How should we define 'new music'? | Features | MN2S

As the BBC changes its definition of new music, we ask how it should really be defined.

The most clichéd thing a writer can do is start an article with a dictionary definition. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do here. defines ‘new’ as “of recent origin, production, purchase, etc.; having but lately come or been brought into being.”

That sounds pretty straightforward. But what specifically does it mean in a musical context? Last month, Ofcom and the BBC released a clarified definition of new music which, rather than clearing things up, made everything even cloudier.

Under Ofcom’s rules, BBC radio playlists have to be comprised of a certain amount of new music in order to qualify as a public service and thereby justify the license fee. For Ofcom to make sure the BBC is playing new music, it has to have its own definition.

The definition is now this: ‘A song is to be considered ‘New Music’ for a period of either (a) 12 months from first release; or (b) six weeks from the date it first enters the Top 20 – whichever is sooner.’

So let’s just get this straight. New music can be 12 months old. In an industry where charts are still measured on a weekly basis, a song can still be counted as ‘new’ if it has been available for an entire year. Cleary, there’s something about this definition that doesn’t quite add up.

The music press has unsurprisingly responded with scepticism, with Music Business Worldwide deeming it a “brilliantly British mess”. So why did Ofcom and the BBC come up with such a strange definition of ‘new’, and could they have come up with something better?

The new ‘new’ definition must account for online streaming

Before the dawn of streaming, defining new music was easy. Something was new if it had only just come out. There’s no way Radio 1 would have played a year-old song as part of its ‘new music’ quota. New music was entirely in the hands of record labels. When a single came out, it was new. This sounds basic because it is. But it doesn’t work like this any more. It can’t.

Thanks to the internet, people can listen to or purchase an individual song as soon as an album is released. This is why album tracks can find their way onto the official charts, even if they have not been released as standalone singles. Thanks to this, Ed Sheeran’s entire ÷ album managed to chart upon release, even though only ‘Shape of You’ and ‘Castle on the Hill’ were released as singles. (This debacle led the Official Charts Company to do some redefining of its own.)

Sticking with Ed Sheeran as an example (as difficult as that may be for some), seven months after the release of his album Atlantic Records released the track ‘Perfect’ as a single. So here’s the dilemma: is the song new or old? It’s a new single for sure, but it’s already ‘sold’ millions of copies via streams and downloads. Based on common sense, this is not a new song. By virtue of the fact that it has been listenable on its own for over half a year, it is old. Pre-streaming and pre-downloads, it would only have been available to those who had purchased the entire album, and therefore could have been considered new by some standards.

Ofcom’s new ‘new’ definition has come into place to create hard and fast rules for these situations. Based on the new standards, ‘Perfect’ — at a mere seven months of age — would still be considered new enough to play as a ‘new’ song. However, the second clause of Ofcom’s definition — that a song is only new for six weeks once it enters the top 20 — would disqualify ‘Perfect’ from ‘new’ status, since that song, along with every ÷ album track, reached the top 20 upon release.

The new ‘new’ definition is almost good enough

The weird thing about Ofcom’s definition is that it’s actually not far off a graceful solution to the above problems. If a song reaches the top 20, it can’t be new once six weeks have passed. It’ll be over a month old. It’s the other half of the definition that has more problems. While it makes sense to give songs a grace period in which they can be considered new, even if they are not, 12 months is just too long.

Album promo campaigns can last up to 12 months, but the online music landscape means everyone can listen to album tracks before they become singles if they want to — in other words, when they are actually new. The definition of new music needs to reflect that, even if it changes the way record labels promote albums over the radio.

New music has to be new. To come up with a better definition, all we need to do figure out how many months something can count as ‘new’ for. It could be anything between one and six. Whatever it is, it definitely isn’t 12.

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