Entertainment

The Strange, Tortured Evolution of the UK Music Charts

The Official UK Album and Singles Charts were once the only barometer of musical success. These days, it's a lot more complicated.
September 2, 2020, 8:00am
What Is the Point In the UK Music Charts In 2020?
Collage by Marta Parszeniew (pictures all Creative Commons: i, ii, iii, iv, v). 

When you think of the British charts, you might remember Blur v. Oasis at the height of Britpop or when Rage Against The Machine beat X Factor’s Joe McElderry to the Christmas number one in 2009. You might remember spending Sunday evenings recording select tracks from the Official Top 40 on Radio 1 because your Mum refused to buy you an Eminem tape or having your world changed as you tuned into the chaotic chart show ‘Top of the Pops’ every week.

Since its conception in the 50s, the Official UK Album and Singles Charts have remained largely unchanged until the turn of this century. Originally published by various market research companies and magazines – NME’s rival mag ‘Record Mirror’ provided the first “official album chart” in 1956 with ‘Melody Maker’ and trade publication Record Retailer also having stints in charge – until the Official Chart Company was set up at the peak of Cool Britannia in 1997 by what is now known as the Entertainment Retailers Association and the British Phonographic Industry (comprising the three major labels plus hundreds of independent labels).

After digital downloads data was incorporated into the charts in 2004, streaming was added in March 2015. The rules were next rejigged in 2017 to limit the amount of tracks one act could have in the singles chart after a dangerous amount of Ed Sheeran ended up in the Top 20 (a preposterous 16 songs).

At their core the Official Charts have always been a countdown of what’s popular, whether that’s through sales, streaming or digital downloads. The issue we have now, though, is working out what value each medium holds, and how you compare them. According to the OCC, 1,000 album streams equals one sale, but streaming and buying a physical product are two very different ways to consume music.

Despite the vinyl revival, sales are down across the board. In May 2020, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia became the lowest selling number one album ever when it shifted just 7,317 copies in its sixth week of release. Half as many albums were bought in 2018 than were in 2010 and lockdown only intensified that downturn. In a world of falling sales, New Music Friday playlists, algorithm-based suggestions and mates shouting about songs on every possible social media platform, an Official Chart feels redundant for discovery and doesn’t seem to offer any comment on culture. So what do the British charts mean in 2020 and should the average person care?

The discussion around the relevance of the Official Charts is normally reserved for self-serious music critics – but that changes when your mum knows who Fontaines D.C. are because they got a number two album in the charts.

“There is still a chart countdown show on Radio 1, and you have to remember that not everyone is out there obsessively digging around trying to find new music,” explains Danny Corr, head of Marketing at Roadrunner Records (Creeper, Slipknot). “The charts still inform a lot of people about what’s going on and what artists they should look out for.”

Liz Goodwin, General Manager of Atlantic Records UK, told me that despite the broad range of acts at their label at different stages of their career, “ultimately the charts are important for all of our artists in the long term. A popular track and album campaign opens up more promo opportunities and new audiences to grow the artist’s ‘story’ even further in the UK and across the world.”

It’s not just an industry yardstick, either. Getting a Top 20 meant a lot to Dream Wife, whose second album So When You Gonna… entered at number 19 this year. Not only were they the only band in the Top 20 signed to an independent label, they were the only group with a record produced entirely by womxn.

“I don’t think we ever thought about getting in the charts before we realised we had a chance,” explains vocalist Rakel Mjöll. “We realised it was more than a number: it helps us get booked by festivals, get better slots and helps us get played on the radio more. It shows you’re worth taking a chance on.”

Despite rock music’s very vocal, passionate and engaged fanbase – heavy music mecca Download is the second largest festival in the UK, bested only by Glastonbury – the genre doesn’t get the mainstream recognition it once did. Without Top Of The Pops or a radio-friendly single, the Official Album Chart is their last stand for mainstream recognition. For guitar bands, those charts matter.

“I do think the stuff that charts is important, especially when you see rock bands in there,” says Will Gould, vocalist of theatrical punk band Creeper. When their second album Sex, Death and The Infinite Void debuted at number five after a chart scrap with Boyzone legend Ronan Keating, “it felt like a victory for the community”.

Jamie Osman, Owner of Real Life Management & Easy Life Records, agrees: “For that community, the charts are important. It's important to show that rock music can stay in the mainstream and stand up against some of the big boys.”

Now in 2020 we’re witnessing something odd. Suddenly internationally recognised acts like Dua Lipa or Lewis Capaldi who receive huge streaming numbers face off against little British bands like Dream Wife, Creeper and Sea Girls who inspire a diehard UK fanbase to actually buy their album, often multiple times. Over the past few months we’ve seen Sports Team take on Lady Gaga, Fontaines D.C. scrap with Taylor Swift and last month, The Magic Gang were hot on the heels of Katy Perry.

These David and Goliath-type chart battles happen because the way they’re calculated means there’s currently no guaranteed way to the top of the charts, but multiple different slippery paths. As Sports Team’s Alex Rice tells me, “Since the sales numbers are low for everyone, you can have these people that take on the charts on the basis of having a fanbase that's incredibly committed, which is why the album chart feels so exciting right now – there's more scope for a bit of an upset.”

The sales versus streaming battle has spilled over into a debate about album sales as part of a “bundle” – an album sold with, say, a T-shirt or tour ticket, often as a ridiculously good offer – and how valid they are. Across the pond in America, the Billboard chart has already introduced a few new rules to restrict their impact after Travis Scott’s Astroworld beat Nicki Minaj’s huge record Queen to the number one slot thanks to him selling copies of the record as part of a bundle with merch and tickets.

