Look. Some people are obsessed with different types of cheese, others are infatuated with unboxing videos on YouTube, and some rare humans spend their time excavating the ins-and-outs of television shows. Me, though, I like to study One Direction. I like to study them to the point I'm able to recall shed-loads of facts about your sister's favourite boyfriend straight from memory.
One Direction are undeniably huge. Barely a week goes by when they're not trending on Twitter. But, despite seemingly being covered incessantly across the pre-teen internet, they seem to be struggling to top the charts. Let's take a look at their latest single "Steal My Girl" and work out what's been going on.
Looking over the group's social media platforms last week, there was an air of desperation you could almost choke on. Coming from the biggest boyband in the world, one of the most successful British pop acts of the past 10 years, tweets like these made for uncomfortable reading.
Follow sprees, “trend this hashtag” and other bottom-of-the-barrel mechanisms - employed by pop acts who need to bolster their single sales just to make it on to the next one - should be far beneath Zayn, Harry, Niall, Liam and Louis. Getting the big man, Simon Cowell, to step in and say a word for them was the last straw. And the less said about Louis’ embittered antagonistic baiting of Global Radio boss Ashley Tabor (who did not playlist “Steal My Girl” on Capital FM) the better. In the end “Steal My Girl” placed at #3 on Sunday’s official chart, making it their tenth single (of 13) to miss the top spot.
In the space of 3 years, the band have had three multi-platinum selling albums that hit #1 on both sides of the pond (that’s here at home and in the United States, as well as in other countries that major labels generally don’t give a shit about) but their singles repeatedly miss out on the top spot. So, I decided to dig into the facts and decipher why 1D’s unparalleled global adoration barely ever translates into chart domination.
Let's start with what has worked and why. Their debut single “What Makes You Beautiful”, the painfully trite but ultimately sweet and gentle Ed Sheeran-penned “Little Things”, and a cover of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another” mashed up with “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones for the official Comic Relief single in 2013, have all been hits; but hits under extenuating circumstances. One was their debut single, one involved Sheeran the chart-slayer, and the other was for charity.
Even the arguably massive “Story Of My Life” (below) - which managed to transcend their core fanbase and make even their most venomous critics begrudgingly admit they may well have some undeniable talent - missed out on a #1 both here and abroad. How is it that a band like One Direction, with an audience so huge they can sell out a worldwide stadium tour, rarely top the charts?
At the crux of the matter is one plain fact: One Direction’s attention-hungry but money-poor fanbase of mostly teenage girls, some unapologetic pop music fans and a handful of the glitterati, do not buy singles. They used to, before they could get them freely on the untameable, wild web. Back in the day, singles were big business. A song might come with another song, a remix or two, a poster and a sign-up form for the fan club. Nowadays, these kind of bonuses are offered only by acts wishing to inflate what would ordinarily be lacklustre sales and extort money from an increasingly savvy consumer. With “Steal My Girl”, the offer of an “acoustic” version of the song available only on the £3.99 physical disc was not enough to boost sales, and the CD is still available on their online store, suggesting there was no frenzied stampede to own this piece of 1D history. And quite right too. The “acoustic” is merely the original mix with the bassline and the drums knocked out. The fans called bullshit.
There are other factors involved too. In the case of “Steal My Girl”, they fall under the umbrella heading “accessibility” and encompass the lack of an official video, radio airplay, and promotion. With no video, and no dynamic lyric video to hold its spot, the song just isn’t getting airtime across music channels or a renewed surge in online interest through strategic VEVO placement.
By the time a video does eventually drop tomorrow, even the fact that legend and icon Danny Devito is starring in it won’t be enough to save it from tumbling down the charts (it’s already at #10 in the midweek update). Meanwhile on the airwaves, the lack of Capital FM support cuts out a huge swathe of listening audience (most of whom are One Direction’s main demographic, despite Radio 1’s continued attempts to skew younger). The band have a notoriously hit and miss relationship with Capital FM, dating back to them thanking to Radio 1 when accepting the 2012 Brit Award for Best Single “as voted for by Capital FM listeners.” One can only imagine the politics surrounding Capital’s decision to snub this 1D single. To cap it all off, the band have made no radio or television appearances to support the single release. In fact, Taylor Swift performed on X Factor the weekend before the single was officially released. Unsurprisingly, she ended up charting ahead of them at #2.
And then there’s streaming, where One Direction somehow perform below relative pop par. Don’t count streaming figures - like on the official sales chart which measures actual purchases only - and they came in at #2, beating out Swift by a few thousand. Include streaming and, as we know, “Steal My Girl” finished behind Swift at #2 and Dove Real Body Campaign model and spokeswoman Meghan Trainor at #1. With streaming now contributing to the staying power of a lot of monster hits in the UK, it’s likely that One Direction may never chart a single at #1 again - Spotify users are just (really) not listening to them.
Ultimately, “Steal My Girl” is the rule for One Direction and not the exception. They do not habitually achieve #1’s, not even with their campaign leads. Why then, did they exude such strange and frantic desperation across social networks in the run-up to this release? Perhaps they are just feeling the pressure, the change in tides, the way the boyband pendulum is swinging to favour their guitar-wielding rivals The Vamps and very own apprentices 5 Seconds Of Summer. As many ex-boyband members before them will attest to, the dream can last only so long and it takes a sterling triple threat talent like Justin Timberlake to survive beyond the hormones. In any case, while the money keeps rolling in (and it does, in huge amounts) they can probably get by on an inconsistent and relatively unstudied chart history. I mean, just look at The Saturdays.
Follow Grace on Twitter: @oneofthosefaces