Sunday, January 21, 2018

Enjoy the Hottest 100, but it's not all it seems

Wanna rig the Hottest 100?

It's surprisingly easy. I am not talking about blatant write-in campaigns of the kind that attempted to push Shake It Off to the top in 2015. They've been headed off by a new rule that says "votes made as part of a competition that promotes a song or artist, or a campaign that undermines the Hottest 100 may be disqualified or ignored".

I am talking about the kind of manipulation that happens all the time, where songs are pushed to the top of the charts and into the crevices of our hearts without us knowing.

Senator Cory Bernardi, who this week took the unusual step of creating his own alternative "Conservatives 100" in protest at triple J moving the Hottest 100 from Australia Day, achieved little. The best way to control what people want to hear is to control what they do hear.

US station manager Todd Storz twigged to the idea in the 1950s. Like most radio stations, his had been playing a bit of everything, what he thought people wanted. Then as he waited in a restaurant to pick up his girlfriend, who was a waitress, he noticed that the other waitresses were programming into the jukebox the same songs they had been hearing all day. They had come to like what they had been forced to hear. He invented Top 40 and never looked back.

But triple J is different. Its listeners have minds of their own, right?

Liam Lenten and Jordi McKenzie, economists and music tragics from La Trobe and Macquarie universities, think not.

They've just completed what is probably the only economic analysis of Australian pop music charts. Published in the Economic Record, it was intended to be a study of what kept songs at the top of the all-time Hottest 100 and what let new ones in.

The Hottest 100 comes in two forms. The annual survey, which these days is limited to tracks released in the previous year, is followed by a release of a double CD. The best tracks of all-time survey, which used to be annual, now takes place once every 10 or so years. Both are decided by popular vote.

Lenten and McKenzie's initial findings were that songs released in the lead-up to the best songs of all time polls did unreasonably well, and that there was something special about Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. It has been always been at or near the top.

Then a different, one-off, Hottest 100 put them on to something fascinating. It was conducted in 2013 and limited to the best tunes of the previous 20 years. In each of those years triple J had released Hottest 100 CDs, but because of copyright and other restrictions, none had included anything like the entire 100. Many didn't even include the hottest of the 100. In Lenten and McKenzie's words, "a significant proportion of songs featured each year were low-ranked".

Yet these low-ranked songs, not overly liked at the time, turned out to be over-represented in the hottest of the past 20 years list, eclipsing some that had made it to the top five. They only thing they had that many of the better-liked songs did not have was inclusion in the CD. Lenten and McKenzie conclude that "the radio station itself played a significant role in the results" by what it chose to put on the CD.

A decade ago two Columbia University sociologists asked people to rate 48 songs and download those they liked most. Half were told the truth about which had been the most downloaded. Half were lied to and told the reverse, that the least downloaded were the most downloaded. They downloaded the initially unpopular songs surprisingly often.

Enjoy the Hottest 100, it's democracy in action. But democracy is imperfect. We're more easily manipulated than we think.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald