Between the lines: what charts tell us

a recent entry into classic.fm’s hall of fame has made us question what charts actually show us.

Each year Classic FM opens up a poll to the public to decide the most popular piece of classical music. For the first time, this year a piece from a game’s score managed to get into the chart, Final Fantasy’s VII’s Aerith’s Theme. It didn’t simply scrape in at around the #300 point, it managed to get all the way to #16. Now Final Fantasy VII was released back in 1997, a year after Classic FM began its Hall of Fame chart, so how is it that in 15 years this piece is only now making an entry, and one so high too?

It’s all down to a voting campaign run by Mark Robins, a junior account director at Lunch PR. He organised gamers through Facebook groups, twitter, and gaming press coverage to vote and take part in this year’s Hall of Fame. The thrust of the campaign was to see gaming music recognised by a non-gaming award, Aerith’s Theme was a banner for this desire. Many of the votes for the piece wouldn’t have been because it was the voter’s favourite piece but because it pushed their agenda.

On the one hand Robins’ campaign has skewed the charts meaning we can’t see a true representation of what’s popular, but on the other Wherever You Are as performed by the Military Wives Choir made it to #4. The same piece was 2011’s Christmas #1. This is the piece that came out of a three episode series on the BBC back in November, was performed at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Festival of Remembrance, and was the subject of a special documentary in March.

Now, what I’m not saying is that the sole reason of this series was to get a Christmas #1 and a spot on the Classic FM charts, what I am saying is that the song received a great deal of exposure immediately preceding (and during) the voting periods for these charts.

(Christmas #1 isn’t something put to a vote, it’s based on sales figures, but it certainly evokes the phrase “vote with your wallet”)

It may be that a good number of people truly hold Wherever You Are as their favourite piece of classical music, but it’s also likely that a good number of these votes are the result of the exposure the record received on the run up to the chart’s compilation.

What about the other songs then, the one that didn’t receive a television series or an internet campaign to drive the votes in? The top three spots this year weren’t the subject of organised pushes. What they were is exactly the same three winners of last year’s chart. In fact, since the chart began in 1996 only four different songs have held the #1 spot. The top 10, excluding a little reshuffling and surprise entries is largely unchanged. If you widen that out to the top 50 you see more one-off entries from film scores, but also a largely consistent group of selected music.

This is far from a unique phenomenon. John Peel’s Festive Fifty first opened its doors in 1976 and looked for the most popular track of all time. Considering his listeners fell into the Rock and Alternative denominations of music they voted with what they knew. #1 in that first year was Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. It stayed in the charts till 1979, it couldn’t take the top spot because for three years in a row that honour went to Anarchy in the UK. The lists became so similar in those early years that Peel shifted to a strictly annual chart.

Though this didn’t solve Peel’s problems. He wanted a chart that showed a diverse mix of music, something that reflected the range he played on the radio. Yet, in 1987’s chart The Smiths appeared 11 times.

The chart had various incarnations, curated/non-curated, more than fifty/fewer than fifty, narrow field/wide field, but there was no way to coax anything but the mainstream to the top. That which had been played endlessly on the radio already.

Clearly these charts are showing that media exposure will drive votes. After all, you can only vote about what you know about. In the case of Wherever You Are it’s a perfectly understandable chain of events that you’d watch the series, buy the track, and then support your purchase by voting for it. Similarly, in the case of Aerith’s Theme, as the crossover between listeners of Classic FM and gamers is relatively small, many of the votes will have been supporting a hobby they’re invested in rather than the piece in particular.

This is hardly something to be pessimistic about, polls have never been about assessing quality, they’ve only ever been a measure of something’s popularity – be it something of the moment or an ingrained tradition. That groups are using polls to drive an agenda seems an excellent use. For instance, raising a discussion about games as a musical art form through recognition in a non-gaming chart is a great idea. Whilst researching this post I found mentions of Final Fantasy in all the major tabloids and broadsheets, many music sites that have no ties into gaming, and all because it had broken into a space where it wasn’t expected to be. The poll gave the gaming community a voice outside of itself.

Similarly, the Military Wives Choir’s music cannot be easily separated from the fact they are formed of women whose husbands are serving in wars abroad. Getting Christmas #1 gave them a spike in visibility but their placement in this Hall of Fame gives them another spike four months on. This isn’t going to bring the soldiers home, but in a time where all the media coverage seems to be focussed on the heinous actions of the few the humanity of the many seems to be forgotten.

Polls are what we make of them, both in the sense that it is our votes that decide what they look like, but also whether we choose to have them reflect our personal tastes or our personal beliefs.

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