UK Album Charts are Finally Including Digital Streams, But All is Not as it Seems
You're probably thinking, "Why does this matter? I fucking hated 'Fancy' anyway."
In 2013, Billboard caused a major shakeup when they announced that the Hot 100 singles charts would begin taking digital streams into consideration. The first week under these new rules, Baauer's "Harlem Shake" hit No. 1. Late last year, the chart maker announced a similar change for the Billboard 200 albums chart. Historically, the American charts had been driven by physical sales and, more recently, digital downloads from services like iTunes. The inclusion of streams was meant to more accurately reflect an album's real world popularity and draw information from popular streaming services. Given the size of the streaming market, this was a very big, long overdue deal.
Now Official Charts Company (OCC), the overseer of the UK's music charts, is following suit. Data from Spotify, Deezer, Napster, Google Play, O2 Tracks, Rara, Rdio and XBox Music, all members of the Entertainment Retailers Association will all contribute to the OCC's updated chart. (Curiously, both YouTube and SoundCloud, major sources of album plays, have been omitted.)
According to Billboard, 1500 plays of any track from an album is equivalent to a single album sale. Since artists are paid considerably less per track streamed, this number makes sense, but the OCC thinks otherwise. It claims that the success of breakout tracks (think Iggy Azealia's "Fancy" or Calvin Harris' "We Found Love"), many of which rack up tens of millions of plays on services like Spotify, skew the numbers in their favour and overshadow other successful albums. Rather than use Billboard's blanket method, the OCC will be taking an album's top 12 songs into consideration and down-weighting the two most popular songs to normalize the effect of breakout tracks. If you read that and weren't confused, congratulations on achieving sentience, future robot overlord. For everyone else, this chart helps make sense of their formula.
"So what," you're probably thinking. "Why does this matter? I fucking hated 'Fancy' anyway. Give the little guy a break."
In the end, your opinion on the OCC's decision lies in whether or not you believe in a free market or a regulated one. Should the producer of a breakout track deserve its success? Don't Beyoncé's 14 songwriters deserve to see their work in the top ten? In a free market, artists with hit singles would get greater recognition. On the other hand, you could argue that more up-and-coming artists deserve time in the spotlight. Must Drake always overshadow Aphex Twin? In a regulated market, artists with consistently successful albums will be better-represented.
Whatever your opinion, the OCC's inclusion of digital streams will undoubtedly cause a major stir in the tracking of albums. Predominantly digital artists will finally see their success officially represented and many more will face tough competition from streaming giants like Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, and Taylor Swift. Whether the net result will be a greater representation of dance artists of a lesser one is anyone's guess.
As measures of what we actually listen to, charts are still an imperfect system. With this change, though, they get slightly closer to accurate.
Ziad Ramley is down-weighted on Twitter.