Numbers Up For Sales

Here Comes The Science Bit

If mathematics sends your mind into a tailspin, then look away now. Because in this article I’m about to peel back the curtain on the precise numbers behind the sagging rump of the paid-for musical market. Ever wondered (as dedicated online fandoms are increasingly keen on doing) exactly how many copies the latest work by your idol has been selling over the past day or so? Unless you had friends in the music industry with access to detailed sales flashes, it was impossible to know for sure.

Only now it is. And it is all thanks to flagging sales numbers which are now exposed in a manner which surely nobody could ever have anticipated.

A Brief History Of Time

Like so many apps focused on the display and ordering of live and constantly changing data sources, iTunes is at heart an XML reader. Anyone who has ever examined the contents of their computer’s Music folder will understand this. The metadata for your entire musical database is contained in a single XML index file. This, incidentally, is the reason iTunes struggles with music collections more substantial than a couple of thousand tracks. That’s one huge file it has to scan through.

Even browsing the store part of the app works in the same manner. The client requests the live data from Apple; all delivered as an XML stream. This data was never a secret. Straightforward packet sniffing exposed just where the application was polling for its data. However the process of understanding this was made far simpler in 2012 when Apple made all the relevant URLs public and essentially opened the door for third-party developers to construct interfaces to the iTunes store or incorporate it into their personal projects.

The most interesting datasets are the ones iTunes uses to construct its internal charts. The lists of the biggest selling tracks or applications or movies of any given moment. During the height of the digital download era, the live iTunes charts were an invaluable guide to taking out much of the guesswork as to how the singles chart would look at the end of the week. Although the exact methodology used in its compilation has still never officially been confirmed, it has long been apparent that your position in the iTunes sales charts represented how many copies you had sold in the preceding 24 hours relative to everyone else.

The datasets never contain the exact sales figures, merely numbers that can be used to construct what iTunes calls the Popularity Bars, those curious blocks of lines which show you at a glance which tracks from an album or which episodes of a podcast are the most popular at that particular moment in time. The numbers are always expressed as a percentage of the most popular item in the category. Thus the Number One track of the moment always has a popularity index of 1.0, and if the second biggest was selling 92% of that total, it had an index value of 0.92.

A Valued Bookmark

Dedicated chart watchers have long made use of these numbers, thanks mainly to the work of the Dutchman known enigmatically as Kworb. His website has for years been diligently scraping the sales data for every available country and presenting them as close as possible in an hour by hour analysis of what is selling and what is trending. But deep down it was still only possible to track the “popularity bars” and look at the underlying trends they represented. There was no easy way of determining the actual numbers behind the data. This was a neat bit of obfuscation which seemed to satisfy everyone.

However since the rise of the streaming services and the corresponding collapse of the download market this obfuscation no longer works as planned. It is now possible to calculate precisely how many copies a single track has sold in the past 24 hours. All thanks to the minimal levels of sales taking place at the lower end of the market.

Above is a screencap from Kworb, showing the state of the iTunes market on Saturday (10th March). I’ve chosen Saturday simply because this represents what is usually a high point in the market and gives us some meaningful data and above all fully representative data for us to use. I first performed this exercise using data from a Wednesday, figures which were so low they were barely believable.

Notice that the tracks at the base of the Top 100 are covered by just a few tiers of percentage figures, with several tracks tied on the same numbers. Indicating they have sold exactly the same number of copies as each other. The gap between each of these tiers is tier is also uniform – in this example roughly 0.0003 percentage points each time (subject to rounding errors given that the numbers only run to four decimal places).

The implication is clear. Every time those numbers change by such a small amount, this represents a difference in sales of a single copy. Armed with that knowledge it is a simple bit of maths to work out just how many copies each track has sold based on its stated percentage points:

x / 0.0003 (where x is the number given for each track’s popularity bars)

So, say we want to calculate the sales achieved in the last 24 hours by the Number 94 single Top Off by DJ Khaled we simply have to calculate:

200 / 3 = 66.666

We round up, of course, you cannot sell fractions of a copy after all. But yes, you read that correctly. The singles at the very bottom of the iTunes Top 100 on Saturday were selling just 67 copies every 24 hours. Using this same formula we can work our way up the table to get some more meaningful numbers. For example, how many copies per day was the Number 40 single selling?

861 / 3 = 287

Just 287 copies in a day to make the Top 40 of the live iTunes chart. So what about the Top 10? Last summer when asked I would suggest to people that about 5,000 copies a day were sufficient to make the iTunes Top 10. Is that still the case right at this moment?

3702 / 3 = 1234

That’s quite jaw-dropping. The Number 10 single on iTunes as of Saturday had sold only a shade over 1,000 copies in the preceding 24 hours. Has your online fandom propelled your latest release straight into the iTunes Top 10? Then, in all honesty, there still aren’t very many of them.

