The pop charts are broken. As a measure of the nation’s musical fads and obsessions, the UK singles Top 40 is redundant, defective, malfunctioning, outmoded, no longer fit for the purpose. It is about as hip, hot, and on trend Monty Python’s parrot.
Ed Sheeran currently occupies nine spots in the top 10. He has an astonishing, all time record breaking 16 hits in the Top 20. Sixteen! That must have made for the most boring chart countdown in radio history. “At number 10 … Ed Sheeran. At number nine… it’s that man again, Ed Sheeran.
At number eight … your friend and mine, Ed Sheeran. In at number seven …” (And so on, until the announcer falls asleep at his microphone or listeners switch over to the Shipping Forecast in search of greater novelty and excitement.)
Is Britain in the grip of Sheeranmania? Are the nation’s youth all sporting carrot top wigs and fake geeky glasses? Have sales of acoustic guitars gone through the roof? Are hysterical schoolgirls chasing bespectacled buskers around the streets screaming? Not in my neighbourhood anyway.
So what has happened? The world’s current favourite pop star released a new album ÷, and, by the ridiculously lax and mathematically innumerate rules governing the way internet streams are counted towards sales, the whole of his album (plus Bonus tracks) has taken up residence in the Singles Chart (whilst also holding the number one spot in the UK album charts). I am not sure Ed Sheeran has even released 16 singles in his career. But somehow he has managed to notch up 16 hit singles in a week.
Streaming has totally ruined the singles charts because it simply does not measure the way fans actually engage with music. Once upon a time, children, back in the pre-history (i.e. before the internet), to get into the singles chart you had to actually put out a single. Amazing, eh. And then your fans had to save up their pocket money and go and buy it in a record shop.
For obvious reasons, that is not the way it works anymore. For one thing, there are no record shops, at least not ones frequented by the youth of the nation. But here is an interesting little fact. If you only counted physical sales, involving the purchase of an actual vinyl or CD single over the counter in an actual shop, Sheeran only has two singles in the Top 100 this week. Meanwhile, vintage electronic group Depeche Mode sit proudly aloft at number one with a song calling for political revolution, and David Bowie, Blondie and the Buzzcocks are all in the Top Ten.
Which kind of goes to show that most people still buying records are sad old music geeks like me. It is actually a good argument for including internet data in the singles charts.
If you count paid for downloads, where there is an individual financial transaction for an individual track across the internet, the chart looks a bit different. The oldies drop out, but Ed Sheeran is not quite so dominant, with just six tracks in the top 20. These are the key songs off his new album that fans are honing in on, and willing to purchase without going the whole hog.
But add the streaming data, and every other artist is wiped out in a Sheeran blitz. Because streaming does not reflect any genuine personal investment in music, or how that music is consumed.
Streaming was added to the singles chart in 2014 and has been throwing up comically absurd anomalies ever since. In 2015, eight songs from Justin Bieber’s Purpose album charted in the week of the album’s release. The number of new artists making their chart debut is falling by the year, as hit singles by established stars become entrenched at the top and take months to fade away (Drake’s One Dance, spent 15 weeks at number one last year, hanging on long after sales had completely dried up and it was no longer being played on the radio).
This is effectively down to their inclusion on multiple streaming playlists in major music services like Apple Music and Spotify. It works very much like internet radio, meaning that listening is mostly passive. You don’t choose an individual track you stick on a curated playlist and let the service choose for you. The metrics tend to mean the more high profile a track is, the more playlists it will be included on, and the more times it will be played. It is a self-serving loop from which listener choice is being excluded.
Buying and listening are clearly not the same thing. Back when music fans invested in pieces of vinyl, no one counted how many times they played it at home. Ten times? A hundred? Five hundred? Now every play of every track on every album counts towards its position in the singles chart. Whether you chose it or not. Whether you are even paying attention or not.
Cleary chart compilers have to to keep up to date and tabulate the ways people get their musical fix, and this currently means counting plays on phones and computers, mainly from streaming services. They started in 2014 by saying 100 plays equals one sales which looks like a nice round figure but is utterly meaningless. In response to chart anomalies, they recently changed that to 150 plays equalling one sale.
But if you keep listening, you keep notching up sales. Which would be like going out and buying the same record again. And again. And again. (Thousands of hours of monthly listening for a fixed fee on a premium service works out cheaper than buying a handful of singles or just one album, which says a lot about how much young people actually value pop music.).
So how do we fix the broken singles charts? Well, it’s not that hard, and doesn’t even involve forcibly separating Ed Sheeran from his acoustic guitar. Raise the number of streams that equals an actual single sale, to reflect the difference between personal investment and passive listening, because 150:1 clearly isn’t working. And set a cut-off point so that when listeners reach the designated number of plays any further plays don’t count as new sales.
Or how about simply designating certain tracks as official singles, so that the charts are not automatically bombarded whenever a major star releases a new album? In other words, let’s leave albums in the Album charts, and singles in the Singles.