If you want to top the charts, talent helps. If you lack talent, try hype. If that fails, there's always good old-fashioned chart rigging
BY LUCY O'BRIEN
ark is what's known as a "CD whore", a lad who drives up the M1 and spends a week going round 10 Northern cities, buying two or three copies of a single by a dodgy boy pop band in six Manchester shops, then six in Sheffield, and so on. Afterwards he dumps them in bins or sells them back to the distributors. He gets pounds 1 per single bought, keeps the receipts, and is reimbursed for money spent. In a good week he can make pounds 500. He'd rather not talk about this openly because he values his knee-caps.
Tim is a 'resting' actor, given a car to drive around designated record shops on the South Coast. Keeping a keen eye on closed-circuit video cameras, he purchases a couple of singles at a time from each store and stashes them in the boot of his car. He then gives them back to the record company who sometimes send them out for resale. He likes the work because it is casual, tax-free "invisible money", and he can earn up to pounds 300 a week, plus expenses and overnights. Though he is part of a team, he doesn't know who the other "riggers" are, and the operation is kept underground.
Chart-riggers are the archetypal invisible army - everyone knows someone who does it, but it is an activity that is difficult to expose. "Everybody in our industry knows which records are being hyped, there's no bluffing. We're too expert to be fooled," says Pete Waterman, head of PWL, the label that spawned Kylie and Jason. "The industry should not condone it, because it clogs up the chart and it's cheating." One of the key industry people to speak out against chart-rigging, he says that it's now "put up or shut up time".
The issue came to a head last week when a BPI (British Phonographics Industry) committee of inquiry fined two record companies, Edel UK and Castle Communications, pounds 30,000 each following allegations of irregular sales patterns, and Andrew Cleary, managing director of Edel, resigned as the BPI's PR chairman. The committee is also investigating Love This Records, run by Mike Stock (formerly of Stock, Aitken & Waterman). So far no action has been taken. The last proven rigging case was in 1991, when London Records was fined pounds 50,000 for hyping the stunningly memorable band The High.
Until recently, rigging used to be a common practice for breaking new bands or reviving the careers of old ones. In a volatile pop market where a major record company can spend between pounds 250,000 and pounds 1m on launching a new band, it's important to get a return on the investment. If a first single gets radio play and charts, it is easier to have a second hit single, then Top Of The Pops, then respectable album sales. Without that initial hit, a new pop band can be a dead duck. It is hardly surprising in such a fiercely competitive climate that labels sometimes use shady tactics.
Ten years ago the charts were compiled from sales of only 250 shops around the country and every record label had a list, making it easy for riggers to get a single into the chart by buying extra copies. Now it is harder, with the network of chart return shops expanded to 1,900 - 60 per cent of all record outlets. New technology has also made it a trickier process. "We have computer software which detects abnormal patterns and flashes up a warning which is then checked out with CIN, the organisation that compiles the weekly charts," says Gennaro Castlado, spokesperson for HMV. "As a retailer we are committed to weeding out chart-rigging."
Many maintain that barcodes and surveillance cameras have cut down rigging, yet "teams for hire" still operate. "Chart-rigging is more widespread than is admitted," says Trevor Dann, head of music at Radio 1. "My guess is they are doing it because 'everyone is doing it'. Formally they deny it goes on, but informally they admit it. If they all stopped then they all would stop."
Rigging is not necessarily effective. In the recent BPI investigation, Edel's "The Good Life" by New Power Generation was the only one of seven records named to make the Top 40. The rest, which included releases by Energy Orchard and a resuscitated Big Country, barely skirted the lower reaches of the chart. "I think this is the funniest story of the week. They must be the most useless chart hypers in the country," says Andrew Collins, editor of music monthly Q. "I feel sorry for the proud clad- shirted men of Big Country. They were about standing on mountains beating chests and being honest and true. Now they're in a crate in Mill Hill. I send my condolences." He does not have a problem with singles hype. "The only chart that counts to us at Q is the album chart, it's a more reliable gauge. So if rigging gets a band on to Top of the Pops, good luck to 'em. It's rock'n'roll. We'll take all the fun out of the business if we get too law-abiding."
The business has indeed become increasingly sensible over the years, and intense competition means that chart pluggers, those who legitimately bring records to the attention of radio and TV, take their jobs very seriously. In the past week, for instance, 150 singles have been released, all contenders for a place in the Top 40. "You've got to sell about 10,000 for the bottom end of the charts, and a Number One can easily sell 200,000 to 300,000," says Dylan White, head of radio at Anglo Plugging, a promotional company that handles every hot left-field chart act from Oasis to Echobelly and Paul Weller. "The first week of a release is frantic and fast-moving. It's a bit like spending 10 hours in the six-yard box trying to get a ball in the net."
In an industry where the stakes are so high, it seems to be the smaller labels that get caught. At one extreme there are major labels with huge budgets for "legal" promotion - wining, dining, T-shirts and free concert tickets - while at the other it appears that some small labels feel they have to resort to the less glamorous practice of chart-rigging to compete.
