Everything I Do, pt. 2: What's the big deal about being Number One? [July 14, 1991]
Plus: Heavy D and the Boys, Bros, Inxs, and Tom Petty
This week’s Number 1 :
‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ — Bryan Adams
My 14-year old daughter is vaguely aware of the concept of pop music charts. She keeps an eye on her favourite acts, like Olivia Rodrigo, Maneskin, and Doja Cat, and gets a bit excited when they’re at Number One.
I’m not sure which chart she’s looking at though. Irish charts? UK Top 40? Billboard 100? Spotify's most-played list? I think she just sees these accounts post Instagram messages about being Number One somewhere, and she is glad that her heroes have won some kind of medal.
Back in my day (when did I get old enough for these days to become those days?) there was no such confusion. Number One meant the top of the UK singles charts, compiled from sales figures from record shops around Britain.
(There was an Irish chart too, but Irish TV relayed Top of the Pops to us on a Thursday night, and Top of the Pops was the definitive source of chart data.)
What’s changed in the past 30 years?
In a word: everything. In a slightly more descriptive phrase: cultural fragmentation powered by the internet.
If you look at the history of music over the past, say, 500 years, you see three distinct phases
The One-to-One Era
From the dawn of Homo Sapiens until roughly the start of the 20th century, there was only one way to hear music: someone had to perform it for you.
All music was live, which meant a one-to-one relationship between artist and audience. At the very most, someone could perform their music to a group of a few hundred people. The first glimpse of the modern musical world appeared when composers began publishing music, although you still had to go somewhere to hear an orchestra perform the piece.
The One-to-Many Era, aka The Record Label Era
The 20th Century saw a boom in mass-produced musical commodities. First, it’s sheet music. Sheet music still has to be performed by someone who can play, but now there is an object that people can buy, sell, share with friends, organize on a special shelf, or throw away in disgust.
Over the course of the century, new media arrives. Shellac. Vinyl. 7” and 12”. 8-track. Cassette. CD. Minidisc. Whatever the format, the concept is the same: music is a commodity that you buy in a shop.
It means that music is now unbounded by time and space. An artist can perform once, and millions of people will hear that performance over a period of years.
But it also means that the people in the middle have unprecedented control over what people listen to. Vendors, journalists, and DJs all have power, but the record labels have ultimate mastery over the music we’re allowed to hear.
It’s restrictive and many artists would rebel against the system. But there’s also something unifying about having all music pass through a single funnel. Everyone has to drink at the same watering hole, so we all share the experiences. We all hear the same hits.
The Top 40 is a perfect mirror of this experience. Take a look at the charts from any point in the 90s and chances are that you’ll recognise at least half of the songs on the list. The 20th century was a moment of unprecedented cultural unity. This was a near-global monoculture.
And then it all fell apart.
The Many-to-Many era
I was a Napster early adopter, way back in 2000. Downloading had a huge effect on my music consumption. `I had Winamp playlists full of songs that I downloaded on a whim, or by accident. Most of the time, I didn’t even know if I was listening to big hits or b-sides.
At the time, I had no idea that I was entering an entirely different model for musical consumption. The middleman had suddenly vanished and I had carte blanche to pick any song I wanted from any artist I fancied. I no longer had to draw water from the communal well.
These days, musicians have dozens of ways for putting their music in front of people. They can play the algorithm on Spotify and YouTube, they can sell direct through Bandcamp or Soundcloud, or they might try to start a viral dance on TikTok. They can still put a record out (vinyl is cool again) but there’s no longer a single path to the audience.
Meanwhile, audiences discover their new favourite artists in all kinds of different ways. My daughter gets her music from social media and Spotify’s Discover Weekly. I’m old now so I discover most of my new music through needledrops on TV shows (shout out to the musical directors of Insecure and Atlanta, you help me stay cool.)
Music as a communal experience is dead. The top 40 is irrelevant because we all live in our own cultural bubbles, rarely overlapping with anyone else’s tastes.
Record labels still exist but it’s hard to overstate how much their power has diminished. These guys used to rule the world. And the 90s was the greatest moment in history to be a record label guy.
Not 1991 though. This year was actually one of the most dismal years for music sales. (EID)IDIFY stayed at the top for 16 weeks because, for the most part, it didn’t have a lot of competition. That fact in itself demonstrates the totemic power of having a Number One single in the 90s. Even when people didn’t care much, we still cared an awful lot.
Changes were coming though. A new method of collecting chart information was about to go live, which would allow the music industry to adopt data-driven marketing. Better yet, audiences were beginning to adopt the CD format en masse.
CDs were the most expensive music format - a new album used to cost £15-£20 in the mid-nineties. CD manufacturing costs, however, were negligible, which meant that CD sales were pure profit. Nobody knew it in 1991, but the music industry was on the precipice of a gold rush.
→ Part 3: How to change your life in 45 minutes [July 21, 1991]
← Part 1: The Journey Begins [July 7, 1991]
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 4 (↑9): ‘Now That We’ve Found Love’ — Heavy D & The Boyz
Heavy D had a long career in the States, being one of the few 80s rappers who managed to stay relevant through hip-hop’s most turbulent decade. This was his only hit on this side of the Atlantic, and it is probably one of the first tunes you’d spin if you were throwing a 90s-themed disco. A very fun, energetic track with a great hook.
Heavy D passed away in 2011 as result of deep-vein thrombosis, most likely sustained on a flight back to LA from Wales, of all places.
Number 12 (=): ‘Are You Mine?’ — Bros
A ballad from the twilight of Bros’s career. Or the first act anyway. They were reinvented as national treasures after the amazing 2018 BBC documentary Bros: After The Screaming Stops.
Number 17 (↑31): ‘Let The Beat Hit ‘Em’ — Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam
Another 80s holdover, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam had their biggest UK hit in 1985, which is aeons in pop music terms. This track came out just a few months before the band went their separate ways.
Number 18 (↑ 19): ‘From A Distance’ — Bette Midler
‘From A Distance’ is one of those songs that I can’t remember ever being a new release. Like, it has always just kind of been there, hasn’t it? This feeling may be due to the fact that the original version by Nanci Griffith was a big hit in 1988 — but only in Ireland. Every other country in the world had to wait for Bette’s version before sharing in the joy of having your religion teacher make you sing this lukewarm centrist dirge.
Number 34 (↓30): ‘Bitter Tears’ — INXS
Mid-tier INXS, to be honest. It’s fine.
Album of the Week
Into The Great Wide Open — Tom Petty & The Heartbeakers
Tom Petty is another one of those guys who was around for donkeys before hitting the big time. He was a respected figure on the American scene, but to us he was best known as the least famous Travelling Wilbury.
Into The Great Wide Open was his first moment of genuine superstardom. Fellow Wilbury Jeff Lynne produced the record, giving it a slightly poppier sheen while still preserving Petty’s jam band sound.
‘Learning To Fly’ was the big single off this, with the title track also earning airplay.
Other notable new albums in this week’s chart:
Attack of the Killer B’s — Anthrax
Derelicts of Dialect — 3rd Bass
Divinyls — Divinyls