At the start of 2020, Billboard changed the rules (bringing them in line with the OCC’s) so the consumer must be able to buy a cheaper, album-less version of whatever is included in the bundle. Acts also have to provide pre-sale access even if you don’t want to buy an album, usually via a mailing list sign-up. However, in July, Billboard announced that they’re going one step further. Starting from October 2020, no album bundle will count towards their chart. If you want to buy a shirt and a copy of the record, it has to be done as two independent “add to cart” clicks.

It’s important to note that the charts have never been fair playing fields. “People used to goose the system all the time,” offers Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley, who reached Number Two with their third album Dreamland. “Back in the day when it was only people buying records, there was all this jiggery pokery with labels just shipping thousands of records to stores” to make it look like they’d sold more, as well as urban legends of rich fathers spending five-figure sums on multiple copies.

Today there’s still a healthy sense of bending the rules. Nine days after Billboard announced their imminent “no bundle rule”, Taylor Swift broke with a career’s worth of tradition and announced that her eighth album Folklore (alongside 17 physical variations and plenty of merch bundles) would be released the next day. Maybe Taylor did just want to do something different to keep her fans on her toes or maybe she, one of the most business-savvy pop stars around, didn’t want these looming rule changes to affect her chances of getting a number one album. Why would you risk breaking a six-album streak at number one?

Ben Sisario, the New York Times_’s music business reporter noted this. On their music podcast, _Popcast, he said, “Maybe she had an album ready to go, got word the chart rules were going to change, so they decided to drop it straight away. Maybe that’s why Taylor did the very uncharacteristic thing of announcing an album the day before she released it.” It’s probably what I’d do if I was one of music’s biggest stars, but not every act can change an album campaign at a moment's notice.

Smaller bands who fight their way into the charts are also at risk of being called out for their use of bundles. Both Creeper and Sports Team were accused of these tactics in the week their album was released. Certainly without selling physical copies of their album, they wouldn’t stand a chance of charting because their streaming numbers are in the thousands not millions but, as Rice tells me, everyone is at this game. His band Sports Team narrowly lost out to Lady Gaga for a number one album with their debut, Deep Down Happy, earlier this year.

After the week-long campaign that saw fans from all genres pick their side (indie vs pop) and spend the last of their cash on various copies, hundreds of sales that Sports Team earned from selling the album on Google Play for 99p were disqualified. Ironically, it was Lady Gaga selling her album Born This Way for 99 cents back in 2011 that caused Billboard to add a minimum value ($3.49) for an album sale to count.

“The charts have always had this wild west feel to them. The Official Chart Company is basically a gentlemen's agreement between label bosses,” says Rice. “I thought it was this independent organisation but it relies on the funding of all these labels.” Naturally, they’d want their international superstar pop acts to top the charts over smaller, underground bands.

Still, from week one of release to week two, Sports Team fell 69 chart places. This is typical of smaller British artists and speaks volumes about the importance of not just placing but retaining a good chart position. A high chart position held for only a week as the artists disappears off the face of the leaderboard suggests an intense following, but a small one.

But what if the charts didn’t exist for the bands or the industry at all? “Fans across all genres really care about the charts,” Bayley says of typical tribal, loyal followers. “They want the music that they like to do well and they love sharing it. When you see that other people like that music too, it makes you feel good.”

The albums that have done surprisingly well in the charts this year have inspired imagination and fan engagement. From the ambition of Sports Team pretty much demanding a chart position (“the campaign for number one starts now,” declared the original album announcement) through Creeper’s escapist CreeperCon, a day-long interactive extravaganza featuring Q&As, live videos and games, to Glass Animals’ free-for-all Zoom listening parties and Open Source library with all the tools to remix your own version of their tracks, it’s been about recapturing that feeling of community at a time where there isn’t any.

It’s also amplified the ever-present conversation that there’s no money in streaming. An album sale might mean the same as 1,000 Spotify streams to the OCC but on average that’ll only earn the artist £2.80 (£5.40 if it’s Apple Music). As Osman explains, “coronavirus has made a lot of fans feel like they need to help support their favourite artists because it's so fucking tough right now. No one is going to make a penny touring for probably another 18 months. Fans want that connection with the artist directly.”

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Gould remembers how many gig livestreams there were at the beginning of lockdown (“exhausting”) and links that to people at home desperately wanting to feel heard in the pre-existing communities they had. “Our chart position is a good example of that. How much more can you make your voice heard than by betting on the things you love?”

The OCC already runs separate charts for vinyl, streaming and rock and alternative but none of them have the historic significance of the Official Album or Singles Chart. Despite these debates, we all know getting a number one album still means something, even if the calculations behind it are constantly shifting. They provide a measure of first week excitement, which is what music should inspire. I’d argue that that’s more culturally significant than taking undercooked stabs at working out how many copies a record shifted compared to The Beatles’ White Album, especially since the landscape of consuming music has changed so drastically in the past five years with streaming.

For the ordinary people who invest in bands, it’s the perfect place to do battle for your favourites as a little taste of rebellion. Bands gatecrashing the Official Album Chart has taken the place of Kurt Cobain taking the piss on Top Of The Pops while Nirvana fans go wild in the front row. It’s funny, a bit silly and years from now, people will still be talking about it. I was there when Sports Team battled Lady Gaga and I’ve got the cassettes (I could never actually play) to prove it.

@JustDip