So much, then, for 50 Quid Bloke — the fêted demographic avatar who sprang fully formed in the aftermath of the iPod, determined to reconnect with the guitar music of his youth and all the new stuff that appears to be influenced by it. He might dig the Killers and Snow Patrol, but research increasingly shows that the added buying power of his missus — Supermarket Woman or MP-She, as the industry is calling her — determines whether those bands sustain any lasting popularity in pop’s premier league.
The figures tell the full story. In the past 12 months women aged 16-45 have driven a 150 per cent increase in digital music sales. Recent findings by Emap reveal that an unprecedented half of Q’s readership under the age of 30 is now female. Were further proof of Supermarket Woman’s emergence needed, behold the success this summer of James Morrison — a man whose resemblance to Chris Martin in a James Blunt wig suggests that Polydor is now building androids to satiate the desires of thirtysomething females. With supermarkets muscling in on the CD market — and those supermarkets still predominantly patronised by women — there’s a killing to be made.
What we suspected by looking at the charts is laid out in maths when I arrive at the Covent Garden offices of Entertainment Media Research, whose new “product”, PopScores, is likely to become the most valuable tool that record companies have yet had to understand the relationship between musicians and consumers. Before me on a computer screen are October’s PopScores, on which are listed 200 artists and their monthly ranking, gauged according to what people across the demographic spectrum think of them. “Keep going down the list,” says Russell Hart, Entertainment Media Research’s executive chairman. “Every one of the top 20 scores highly with women over 30. In 2006 it’s an absolute requisite for any band seeking to succeed at that uppermost level that they appeal to that sector.”
He’s right. Lodged firmly atop the graph are Red Hot Chili Peppers, who nick it over U2. In fact, the Californian funk-rockers score well with every audience sector.
Below them are Kaiser Chiefs, Robbie Williams, Scissor Sisters and Bon Jovi, their “informed awareness” score among women uniformly high. On the basis of these findings, Arctic Monkeys (currently scoring poorly with women aged 30 to 39) are still a exfoliation regimen away from super-stardom. A month into its existence, Popscores has had a massive industry take-up. By measuring the emotional connection that a listener has to an artist, its creators say that it fills “a critical information gap for the music industry”.
What, specifically, does that “gap” amount to? Previously, the assumption has been that if a group gets their songs played on the radio, this will drive album sales. It’s an assumption, however, that fails to explain why certain albums simply don’t sell, regardless of press and radio exposure. Gnarls Barkley’s St Elsewhere, for instance, has yet to take off, despite spawning the year’s bestselling single, Crazy. PopScores makes light work of explaining why, showing that while 74 per cent of music consumers have heard them, only 7 per cent cite them as a favourite. As Hart surmises: “People don’t know if Gnarls Barkley is a band or a person (it is, of course, the producer Danger Mouse and rapper Cee-Lo). Without knowing the brand’s core values, there’s no chance of an emotional connection.”
Staring at this sort of information can make a person feel oddly powerful. I start to fancy myself as a marketing troubleshooter, wondering how certain areas of potential might yet be maximised. I wonder what it is about the Red Hot Chili Peppers that makes them succeed over U2. If Bono had a drug history comparable to Chilis’ front man Anton Kiedis and greater skater appeal, would he score a little more highly with young people? Suddenly I see cynical motives in decisions that, for all I know, were probably made only in the interests of creativity. That new single by U2 and Green Day — was it really just to raise awareness of Hurricane Katrina? Or maybe a sneaky attempt to win favour in demographic areas where those groups lack popularity? Market research is no stranger to the music industry, of course. By making a note of who was coming into his record shop and buying Beatles records, Brian Epstein was conducting a primitive form of market research. The track listing of The Best of Blur in 2001 was determined by focus groups.
In recent months sales of the debut album by a young British guitar band have leapt from 700,000 to 1.2 million. The decisive factor? Research revealed that their image — that of unwashed indie cubs — deterred older consumers. This triggered a marketing rethink. Photographs often have a polarising effect, especially in the case of pop groups seeking the respect of a mature audience. In 1992 the absence of a cover image on Abba Gold was key to the band’s revival. This week, with nary a pop minx on its sleeve, Girls Aloud’s hits compilation, The Sound of Girls Aloud, was their first album to enter the charts at No 1.
The best-known “product” developed by Entertainment Media Research is “artist profiling”. This involves research to see if an artist is reaching his or her intended audience. Hart tells of a British R&B singer whose second album failed to deliver on the promise of his first. “Research showed that his appeal with female fans remained strong, but his attempts to woo male urban listeners had failed. Future singles were chosen accordingly, and the press campaign changed to consolidate his existing fanbase. The results were immediate.”
Songwriters at the mercy of focus groups? Is this the way forward? Well, yes and no. Hart points out that, in a climate where records no longer sell in the same quantities, “the old way of doing things is simply not possible. You can’t sign ten artists knowing that one will be successful enough to bankroll nine flops.” In other words, albums need to be road-tested before emerging into the wider world.
However, there is, of course, one problem to be overcome here — one ripely articulated by ABC’s front man, Martin Fry. In 1983 ABC followed the acclaimed “new pop” of The Lexicon of Love with an obtuse musical suicide note entitled Beauty Stab. Had artist profiling been around then, it would surely have prolonged their run of Top Ten hits? “You’ve got to respect the right of creative people to make creative decisions,” Fry says. “For us, it was death or glory.”
How would the Beatles, the group against which all groups will for ever be measured, have fared in a world where MP-She and PopScores set the commercial agenda? Would George Martin have been charged with the responsibility of getting Paul McCartney to write a few more Yesterdays in pursuit of a million extra impulse purchases at the checkout? “Actually, no band did it better than the Beatles,” says Peter Ruppert, the founder of Entertainment Media Research.
“They started off doing simple rock’n’roll and changed their sound from album to album by small increments — thereby not alienating a large proportion of their fanbase in one go.”
If this is the only option for an artist hoping to stay popular, yet to develop artistically, then presumably the transition made by Robbie Williams from last year’s Intensive Care to the electropop whimsy of his current album, Rudebox, should have taken place slowly over three albums.
Fry, however, remains sceptical of the way record companies might use the data. “One thing we like about musicians is that they make mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes an artist can make an album that might not be appreciated for years. Trying to ensure that you’re popular for the next ten minutes isn’t necessarily going to leave you with any admirers in 20 years’ time.”