If we take this to the very top of the market, the Number One single – well that is even easier to work out. We already know that its sales are expressed as 1 – or 10000 using the multipliers I’ve been using for the sake of illustration. So, therefore:

10000 / 3 = 3333

3,000 copies a day, assuming this was consistent across the week, would amount to a total weekly sale from iTunes of the Number One single of around 21,000 copies. This number is entirely in line with reported figures for the top end of the sales market, proving that our maths here is sound.

5% Of Not Very Much

At this point, you start to see how problematic it is becoming to continually look to purchased sales of music as an adequate barometer of the popularity of the pop record. This simply isn’t the case anymore. It is merely the barometer of its popularity amongst the diminishing number of people who consume music in this manner. A month ago when Kylie Minogue released her exciting new single Dancing, there were a fair number of longtime fans figuratively losing their shit online when it failed to reach the published Top 40 chart. Noting that on pure sales terms the single was the 15th biggest seller of the week, this we were told was proof of the way the integration of streaming data has “ruined” the charts.

As we now know, becoming the Number 15 best seller of the week means very little. During her first week on sale, Kylie sold just 8,000 singles. Or to put it another way, only a shade over 1,000 copies a day spread across the week. That isn’t representative of anything approaching widespread popularity.

At the start of this year, Apple was busy angrily denying a report that it was planning the imminent sunset of the iTunes store, this despite the piece alleging this being quite specific as to the timescale it was to happen and just how the customer base was going to be transferred. Denials aside, there is without question no future in the market for purchased digital tracks, these unlikely to retain the kind of niche affection that physically pressed records and CDs still maintain. Even the numbers I’ve quoted above represent an ongoing and quite calamitous collapse in the size of the paid-for digital music market.

The iTunes track download no longer has the status of a mass-market product which it once enjoyed. Everyone has moved on, and we now have the detailed numbers to prove it.

Grateful acknowledgements to the poster ‘mjdangerous’ from the Haven music forums who was the first to indicate that these calculations were possible and whose work inspired this article.

Be The First Of Your Kind

The dawning of 2018 means it grows ever more likely that we will finally see a notable, if ultimately insignificant, UK singles chart first. As the year wears on, anyone born in 2000 will reach adulthood, and even those born in the following two years are already in their late teens. If history has taught us anything this is the time when the most prodigious talents find their way into musical careers. And maybe end up at the very top of the charts.

The watershed moment we are awaiting then: the first ever Number One single performed by an artist born in the 2000s.

Following on from that it is a fun mental exercise to work out just who enjoyed the honour in decades gone by. A list which if nothing else stands you in good stead for pub quizzes should such a topic ever come up. For these purposes we are talking singers, be they solo or frontmen and women of groups. Because they are the ones everyone remembers after all.

So by my reckoning, the full list of decade pioneers, the first performers born in each decade to top the singles charts, is as follows:

1940s: Frankie Lymon (Why Do Fools Fall In Love). Born September 30, 1942. Topped the charts July 1956.

1950s: Mary Hopkin (Those Were The Days). Born May 3, 1950. Topped the charts September 1969.

1960s: Little Jimmy Osmond (Long Haired Lover From Liverpool). Born April 16, 1963. Topped the charts December 1972.

1970s: Arguably this was Dawn Ralph, the St Winifred’s School Choir member who sang lead vocals on There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma in December 1980. Her date of birth isn’t a matter of public record but she was around six years old when the song topped the charts, meaning she was born circa 1974.

If, however, we are talking specific solo performers whose age can be accurately determined then the honour goes to:

1970s: Tiffany (I Think We’re Alone Now). Born October 2, 1971. Topped the charts January 1988.

1980s: Taylor Hanson (lead vocals on Hanson’s Mmmbop). Born March 14, 1983. Topped the charts June 1997.

(again, if we want to only count solo performers then the accolade goes to Billie Piper (born September 22, 1982 and who topped the charts in July 1998).

1990s: Sean Kingston (Beautiful Girls). Born February 3, 1990. Topped the charts September 2007.

Does anyone want to disagree?


Not long after this piece was published, I received an email from reader Robin Tucker whose research deserves a wider audience. He writes:

It’s interesting that the record for someone born this millennium was almost broken way back in 2010. Will Smith’s daughter Willow (born 31 October 2000) was just ten years old when she released ‘Whip My Hair’ in December 2010. It was predicted to top the charts in some quarters, but had to settle for number two behind the Black Eyed Peas.

And as a footnote, the first person born in earlier decades (in order of the first act born in that decade to make number one) for the 1920’s was Al Martino (first number one), 1910’s Jo Stafford (second number one), 1900’s Mantovani (eleventh different number one) and 1930’s Ruby Murray (31st different number one).

