertaking a feasibility study of using audio fingerprinting to determine rankings in the SN chart and then actually do the study (this is unlikely to happen, mind you, for as many reasons as there are cozy relationships between the SN and gospel radio). This would require bringing major industry players (owners, managers, labels, production companies, sales and promotions people, and radio types, plus others I’m probably forgetting). The solution may not happen this week or next year. It may take five years, but a clear goal needs to be identified in order to be worked toward. And who is a more logical leader to take the initiative on this issue than the SN, the chart’s sponsor? Continuing to complain about paper hits without doing anything substantive is a little like the Quik-E-Mart manager deciding to have a monthly “customers make your own change” night and getting taken advantage of, only to keep it up month after month. “Isn’t it just awful how people abuse the system?” Well, yes, but fiery list-serv jeremiads - however accurate and rousing - aren’t and won’t ever be effective ways to drain one of the biggest swamps in sg. To sound slightly Yogi Berra-ish, reform is the best reform.

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