In the heyday of Seventies' and Eighties' chart hype, pluggers went to inventive and expensive lengths to get a radio or TV producer to listen to their record. There was the plugger who appeared outside a Radio 1 producer's third-floor window in a window-cleaner's cradle and passed records through to him. Or the two pluggers who camped out in a producer's office and in the morning served him a record along with eggs and bacon. Or the plugger who filled a TV producer's car boot with groceries every week.
Record companies have been known to finance huge freebies, like the time that Virgin Records flew 20 producers to the Champagne region to get thoroughly smashed before going to see French rockabilly band Mano Negra. "I remember once servicing a band called Stex on the day of a downpour," recalls White. "Their single was called 'Still Feel The Rain', so I went down Oxford Street, bought some cheap umbrellas and stuck records to them. It got played, but it wasn't a hit." Now, he says, apart from a few promo T-shirts and free gig tickets, "the new breed of Radio 1 producer is not interested in cheap record-company gimmicks."
Nigel Sweeney, whose company, Intermedia, promotes such major long-term acts as The Cure, U2 and Simply Red, says that balance is the key. "Radio and TV promotion is now a serious, professional business, and you want to avoid overkill. I just make sure that the right people are aware of my artists' records. I wouldn't put U2 on Pebble Mill, for example. Also, it's a fact that Mick Hucknall does not enjoy getting up early so I make sure he doesn't do live breakfast TV."
Without rigging or overhype, the tried and tested route for a band anxious to get into the charts is firstly to build a fan base through touring, or a "club buzz" if it's a dance act. From there it's the music press and specialist shows such as Pete Tong or John Peel on Radio 1. Then it's the all-powerful daytime Radio 1 playlist, followed by Independent Local Radio (ILR) stations which include Capital and Virgin.
Radio 1, one-time bloated beast of Top 20 blandness, now takes pride in the fact that it breaks new acts as well as playing more established ones. "We're not as chart-related as some people think," says DJ Steve Lamacq, who has an evening show on Radio 1. "We have the bold belief here that our audience likes chart bands, and ones that are on the edge. I don't have to adhere to the playlist on my show, but I play a lot of it anyway. The new Britpop is like the new Labour - centre rather than left wing. Blur is our Blair."
Even for daytime shows, Radio 1 has a more adventurous policy. "Most commercial radio does tend to go with proven hits, whereas we go with records two to three weeks upfront," says Chris Whatmough, producer for the Simon Mayo show. With the argument that the playlist now doesn't so much reflect the chart as shape it, attempts to rig singles sales could be counter-productive. "If it's a crap record, it's a crap record," sums up Whatmough. And no amount of sales massaging can disguise that.
Additional reporting by Dorothy Koomson
WHY THEY GET TO NUMBER ONE ... AND WHY THEY DON'T
HIT: Levi 501 commercials virtually guarantee a No 1 spot - witness the success of Babylon Zoo's "Spaceman", currently enjoying its fourth week at No 1. The track was first released in autumn 1995 for promotion purposes only. Levi's spotted it and used it in the ad in December. The single went on sale on 15 January. Within a week, it had made it to No 1.
HIT & MISS: Last summer the Blur vs Oasis feud came to a head when both bands released singles on the same day. Creation Records argue that it scheduled Oasis's "Roll With It" for 14 August way before Blur decided on a date. However, Parlophone claimed it was complete coincidence on Blur's part. The hype shot the records straight into the top two positions. Blur's "Country House" won the battle and went to No 1.
HIT: Perhaps the most ludicrous No 1 contender was Mr Blobby, whose one boast was to succeed with no air-play. It was all down to Noel Edmonds promoting his vulgar creation on Noel's House Party. The single reached No 1 in December 1993 only to be ousted by Take That's "Babe". Down but not out, Mr Blobby was back to No 1 the following week and stayed there a fortnight.
HIT: That old Levi's trick again, although songwriter Peter Lawlor had to fight for his No 1 spot. As soon as the ad went on air, interest in the Stiltskin track "Inside" soared. Yet no record company would touch it. With no experience, Lawlor took a huge financial risk and released the single himself in May 1994 - it went to No 1 in two weeks and stayed there for a fortnight.
HIT: KLF demystified the chart process when they released "Doctoring the Tardis" as the Timelords in June 1988. In the perfect naff pop-gimmick formula, they combined Gary Glitter with a Dr Who sample and a catchy dance beat. The single stayed at No 1 for nine weeks. A year later they published The Manual: How To Have a No 1 the Easy Way. Austrian band Edelweiss followed their step-by-step advice and their single, "Bring Me Edelweiss", reached No 1 in Europe and No 5 in the UK (where it stayed for 10 weeks).
HIT: Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "Relax" was released in November 1983, along with a risque video featuring simulated sodomy. It entered the charts at No 77 and got to No 35 by Christmas. After an appearance on TOTP, it reached No 2 and was one of the most played records on radio. Then, according to Holly Johnson, DJ Mike Read denounced it as obscene. The result? A seven-week stay at No 1.
NEAR MISS: The Sex Pistol's "God Save the Queen" went on sale in May 1977, although many shops refused to sell it. Moral outrage ensured swift success - it sold 200,000 copies in the first week. A No 1 position was denied by Rod Stewart's "I Don't Want To Talk About It''. Fans cried conspiracy when CBS, which distributed both, allegedly told Malcolm McLaren that the Pistols had sold twice as many as Stewart.
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