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Tom Ewing

Tom Ewing is a London-based writer and market researcher. A former columnist and reviewer for The Guardian and Pitchfork Media, his main music project is Popular, a blog discussing British number-one hits. He also founded the influential music message board I Love Music. He has spoken at around 30 research and marketing conferences about social media, behavioral economics, and occasionally even pop music. He blogs at freakytrigger.co.uk and is @tomewing on most things social.

“Vox Popular: The Charts as Soapbox in a Digital Era”
The UK Singles Chart has two notable qualities. One is its particular place in the national imagination—chart “races,” “battles,” and records are tabloid fodder even now. The other is that the Top 40 was until recently entirely based on sales—a purely commercial barometer of popularity.

These two factors—news interest and sales criteria—have interacted to make the UK charts a kind of cultural seismograph, a channel for unvoiced mass sentiment. Anything from the World Cup to the death of Princess Diana spawned hits, creating a feedback loop between pop and the rest of the media.

But in April 2005, something changed. The chart began to include digital downloads, dissolving physical and pricing barriers to entry. If you could persuade a few thousand people to buy a track, you were in. The cultural seismograph had become—at least potentially—a platform.

My presentation is the story of the pranksters, campaigners, trolls, and fans who took advantage of the download era to make the charts themselves a megaphone. I look at attempts to manipulate the Top 40 to give voice to cultural grievances, like successfully getting Rage Against The Machine to number one ahead of a reality TV hit. I explore efforts to send political messages via the charts—like the campaign to mark Margaret Thatcher’s death by charting “Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead.”

I also examine botched attempts, and the ways in which the tactic failed to live up to its expressive potential. And I put these campaigns in the wider cultural context of the ’00s: part of the new media’s wider attack on the legitimacy of the old, and its seductive promise to give everyone a voice.


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