The Great 2017 Chart Shake Up

So now it can be revealed. Rumours have swirled, talk has circulated and speculation has mounted. At least if you knew where to look. The Official UK Singles chart is to get a tweak to the rules used in its compilation. It is a change that will send certain purists into a frenzy, and have others nodding in agreement that it all makes sense. And will probably baffle many members of the general public when they need to have it explained to them.

So let me here try to explain how and perhaps most importantly of all why.

The singles chart matters. Far more than many people outside the music industry realise. It is the driver of radio programming, TV production, the promotion of albums and much, much more than I can articulate here. So when it stops working it creates enormous problems for everyone.

Those problems should be fairly obvious to most watching, even if I’ve been one of those stridently insisting that we should wait and see how things shake out. Because those with more influence and less patience than I have called for them to be fixed. They are:

  • The slowing down of the singles market. The charts ‘clogged up’ with long-running popular hits that have entered a slow burn decline as streams. Great for longevity records. Hard work for those trying to break new music.
  • The single artist dominations. Ed Sheeran’s 9 out of 10 in the Top 10 may have been a genuine freak one-off, but with artists such as Drake, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamarr and Stormzy demonstrating that their fans will consume new product en-masse and once again clog up the singles chart, it has now become necessary to mitigate the problem.

So as of next week (for the singles chart published on Friday, July 7th) two crucial new rules will apply:

Three Is Tops

This was the one that everyone seemed to know about in advance. The three-track cap as it will be known. No more than the three most popular tracks (based on sales and streams) by any one lead artist will be permitted to feature in the Top 100. This will raise hackles, the first time in over 10 years that there has been any kind of forced removal rule in effect, disqualifying certain tracks altogether.

The logic here is straightforward. It will prevent album tracks from popular artists taking up multiple positions in the singles chart, and thus barging potential hits from other, less insanely popular acts, out of the way. It will also address a common criticism I’ve seen of the present rules, that a stream of a track will essentially be double-counted – adding both to the singles chart position of the track and contributing to the total streams attributed to an album. The streams of the two most popular tracks on an album will continue to be downplayed by the album chart compilation process and whilst this remains for the moment an imperfect mix, you can be at least reassured that streaming a random album track will only register that track for the album.

There are two important points to note here. This doesn’t restrict artists or labels from releasing more than three singles from an album. Just that they cannot have them charting all at once. And if Hit 1 has burned out and fallen away, then Hit 4 is free to join 2 and 3 in the upper reaches. Plus it does not rule out acts still managing more than 3 hits at a time. If someone does a Justin Bieber and is the featured guest on multiple singles by other people, they will all chart at once. There is still no restriction here.

Downplay The Long Tail

Prior to 2007 the ‘official’ bit of the singles chart only went down to Number 75. Below that point, there was a ‘starring-out’ rule in place. Omitting older hits which were in steep decline from the rankings to thus benefit newer releases and other upwardly mobile arrivals. We aren’t about to go back to those days, but the growing presence of the long tail of streaming, the fact that the singles chart now registers long-term engagement as much as it does discovery means there has to be an elegant way of moving ‘legacy’ hits out of the way.

So this is how it will work. A new streaming ratio will be introduced for hits that are in steep, prolonged decline.

Once a track is at least 10 weeks old, AND has registered 3 consecutive weeks of chart sales decline then its streams switch to a 300:1 ratio as opposed to the 150:1 of others. This will punish long-running hits such as One Dance or even Castle On The Hill, moving them gently out of the way following the peak of their commercial appeal but whilst some die-hards still insist on listening to them over and over again.

I’m told from test charts that this effect will be subtle but significant. We won’t see tracks vanish abruptly from the Top 20 as they did back in the “curate’s egg” days of 2006. Instead older singles should actually behave like they did in the old days when they were reliant on shops continuing to stock them. They will reach a low point and then start to sink fast. And once again clear the path for fresher, newer material. Just to keep everything vibrant.

Irk The Purists

Any rule changes of this nature, particularly ones which change the very fundamentals of singles qualification tend to attract an instantly negative response from a small core of music fans. It is meddling, they say. Messing with what used to be the simple purity of a chart which tracked what people bought without favour or bias.

Yet the UK charts have for decades been beholden to rules, and ones which are revised and updated as circumstances require. It seems to jar now because we spent over seven years from 2007 with precious little change and only minor tweaks to admit songs that might have fallen down the cracks. But behind it all is a strict structure of rules, regulations, strictures and eligibility criteria. Most of which arrived into being with the aim of fixing a problem which was threatening to undermine the credibility of the survey.

Really what has been announced today is no different. And on the face of it the impact will be less radical than it might at first appear. The second half of the year should, however, start to see a singles chart that becomes just that bit more vibrant, just a shade more interesting week in week out and in the process the perfect platform for the next exciting new trend in British music to emerge.

You cannot innovate or contend by standing still. The Billboard Hot 100, the gold standard of music charts and one of the most powerful brands in the world, has since 1958 been an odd hybrid of sales metrics, data sources and ever-changing rules. It adapts, evolves and adjusts according to trends in the market and to embrace new formats and technology. To suggest the Official UK Charts should not follow suit would be to invite Britain to stagnate in comparison.

I see the stats for myself. When major chart news breaks the interest in chart-watch.uk goes through the roof. When little happens only the hardcore come along to take a look. And as a lover of pop music, a passionate fan of the pop charts and as writer who loves a story no matter what the source, I want as many people as possible to come along for the ride.

3 Comments

  1. I’m all for changes that kick older songs down the chart, though I’m wondering whether they’ve got the rules right. Do we know whether it’s going to apply to songs outside the top 10 or something like that? Or could it potentially be applied to #1 singles that have just declined in sales 3 weeks running, kicking them perhaps unfairly from #1?

    • My thoughts exactly. The Hot 100 has been getting this right since 1990-something – I really don’t know the year, sorry! The rules there are pretty simple: any song is kicked out of the chart after 20 weeks in case it stands on any position in the bottom 50. Of course, any “late bloomers” can be ultimately excepted, as Billboard reviews these things on a case-by-case basis – plus, it helps if the label asks directly to apply the exception.

  2. First it’s not as most people thought a 3 track album rule, thus allowing another 3 tracks off a new album to come into play, as mentioned in your podcast. It’s a 3 record rule for a solo artist. So if they bring out a new album and three tracks from it sell more than the three tacks in the chart, the three already in will drop out. This could mean some big falls out from the chart. Possibly to come back next week about the same position as it fell out, if the sales of some or all the new tracks fall off.
    What will happen when a major artist such as Cliff or Paul McCartney dies?
    Will the OCC allow a flood of tracks or just 3?
    Will artists simply get around these rule by having collaborations albums with different artists?

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