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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Pop CultureMay 6, 2023

The big change to NZ’s pop charts that’s infuriated Six60 and L.A.B.

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Catalogue music is now mostly excluded from the main charts – a move which some feel specifically targets two of New Zealand’s biggest artists.

Changes to the treatment of older music from New Zealand’s four main pop charts has caused a rift in the New Zealand music industry, due to an enormous impact on two bands in particular: Six60 and L.A.B., each of which has seen multiple releases vanish from the charts.

The situation prompted Michael Tucker, manager and label owner for L.A.B., to say “the charts no longer reflect what people are actually listening to.” He went on to accuse Recorded Music New Zealand, which assembles the charts, of harming his client’s commercial interests, saying in an email supplied to The Spinoff that “certain artists are claiming they are now bigger than L.A.B. and Six60 to bump their fees”.

Recorded Music NZ chart compiler Paul Kennedy says the changes were necessary due the sharp rise in listenership of what is known as “catalogue” in the industry, generally defined as music more than 18 months old, and that criticism is misguided. “All that has changed is one line the rules previously included, that titles older than 18 months be allowed to remain in the charts so long as they are on a “continuing run”. Kennedy says continuing runs were very rare for most of the chart’s history, but “are almost unavoidable in the streaming era… The change is simply that [albums and songs] don’t just remain perpetually on the one chart, they begin on the current chart and then carry across all that history with them onto another chart.”

All this is being largely driven by changes in how music is delivered. As streaming has replaced retail, catalogue, historically a relative backwater within music, has become hugely popular, exemplified by the revival of songs like Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up that Hill’, which went to number one after prominently featuring in the Netflix series Stranger Things. The share of overall streams contributed by catalogue has increased 155% in just two years, according to Spotify data published by Musical.ly, to the point where it makes up 33% of overall listening. It’s a trend which shows no sign of slowing down, as listeners gravitate toward the familiar in the face of a deluge of new music, with over 100,000 songs released each day, and the destabilising spectre of AI-created pop songs

L.A.B. (Photo: Supplied)

The new music problem

While the rise of streaming has been highly lucrative for some parts of the music industry, it has also fundamentally altered what we know about listening. This has forced those who attempt to measure popularity to wrestle with how to weigh consumption in the subscription-heavy streaming era, compared to the retail era dominated by physical media like CDs and tapes. 

It’s also made life hard for those whose job it is to promote new music. Despite the rise of TikTok as a music discovery vehicle, it’s acknowledged as a very difficult era to break new artists. Charts were historically crucial to define the success of new acts, but have become clogged with perennial favourites, leaving much less room for new music to break through. Kennedy says New Zealand’s chart evolution is meant to ensure new releases get recognition and a corresponding opportunity to enter the popular consciousness. 

“What led us to these most recent changes is just the impact of streaming, the way that people consume music – that perpetual availability, and the algorithm,” he says. “These are all factors in what it is that you’re counting each week.” He points out that even Six60 themselves have not been immune, with Castle St leaving the main top 40 album charts after just 16 weeks, despite a predecessor reigning for almost six years.

The local industry has historically emphasised two top 40 charts – one for singles, one for albums. Over time it has added some others, most notably a top 20 for New Zealand albums and singles. It’s the latter which has been particularly impacted by the enormous and unprecedented popularity of Six60 and L.A.B. Each has multiple releases across albums and singles which are so dominant on streaming that they typically make up half or more of the New Zealand music charts. Six60’s first two albums, for example, spent a combined 800 weeks on the New Zealand album charts – and its second album sat pretty at #1 there in April, more than eight years after it was first released.

Hits that last forever

Kennedy says that historically when charts were based on sales of physical media like CDs and vinyl, there was a natural motion to the charts. “The fundamental difference is that then one sale got counted once and never came back.” With streaming, he says, it’s as if the charts reflected not how many CDs were sold, but how much the buyer ended up listening to it at home. Because of the immense popularity of Six60 and L.A.B., each of which can play stadiums, few artists have a shot at creating a hit which penetrates the base level of an average week’s listenership for songs like Don’t Forget Your Roots or In the Air.

The argument doesn’t wash with Tucker, who describes the changes as “tall poppy syndrome from within”. He says they are narrowly targeted at two artists who are being penalised due to their popularity. “Did anyone stop to think that we have the two biggest bands in NZ music history right now?” he wrote via email. “These two bands should be celebrated. Not handicapped!” 

Tucker represents L.A.B. through his label Loop, along with managing and booking them, but stresses he does not speak for the band in this dispute. Yet the other artist impacted made it clear that they share his concerns. “What people listen to makes the charts,” Six60 said via a statement. “It’s sad to see that taken away. It kind of makes the charts irrelevant.”

Six60’s Matiu Walters and Chris Mac perform on stage at Western Springs Stadium in Auckland in 2019. (Photo: Dave Simpson/WireImage)

What even are the charts, anyway?

When Kennedy first started working on the charts, more than 20 years ago, they were about physical media. He recalls receiving painstakingly filled-out sales sheets from now-defunct chains like Sounds and Truetone. Since then, the charts have been regularly tweaked as technology and consumption patterns have evolved over the years, with significant changes around streaming and video views at various times between 2014 and 2022. They currently count digital downloads like iTunes and Bandcamp, along with streams on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, weighted according to revenue – making a sale far more potent than a stream. 

Roger Shepherd, founder of record label Flying Nun, has an even lengthier relationship with the charts than Kennedy, dating back to the label’s first releases in the early 1980s. He still recalls the excitement and shock which greeted The Clean’s Tally Ho cracking the top 20 in September of 1981. But it was the band’s follow-up which introduced him to the politics of the pop charts. Boodle Boodle Boodle was even bigger than their debut, going top five, but Shepherd says its format attracted controversy. “The debate was around whether a 12” EP was a single or not.”

To Shepherd, this points to an essential truth – that there is no pure way to create the charts. He says they have always been subject to somewhat arbitrary rule changes, such as the exclusion of compilation albums, which impacted Flying Nun’s Dunedin Double EP. This isn’t unique to New Zealand. The UK excludes budget releases and limits the total number of songs any one artist can have in the charts, to avoid situations like Taylor Swift’s recent historic Billboard chart dominance, wherein songs from Midnights made up the whole of the Hot 100. 

New Zealand arguably has an even more severe case of chart gridlock, with Six60 owning the NZ album chart in perpetuity, and L.A.B. doing the same with the singles chart. Yet Tucker says that’s purely a function of their success, and describes the changes as akin to banning athletes from competing for winning too much. He wrote on Facebook, in response to the changes, “if Usain Bolt was told he couldn’t try for a 3rd straight 100m gold medal because he was too good and too old, would that be fair?”

Kennedy says the Usain Bolt comparison doesn’t work. “Usain Bolt I think is a weird analogy. We’re not saying that you’re banned from the Olympics,” he says. “It’s essentially just saying that Usain Bolt can’t win the gold medal and the silver and the bronze.” 

To Shepherd, this debate really should boil down to the function of the charts, which he says were always meant to highlight new music. “Everyone got sick and tired of the same old song being on top of the charts, week in, week out. People will complain that it’s been fiddled with, but it’s always been fiddled with,” says Shepherd. “It’s not a product of nature, it’s a created thing.” 

The NZ charts are updated at 10am Saturdays

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