Now technically I’m a little later with this than normal, but who is counting the weeks really? The ticking over of one calendar year into another puts the full stop on one set of music statistics and allows the space for some proper analysis. As is rapidly becoming an annual tradition on this blog, I take the opportunity to pull the numbers apart and answer the odd question that always seems to pop up amongst casual observers of the pop music charts – just how many copies do you “need” to sell to have a Number One record. Particularly as everyone assumes that “these days” it isn’t actually all that many.
This will be the fourth year running I’ve conducted this particular analysis. For those interested you can find the analyses for 2012 and 2013 on this site whilst the piece dealing with 2014 was published in Popbitch magazine a year ago, but is available online.
For those who have read the past instalments, what follows for the sales statistics of 2015 may be a little formulaic but it still helps to make the point.
How many copies do you need to sell to top the singles chart? The answer is simple: at least one more than the Number 2 selling record of the week. Whilst this answer may sound unenlightening it does become important later, so bear it in mind.
For dull calendar reasons there were actually 53 chart weeks during 2015 and the precise sale of each Number One single is readily available, Alan Jones having carefully documented them in Music Week each time. Very often for these pieces I disregard the sales for weeks in which there was a particularly large spike which deviated from the average by a large amount. Just for a change this didn’t happen at Christmas but in fact a few weeks earlier when the debut of Adele’s Hello saw it shift 332,599 copies in a single week. That’s far and away the highest sale of the year but also a dramatic outlier in comparison with the market the rest of the year. By way of comparison not one other single managed to break the 200,000 copies barrier, never mind 300,000. So I’ll ignore it. I’m also going to ignore the singles chart dated w/e July 16th as this was the unique five day survey, necessitated by the adjustment of the chart week to run Friday-Thursday rather than Sunday-Saturday to coincide with the introduction of global release day. Whilst the Number One record that week (House Every Weekend) by David Zowie wasn’t actually the lowest selling Number One single of the year, its tally of around 54,000 was nonetheless based on five rather than seven days of sales. For the sake of the integrity of this sample we’ll disregard that one too.
That leaves 51 weeks of Number One singles to play with. Sales of Number One singles ranged from a high of 193,018 (See You Again by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth on April 25th) to a low of 46,533 (What Do You Mean by Justin Bieber on October 22nd). Thus the arithmetic mean sale of a Number One single in 2015 was a shade under 98,714 copies. The median sale isn’t far off that total either – 98,167 copies.
Intriguingly that’s actually slightly lower than it has been for some time. The 2014 mean was 100,056 whilst in 2013 it was 109,113. There is actually a slight but still significant downward trend ongoing here, make of that what you will, although these are all higher than the 89,000 mean average for 2012 despite that year representing the all-time peak of the era of the digital download. It is worth noting here that technically we are not comparing like with like, the numbers for 2015 being the first full calendar year of the revised chart methodology that takes into account audio streams as well as actual paid for sales. That said, the fact that the average numbers are broadly in line with those of recent years does actually indicate that the balance between sales and streams and in particular the 1:100 ratio chosen is exactly as it should be. Sales have collapsed and streams have exploded in exact proportion to each other as far as the singles chart is concerned. Which either miraculous or an illustration of just how carefully the change was managed.
As always this is the point where I note that these numbers reflect how many copies the Number One single each week actually sold, not how many they needed to sell to guarantee to top the charts, which as I noted above is actually just one copy more than the second biggest seller.
Fortunately we have those numbers too. In 2015 the highest selling unlucky loser was Cheerleader by OMI which sold 129,257 copies on April 25th, the very same week that Wiz Khalifa landed the (Adele aside) biggest selling chart-topper of the year. In contrast the lowest selling Number 2 single of the year was on October 1st when Easy Love by Sigala sold just 41,426 copies (bested that week by that Bieber bloke who was at the top with a 60,000 units sale). The mid-point of those two numbers is 85,336 which as a rough guide is thus the number of copies you would need to sell to top the charts 50% of the time. Interestingly that is higher than last year when the figure worked out at 77,000 copies.
The average Number One hit single may have become slightly smaller of late, but it has actually become harder to win out in a more competitive market – as neatly illustrated only this week when the Number 1 and Number 2 singles were separated by the small matter of a few hundred copies. As ever, all I can do is note that hitting the top of the charts is to actually hit a constantly moving target, your job being to beat the highest point of the rest of the market which can itself vary wildly according to circumstances. A more sensible and easier to answer question remains “how many copies do you have to sell to reach the Top 10” which in 2015 was on average a shade over 30,000 copies with very little deviation either side of that figure. And well within the grasp of your average social media army.