The Great Chart Singularity is upon us

Artists today have to battle for chart supremacy against the entire history of recorded music – including their younger selves

“I think that in music there is no history any longer: everything is present. This is one of the results of digitisation, where everybody owns everything: you don’t just have your little record collection of things you saved up for and guard so carefully.” – Brian Eno, 2009

It’s entirely possible that Brian Eno is a wizard.

He made the above observation in an interview with me 12 years ago, when digital downloads were making superstars of Flo Rida and the Black Eyed Peas, Australians looked with suspicion at the first music streaming services gamely appearing in Europe, and herds of majestic mastodon made stately progress down Parramatta Road seeking lush new grasslands. It was a different time.

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But while Eno was talking about digital music being files people kept on a hard drive or an iPod, that observation applies even more to streaming. Individual streams started counting toward the Australian singles charts in 2014 and the album charts in 2017. And while there were some complicated rules about how that would work, one thing that became very clear was that any song from any era could become a surprise hit again.

Up until that point, a classic banger would have to be specifically reissued to get back into the charts: new singles pressed, a fresh video made, a promotional campaign rolled out, the whole deal. Generally, this only happened if an artist died, or if it was soundtracking some shockingly popular ad.

But now, with most recorded music easily available a song can re-enter the zeitgeist for any old reason. Think the campaign to get Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ to be the UK’s Christmas number one single to Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’ suddenly becoming the hippest thing on the planet thanks to a viral Tik Tok video.

And it’s creating an odd new challenge for artists: instead of competing with one’s contemporaries, they are increasingly competing with the entire history of recorded music – including their younger selves.

For example, Tones And I’s recent single ‘Won’t Sleep’ debuted at number 10 on the ARIA singles chart for May 24, which was perfectly respectable for a new track from a major star with a debut record a few months away. By May 31 she was at number 16 and falling. By June 7, she was out of the top 20 altogether. And among the songs beating her were two tracks by that hot young artist Tones And I: 2019’s ‘Dance Monkey’, which was racking up its 108th week in the charts, and last year’s ‘Fly Away’.

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Similarly, The Rubens found ‘Masterpiece’ falling well short of the year ‘Live In Life’ spent in the singles charts – and among the songs that consistently out-charted it were such not-exactly-fresh-jams as ‘Youngblood’ by 5 Seconds Of Summer (2018), ‘Be Alright’ by Dean Lewis (2018), ‘The Less I Know The Better’ by Tame Impala (2015), ‘My Happiness’ by Powderfinger (2000) and ‘Khe Sanh’ by Cold Chisel (197-freakin’-8). Oh, and ‘This City’ by Sam Fischer, which was originally released in 2018 and went nowhere, but was given a shock second life via a viral TikTok video in 2020 and has been in the charts ever since: it’s the Australian ‘Dreams’!

And this says something interesting about how we’re listening to music these days. In that same Eno interview, he talked about how one had to literally make a sacrifice when buying physical product: it was expensive, it was cumbersome, and it required specialised equipment to even play it, and thus…

“When you make that kind of investment in something you take it seriously and become committed to it – and you get the benefits of taking it seriously and being committed to it. What then happened was that music became like water – in fact, slightly cheaper than water – and so now there’s a completely different attitude to it. And the healthy part of this new attitude is having this undifferentiated field that’s pretty much free of prejudices.”

So the charts aren’t being driven as strongly by, say, what gets daytime radio airplay, as once was the case, so much as everything which people actually listen to. That means the newest stuff being pushed by the record companies, of course, but there’s also stronger performances from artists the charts would probably have previously excluded.

And, as the older songs demonstrate, comfort listening also has an impact – including that time you played ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ over and over for three days straight after you got dumped. (You deserved better, by the way. They never really understood you.)

And the result is that the charts can be more interesting these days. A band like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard would never have come within cooee of the top 10 a decade ago, even if their time there today is akin to a comet whizzing by while ‘The Best Of Australian Crawl’ remains inexplicably constant.

So what does this mean: that time is simultaneously speeding up for new releases and slowing down for older songs?

It can mean one thing only: we are speeding towards an inescapable musical singularity, the point at which all Australian music will finally lose its temporal bonds and transcend to a higher form of artistic existence, which will manifest as an endless loop of John Farnham’s ‘Pressure Down’.

And then, finally, we shall truly know peace.

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