Op-Eds

Counting Video Streams Won't Change Much in the UK Singles Chart

Including YouTube and other services may still not do enough to boost underground and independent artists in our major label-heavy charts.

by Tshepo Mokoena
26 June 2018, 9:56am

Dua Lipa, repping the literal UK charts (Photo by Pixie Levinson via PR)

It’s a clever, slightly eerie, slice of marketing. Dua Lipa sits outside what looks like a shed, its slats painted red. She’s wearing at least six necklaces and a smile, and this is not a music video designed to help sell her music. Instead, it’s a minute and a half of one of the UK’s biggest pop breakthroughs talking about the cold mechanics of the UK charts. Looking into the lens, she’s as charming as ever. Her slightly sleepy enthusiasm, conjured up for literal chart data, makes the video look like a cross between the end of a YouTuber’s “Glowy skin with a nude lip GRWM!!” and a hostage video designed to put your family’s minds to rest.

“On Friday 6 July, the UK’s official singles chart,” – plug alert – “as heard on Radio 1, is getting some new rules of its own.” Yes, hehe, of course – the Official Charts Company somehow roped her into making their dry press release into a video because her massive 2017 hit “New Rules” is also about… new rules. “For the very first time,” she continues, “singles will now be including video streams.” Every few words, her eyes flicker towards the bottom of the lens, where no doubt she’s having to read off some script written by an Official Charts employee. The more technical and insider-y the information she has to parrot, the more her eyes pull down (see: stuff about the “15,000 shops and digital outlets” that already sell music which charts in the UK, or the very specific day and time when you can turn on the radio to hear the singles chart).

So what does any of this mean, for people who like music but may not have bank accounts or the funds in them to pay for lots of streaming services? At the moment, not much. The UK charts have, for years now, managed to feel alienating to both young people pushing replay on YouTube or Soundcloud and the older generation who yell about how ‘including streaming messed up me bloody charts!!’ The internet makes music splinter into smaller and smaller niche groups, where a globally mainstream act like 5 Seconds of Summer can feel as important to one listener as AJ Tracey and Not3s are to another. Without a Top of the Pops and MTV-style centralised point to function as a tastemaker (can you imagine a 14-year-old today waiting for appointment television to tell them what music to like?), the charts seem to reflect less of a universal thermometer of ‘what’s hot’ and more a measurement of which major label acts are doing best on radio, on the CDs people still buy for their cars and then a little sliver of what’s popping off on digital streaming services.

I’ve written before about how out of touch the UK charts can feel. They seem to exhibit a pattern of a few behaviours. In one, you have a sure thing. This is a song that typically jumps into the charts in the top 5, before its video is even out – see Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss,” a 90s house, dance pop facsimile released on 6 April. After one week in the charts, it jumped from number 3 to number 1 on 20 April. The song stayed in the top spot for eight weeks, making it one of the longest-running number 1s by a female lead artist this decade. And you already know where you hear it: everywhere. Each time you step into an Uber; when you happen to pass by a car with an open window while walking or cycling; somehow after every music video you watch on YouTube because the algorithm always makes it play next?? It’s a classic ‘in up top, boosted by a video’ smash.

Then you’ve got the songs like Drake’s “Nice for What.” All about the video. But also then streamed relentlessly and added to party playlists that toggle back and forth between “Nice for What” and “I Like It” by Cardi B, Jay Balvin and Bad Bunny. “Nice for What” came out so aggressively, with such a lavishly produced, cameo-packed visual, that it debuted at number 1, stayed at number 2 for weeks, then slowly began its dignified walk back down the chart ladder. All this at a time when, obviously, video plays didn’t yet count towards the UK charts. “God’s Plan,” on the other hand, came in at number 1 in February and stayed there for nine weeks. After 22 weeks in the charts, it’s only just slid out of the top 40, to number 41, this week. Unlike “Nice for What,” the video didn’t come out at the same time as the song, but Drake can flex his power on streaming services whether he has music videos to help him out or not.

Finally, you’ve got the ‘crack open the bubbly in the label office, the promo has been worth it’ tracks that are more like slow burners. These ones start off somewhere modest in the top 40, say in the mid-30s, and begin to creep their way up until they’re fizzing in the top 5. Dua Lipa’s “IDGAF,” “If You’re Over Me” by Years & Years and the absolute hellscape that is Rudimental’s “These Days,” featuring Jess Glynne, Macklemore and Dan Caplen have all gone this route. It’s the bread and butter of big-spending promotional campaigns that pair radio airplay with that Spotify-friendly dolphin sound production and chucking a ton of names together to scoop in the biggest-possible audience (keep Years & Years out of those last two methods, though, they’re not a focus grouped act).

Now, even though our charts are about to fold video streams into tallying up sales, these patterns are unlikely to change much. Yes, it is a good thing for The Industry to recognise that younger people often don’t have the disposable income (or the personal bank accounts, hello, they’re 15) to spend on music subscriptions. Video streaming and buying gives them the chance to “participate” in how the charts work, to an extent. But really, this tweak is still likely to favour the biggest artists with the biggest budgets, who can afford video treatments that make people want to watch and rewatch their content.

I’d be interested to see whether these new rules boost sales for the lo-fi bedroom pop kids, the various afro-pop and afrobeats rising stars or more underground UK rap acts with very dedicated (though smaller) audiences than the Childish Gambinos or George Ezras. And, as with the US Billboard charts, paid-for video streams (ie: when you pay for a Tidal or newly launched YouTube Music account) will still count for more than free ones supported by ads. Ultimately, this is a moment of victory for the more traditional parts of the business first. But, if you’re lucky to be someone on Dua Lipa’s level, that can work in your favour too. Just look into the camera and read this line, will you?

You can find Tshepo on Twitter.