Whenever the continuing existence of the pop music charts (itself a surprise for those who find the mighty waters of popular culture only flow past their front door every once in a while) hoves into public view and a greater than usual level of casual interest in the prospects of single x making chart position y results in newspaper headlines, one question above all others makes its way to people’s lips:

“How many singles do you have to sell to make Number One on the charts?”

Few and far between are the places where anything resembling a definitive answer to that question can be found, so it seems an appropriate moment (as I was asked the very same question the other day by someone who assumed I’d be the one to know) to make my own attempt at a definitive answer.

Note that this relates to the state of the market as of now (April 2013) with specific reference to sales patterns from 2012. If you have arrived here in 2016 as a result of a Microgooglesoft search for “how many copies do you have to sell to reach Number One in the charts” the following may well be out of date and I suggest you email me for the current picture. Or at least the picture as recounted by someone whose knowledge of applied statistics failed to progress beyond GSCE Mathematics.

Enough rambling. How many copies do you have to sell to make Number One?

The short, glib, unhelpful and yet perfectly correct answer is simply “one copy more than the Number 2 single”. This actually becomes important later, so don’t dismiss it out of hand,.

To find a more helpful answer I’ll illustrate with the typical figures from 2012. I say ‘typical’ as in this bit of statistical mangling it is necessary to ignore the sales in the final two weeks of the year. Those weeks saw first James Arthur top the charts with a sale of 489,560 copies of “Impossible” followed by the ‘Justice’ Collective with 269,248 sales of “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother” and to include them would skew the statistics unnecessarily.

During the remaining 50 weeks of 2012, the total weekly sale of the Number One single ranged from 50,907 copies for Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling” for the chart dated w/e January 14th through to 152,001 copies for Cheryl’s “Call My Name” for w/e June 23rd. That gives us a median figure of 101,454 copies. The average (mean) sale for a Number One single in this period was actually slightly lower, 89,910 but that still gives us a 12,000 copies spread between the two averages – enough to give some indication of just how big the top end of the market actually is.

Note that none of this answers the original question accurately. You now know how many copies the Number One single actually sold. How many they *needed* to sell requires reference back to the glib answer at the start – one more copy than the Number 2 single.

The lowest selling Number 2 single of 2012 was Coldplay’s “Paradise” which sold 36,488 not entirely coincidentally in the same week that Flo Rida had the lowest selling Number One of the year. The highest sale of any Number 2 single was the 103,438 copies sold by Emeli Sande’s “Next To Me” for w/e February 25th – that week DJ Fresh was at Number One with a total sale of 127,998. So you will note that to guarantee to be top of the charts during any week in the first 50 weeks of 2012 a single would have had to sell at least 103,439 copies – which is higher than both the mean and median figures quoted above.

In summary, nobody can put a precise number on what sale will guarantee you a Number One single. Like in any good sporting contest, you can only really beat what is put in front of you.

For the curious, the lowest sale ever clocked up by a Number One single is famously the 17,694 copies sold by Orson with “No Tomorrow” w/e March 25th 2006. The record for highest ever Number One sale is likely to be forever held by Elton John and “Candle In The Wind 97” which sold 1,546,688 copies for the chart dated w/e September 27th 1997. I say “likely” as even that massive sale was still constrained by the number of discs that it was physically possible to produce and ship to stores. In the digital era there is theoretically no upper limit to how many copies a single can sell during a seven day period.

To be technically picky for a minute, surely your figure of 101,454 isn’t a true median but an average of the highest and lowest figures. The true median of all 52 weeks would (I suspect) be lower than the mean value given that the number of >100k weeks is fairly low.

Fascinating to read in your About.com commentary James just how noteworthy Daft Punk’s chart-topping singles sales the last three weeks have been, being (slightly remarkably) the first non-charity single to manage back-to-back 150,000+ weeks since Will Young and Gareth Gates’ first post-Pop Idol releases. Given that “released in the wake of TV talent show success” is pretty much as big a distortion as “charity record” and/or “released for the Christmas market”, can I ask what the last song excluding festive/charity tie-ins AND talent show contestants was to manage this feat — i.e. the last ‘regular’ single with no especial connections skewing its sales — or indeed to sell 100,000+ copies in three straight weeks or more, as Get Lucky has gone on to do…? Am thinking the halcyon sales days of 2001 may have seen contenders, but would be really interesting to know just how long it’s been since we saw this kind of ‘unprompted’ success.

Easy enough to answer for a change. The last non-Christmas, non-charity, non-talent show single to sell 100k+ three weeks in a row was Can’t Get You Out Of My Head by Kylie in 2001. Theoretically you could count Is This The Way To Amarillo in 2005 – it was kind of a charity single but wasn’t necessarily bought in large numbers for that reason alone.

Apologies for not saying thank-you for that response sooner, but belated thanks for the facts James! So I was right about the year, though I’d overlooked Kylie as a potential holder of that record of note; interesting in the context of Daft Punk’s success that in both cases (all three if we include Tony Christie) it was a relatively veteran artist making a huge splash back on the charts some years after they’d been written off to one extent or another as a creative force.

And now I read your latest update to learn with slight amazement that Daft Punk have managed an extremely impressive five weeks in a row of 100,000+ sales — so dare I ask when the last non-charity, etc. act to manage these further feats of four and five straight ‘100k weeks’ in this way was, or even six? It can’t have been done many times in the last 25 years, surely?

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