I Feel It In My Fingers

Theoretically this is the stuff that we chart nerds dream of. For the first time in quite some time discussion of the UK music charts has gone properly mainstream. Except this isn’t in such a good way. The presence of the same song at the top of the singles chart week in week out, and a song which thanks to streaming hasn’t actually been the top seller of the day for a full 11 weeks at the time of writing to boot, has prompted many a furrowed brow and questions asked in some quite surprising places.

First off the blocks was a rare bit of editorialising from the always entertaining Into The Popvoid blog with a polemic about the whole nature of streaming changing the charts and naturally using the ‘R’ word in relation to it – ruining. Alas this is one of the few pieces on the site which doesn’t have comments enabled so it wasn’t possible for anyone to refute any of the points made should they desire to do so.

Then a few weeks later came an NME feature “Why Is The Singles Chart So Stagnant” which for the first time saw the Head Of Music at Radio One wondering out loud whether they might be about to do something which in the modern age was unthinkable and drop the current Number One single from their playlist. This piece will have almost certainly informed the production of a similarly themed article from the BBC themselves, this time asking “Has Streaming Broken The UK Singles Chart“. Then most extraordinarily of all came a short “and finally” feature in Newsnight on Wednesday 20th July on very much the same topic. You cannot embed iPlayer streams sadly, but if you are reading this before August 19th 2016 then you can watch the report here from the 33:41 mark in the show.

The highlight of the latter incidentally has to be the Official Charts Company’s Chief Executive Martin Talbot all but bellowing STOP LIVING IN THE PAST down the camera.

One take on the whole “are streams responsible for Drake knackering things up and are the charts broken beyond repair” debate that you may not have seen however has come from digital consultant Sammy Andrews who wrote her own well considered view on the topic on Medium. Her argument is that the pop charts have historically served two purposes. The first is to be a reflection of the popularity of a piece of recorded music, something which is still the case in the new era of streaming – more so than ever in fact given that (as I am so fond of pointing out) we are seeing in the charts for the first time ever how the public as a whole respond and interact with their favourite songs. Over and over again as it turns out.

The other role, she notes, is that the charts have historically tracked how people discovered and engaged with product rather than consumed it. After all as a general rule you only buy a piece of music once. That’s how the chart life of most records was defined, as a piece of music grew momentum and so more and more people interacted with it for the first time, so it was propelled up the sales charts. Then once saturation point had been reached and everyone who wanted to own the record did so, the track died away. To be replaced by the latest new thing. That is what is no longer happening. The charts aren’t tracking discovery as a reflection of popularity, they are now tracking engagement almost exclusively. And that’s why everything has ground to a halt.

I’ve spent weeks trying not to have an opinion. But go me, now I do:

For those hoping that “something must be done”, have faith, I’m fairly sure it will be. But it won’t be because of Drake. One Dance as I’ve repeatedly said in podcasts is a genuine freak of nature. Its chart domination isn’t confined to this country and it has been played so much online that it wouldn’t matter how you adjusted the formula or ratio of streams:sales used to compile the charts. He’d still have been Number One forever or at the very least a near permanent resident near the top of the charts. Sometimes these tracks come along and you just have to deal with them. To make knee-jerk changes or to tweak the rules to get rid of of one long-running Number One record would be foolhardy. And nobody is suggesting doing so.

I’d note that the very early years of the digital download market also had its fair share of hardy perennials. Whilst they were never in danger of clogging up the Number One position for months on end, tracks such as Gold Digger by Kanye West, Numb/Encore by Jay-Z and Linkin Park and of course Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol took up near permanent chart residency around ten years ago. For some reason everyone who opened an online account felt compelled to purchase these tracks in particular and so they set the benchmarks for the occasional long-lived chart single. But eventually people became bored of them and moved on. So too it will happen with the Drake track.

There has been much talk of the perhaps malign influence of the professionally curated playlists, both those run by the streaming services themselves and those by major labels (albeit cunningly disguised). One Dance is on all of them, so the theory goes, so it has an inbuilt advantage. Well yes and no. Being a high profile part of a much-subscribed playlist certainly gives you an opportunity to be played, but that’s no different from being stocked in an old fashioned record shop gave you the opportunity to be bought. People forget that a song you love rather than one you hate is just one press of a button or screen away. I called it the “shit-click” factor on an old podcast and the advantage One Dance seems to have had is that nobody hates it quite enough to skip past it. So it gets the plays.

Needless to say this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fear of the shit-click could lead to an increasing blandness and homogenisation of pop music as labels are scared to push boundaries and innovate for fear of not getting the plays. But that’s an argument for another day.

No, if a change is going to come it will be because the Powers That Be in the music industry will have woken up to the fact that the streaming market has now matured and is a very different beast to what it was two years ago. Back in the summer of 2014 we all held our breath as the data was incorporated into what had hitherto been a sales only chart, only to discover that very little changed. The streaming ratio had been so carefully balanced that no great chart revolution took place. At least not immediately.

But two years ago I’d argue that online streams were still largely the preserve of the core body of music fans who were just gently transitioning from always buying to sampling online first of all. They are still around but have now been swamped by a much larger body, the casual listener, the safe as houses type. The kind of ‘music fan’ that I spent years in commercial radio being told we were catering to. Those who want the familiarity of their current favourites and little more.

That’s why the UK singles chart has all the thrill of a Heart FM playlist. Because it is being shaped by the very same people radio stations are crafted for. And if they want One Dance day in day out, that is what they get.

That’s why a rethink may well be in order. I don’t think 100 streams is equivalent to 1 sale any more, regardless of the economic argument that the revenue for each is more or less the same. As Sammy Andrews notes, they have been added to the singles chart as a blunt instrument rather than a carefully constructed accessory. Two years ago that was valid. I don’t believe it is any more.

It is not that the singles chart methodology hasn’t evolved in the recent past either. A decade ago the digital download was effectively phased in over two years, first of all in 2005 only permitted alongside a physical equivalent then from 2006 what I always called the curate’s egg era of digital sales being permitted one week ahead of physical release and then for either one year or two weeks after physical deletion depending which came first. It wasn’t until 2007 that the plunge was fully taken and digital sales of any kind could count regardless. And so it remained for the next seven years.

We are in an era of transition, both for the music business and for the average consumer in the living room. By adding streams in 2014 the Official Charts were for once ahead of the curve in reacting to this change. We are fast approaching the point when the nettle has to be grasped again. Watch this space.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve taken to calling the slow dance between streaming behaviour, ILR playlists and the singles chart ‘the Slowest Common Denominator’ and you’re right to call out the influence of Heart FM/Magic etc.

    Labels can’t get follow ups to hits playlisted, as the previous single is still being hammered by radio. Radio stations point to the singles chart as a reason not to move on to anything new. and so things slow down all the more.

    Two years ago, the lead single off the new (eg) Olly Murs album would have been available a week before the album. Now, they’ve gone out months in advance and will hope the song sticks around somehow, gradually shoves past the accumulated chart clutter, and builds anticipation that way.

    The world keeps turning.

  2. Music is pretty dull and boring lately. In all countries and all genres. It hasn’t been this bad since 1991 or 1994. But it might be at its worst since the 1930s.

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