Sheeran: Fixing What Isn’t Broken

If you are reading this post around the same time it is published, in the middle of March 2017, you will scarcely require the topic of this post explaining. Ever since Ed Sheeran released his album Divide and duly planted all 16 of its tracks inside the Top 20 (9 of them in the Top 10) the media coverage has been enormous. Although not always on the positive side. To read some of the articles which have been printed in the press, or to hear features on some radio stations, you would think that an artist landing a large amount of very big hits all at once was akin to the end of days, a civilisation-cracking event. Or at the very least proving that the pop charts in this country are broken.

Last night I posted a new podcast dealing with this issue and put forward a theory I developed whilst talking to friends over the past few days. I’ve been studying and writing about the British charts for virtually the whole of my adult life, but I do so for the benefit of what is inevitably a transient audience. Everyone has a certain period in their life when pop music matters a great deal, when the study of the charts week by week is what defines your life and gives your memories the accompanying musical snapshot. But for most that lasts just 2-3 years and you move on, the charts now something to glance at occasionally and marvel at the “rubbish the kids are listening to” whilst safe in the knowledge it was better in your day.

The consequence of that is that virtually all of us have connected to them in some way and have an internal view on the way things should look and how they should behave, regardless of which particular era this happens to be in. This week we have a situation where an artist has done something so totally without precedent that it violates everyone’s internalised view. Hence the large numbers of people expressing unhappiness and hence my amused reaction of noting the number of people with only a passing interest in pop music who nonetheless have very strident views on the singles chart and how it should be constructed.

Some opinion pieces have taken the argument further and explored ways things can be “fixed” to stop evil bastards like Ed Sheeran in their tracks. One such piece which caught my eye this week was on the BBC’s own entertainment news website, penned by their main entertainment guru Mark Savage. BBC news items don’t allow for direct comment, but it seemed appropriate to present here my own rebuttal of all the main points in Mark Savage’s Five Ways The Singles Chart Can Be Fixed.

Redefine What A Single Is

The problem, so the argument goes, is that there is no dividing line any more, no restriction on what counts as a ‘single’. So any old album track can invade the charts. Therefore there should be some rule in place to ensure only specific tracks by an artist which qualify can register on the singles chart.

But that would be pretty much unworkable. How do you do this? I’ve seen it suggested that chart places are reserved for only the most popular 4 or 5 tracks from an album. Which is fine, until the 5th and 6th most popular tracks are more or less neck and neck and swap places each week. Why would you exclude the track which was just outside the Top 50 one week just because it has sold 5 fewer copies this week than the track it sold 5 copies more of last week. Chaos would ensue.

If you simply insist that labels designate specific tracks from an album as the chartable “singles” you also run into complications when the public decides otherwise and starts buying or streaming ‘unauthorised’ album cuts in large numbers. We are seeing this happen this week with Ed Sheeran. Far and away the most popular of all the Divide tracks is Galway Girl and all indications are that if it continues in the manner in which it has been doing it stands the best chance of any current hit of removing Shape Of You from the top of the charts. So an album track will be the Number One single. And you cannot argue that it would not make a joke of the singles chart if the best selling or most streamed track of the moment was not at the top or even on the charts at all, just because the record label didn’t make it one of the nominated few.

Fix The Formula

‘Fix’ is once more a very leading word, presuming by definition that there is something broken. This refers to the current ratio of 150 streams : 1 purchased sale, adjusted down from 100:1 at the start of this year. It has been changed once and almost certainly will be changed again as the streaming market continues to grow and evolve. Nobody is suggesting changing it just because of Ed Sheeran, and indeed you could have a 200:1 streaming ratio and Ed Sheeran would still have dominated this week. But if he is the thing which causes a jump in the market, causing custom to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer et al to notch up dramatically then I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us move to a 200: 1 ratio by the end of the year. But by no means before then.

Eliminate Passive Listening

This is the notion that much of the perceived stagnation of the market is down to people blindly listening to the various “today’s hot hits” playlists, to the extent that it swamps the true investigators, those who go on journeys of discovery and actively choose which tracks to listen to, or build their own playlists based on personal tastes. So the argument goes that the charts should not be tracking passive playlisted streams, those that follow on automatically from a user selection. The downside here is that strange though it may sound it will actually just play into people’s conservatism. The number of users who take time to explore the catalogues under their own steam is tiny compared to those who immediately go to the songs of their favourite acts time and time again. Not all playlists are bad, and Spotify’s heaviest users are unanimous in their praise for the famed “discover weekly” playlist – your own customised batch of both songs the system knows you like and other stuff (old and new) which it thinks you will like. Playlists are actually how labels get new music in front of ears and potentially into the charts. Take that away and you will find new music has more of an uphill struggle than ever before.

Include Airplay In The Charts

Radio One would love this, as the BBC article notes. But it also notes that relying on the programmers of commercial radio to positively influence the pop charts is a hiding to nothing, given the way their own research constantly insists that they should play the songs that people know and love to increase audiences. And right now the stuff that people know and love is indeed Ed Sheeran. Calls for the UK charts to incorporate airplay have been made for as long as I’ve been a music fan, and it has always been rejected by those with the power to make these choices. The Billboard chart for all its historical worth is seen as constantly in hock to the small handful of radio programmers. Say what you like about the UK charts, but it has always been the public who has shaped them. And long should that continue.

Ban Ed Sheeran

The final, tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Mark Savage isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Back in the spring of 1976, a mass re-issue programme of old Beatles singles resulted in a phenomenal chart invasion, the like of which had genuinely never been seen before. The Top 50 singles chart of April 10th saw no less than six of the places occupied by tracks by the famous Liverpudlians and there were genuine calls from those whose releases were now stuck outside the published chart for Beatles tracks to be relegated to a listing of their own, almost as if there was the assumption they would hang around forever. Which of course they didn’t.

Fifteen years later it was the album chart which was causing headaches for some. Just before Christmas 1991 a plethora of TV-advertised hits collections had made the chart rather collection-heavy. As the following clipping from Music Week shows, there were rumblings in some quarters that the album chart should be the preserve of new studio recordings. Hits compilations should be binned off to their own table, much as compilations had a year or two earlier.

We won’t see a Sheeran-only chart, any more than we saw a Beatles-only or Hits-only chart. Because the issue is this week’s issue alone. By the end of April we’ll all be wondering just what the fuss was all about, you wait and see.

Once upon a time it was thought Hits albums should be excluded.

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