I don’t know if anyone born in the 19th century ever managed a number one, the earliest I found was Louis Armstrong (born 4 August 1901).

My December In Media

Was Christmas busy for you? Mine was, and not just for the usual work-related reasons either.

December saw me spend much of the month popping up as the invited expert in a variety of media, all of which helped nicely to expose both myself and the Chart Watch site which saw a welcome boost in visitors over the same period.

So where did I end up? First in the queue was the gloriously talented Laura Snapes who was writing a piece for The Guardian about the hottest lady of 2017 – Dua Lipa. Read the article and you will see quotes from me, noting, in particular, the extraordinary way in the spring that she landed herself quite by accident with three simultaneous Top 20 hits which instantly made her one of the biggest names of the moment. I never really made the link myself when New Rules became a hit, but there is little doubt this was the momentum which propelled her to the top of the charts for the very first time.

This was one of those occasions when it only occurred to me after the fact to note one more pertinent point. Tolerating the slow burn of a brand new act is far easier than it used to be, given you can release ‘flop’ singles with minimal overhead beyond the actual recording. Digital distribution means you don’t have to press physical copies that might go unsold, and as countless big-name acts have proven you don’t even have to fund the production of a video until the track has become a substantial hit. If at all. If your first attempt fails, bin it and move on. You’ve actually lost very little. And that’s something that artists like Dua Lipa will find works increasingly to their advantage in the future.

Next, it was Christmas Number One season and things became a little frantic. First in the queue was Mark Savage from BBC Online, a reporter I’ve spoken to on and off for a number of years now. He quizzed me over the phone on the Monday morning about the Christmas Number One race which at that time was by no means the clear-cut race it turned out to be. So the resultant piece features me hedging my bets just a little but noting that Ed Sheeran has the nap hand with his multiple versions, plus the fact that he did the Strictly final that weekend and so was benefitting nicely from that exposure.

In fact, your favourite Chart Watch writer ended up quoted in several BBC News articles that week, largely based on quotes I gave in that Monday morning interview. So here is me noting how the Christmas songs on the front page of Spotify are by a strange coincidence the highest charting ones that week, followed a day later by my thoughts on how long it takes a Christmas song to turn into a bona-fide classic given our fondness for nostalgic hits rather than newly-recorded attempts at an artists’ pension plan.

However, it was to be Friday 22nd, the day that the Christmas chart itself was unveiled which would turn into my big day of media. It began with a tweet from a producer for the Drive show on 5 Live. Would I be interested in participating in a conversation about Christmas Number One hits generally later that day, and could I make it to a BBC studio somewhere? Would I ever. I told them I could attend at New Broadcasting House at their convenience and was duly booked in for a chat. It was a fun 20-minute segment featuring some other guests with their own unique perspective to add. Second only to the rather naughty thrill of appearing as an invited guest on the direct rival to the radio station I actually work for was the fun surprise of noting that the BBC’s security system still recognised me from when I’d had cause to visit the building two months earlier and they still had my picture on file for the security pass.

Here it is then, my big 5 Live Drive debut:

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Yet there was more. Earlier in the day, I had also been contacted by a researcher for the BBC News TV channel, someone also alerted to my potential as a pontificator on all things Christmas Number One. I noted to them that my booking on 5Live meant I was actually going to be present in the building around the time they wanted me to appear so it should all work out nicely. This necessitated a trip to the wardrobe to select a shirt, my first choice vetoed by Mrs Masterton who pointed out I was wanting to wear the exact same outfit I had used to appear on TV five years earlier. And these things matter apparently. Shirt and tie duly knotted, I was off into town to turn myself into a global superstar. Of a kind.

I was actually glad I’d done the radio appearance first. Because I am at home in a radio studio and was relaxed and happy and had already warmed up my opinions. It meant that being guided down to the green room by the enthusiastic intern who had become my personal runner for the evening and awaiting makeup was by no means as nerve-wracking as it might have been. So it was, to the surprise of several relatives and one or two colleagues who happened to be tuned in at that time, I made my first live TV appearance in 18 years. And all three minutes of it is captured below.

So there you are, another in my sporadic bursts of minor celebrity as I prove that if you try hard enough you can have multiple 15 minutes of fame, just spread out a little. But hopefully, this also proves that I give incredibly good copy, make a well-spoken radio guest and can scrub up well to appear on camera to be on television as well. And if you are a journalist or a researcher wanting to add some colour to a story about pop music or the charts, I can probably be of some use.

Oh yes, and this all helped to add to the usual Christmas time spike in interest in the Chart Watch UK site. Rather curiously the most-read piece of that period was not the Christmas Number One announcement itself, but that of the one before. Perhaps it was just a question of timing.