Ed Sheeran’s record-breaking success has prompted calls for a “drastic rethink” of the UK singles chart as his bestselling album hit No 1 across the world.
The singer-songwriter’s third album, ÷ (Divide), is the No 1 album in charts in the UK, US, Australia and around Europe after becoming the fastest-selling album by a UK male artist.
But while in the UK all 16 of Divide’s songs dominated the Top 20 singles chart, fuelled by the burgeoning popularity of streaming services like Spotify, there were concerns that the dominance of the singles chart by one artist was destroying its credibility.
Alison Wenham, chief executive of the independent music body Worldwide Independent Network, said there was no doubt that Sheeran was “wildly, incredibly popular” but that the domination of one album had a “certain chill factor in the charts” that drowned out other artists.
“Having Ed Sheeran dominate virtually the whole of the Top 20 is indicative of the fact it is evolving and the rules will need to be examined fairly regularly in terms of the conversion – how many streams equals a download,” she said.
Recently introduced rules mean that 150 plays of a song on Spotify or other streaming services count as one sale, a system brought in to try and more accurately reflect the public taste as single sales declined. Wenham said the singles chart should be changed so that it “has a degree of value associated with it, people have paid to listen to it”.
Streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer, Napster, O2 Tracks, Apple Music, Amazon Music Unlimited, Rara and Xbox Music – most of which charge subscribers a monthly fee to listen to unlimited music – provide compilers with weekly data. But the chart also counts plays from non-paying listeners.
Industry experts have also suggested increasing the number of streams that currently equates to a single unit. But Martin Talbot, chief executive of the Official Charts Company, said it would not “rush to any kneejerk actions” in light of Sheeran’s success, though it is considering changes to its methodology.
Jon Webster, president of the music managers group MMF, said the singles chart needed as “drastic rethink”. “You should be looking at two different things: what’s happening in streaming, and what’s happening in sales. You can’t mix them. It ends up in two different metrics and that’s the problem,” Webster said.
“When you were a kid and you bought a single, if you played it 500 times over five weeks it was still only one sale. But now we’re having that 500 times over five weeks in the chart. We live in a different world, and we need a different chart for a different world.”
Jeremy Pritchard, the bassist in Manchester indie rock band Everything Everything, said the charts company could introduce new rules about what counts as a single. “Something needs to happen,” he said. “There should be some rules concerning what is and isn’t a single. If we’re still calling it the singles chart, should we be letting in stuff which hasn’t been identified as a single?
Pritchard said the charts were “more meaningful now in terms of a purely populist metric” than ever before due to the waning influence of radio stations. He added: “I think everyone’s only just starting to wake up to the idea that things are slightly skewed since streaming has been introduced to the count.
“It’s indicative of a problem the music industry has been facing for 15 years, which is the old model’s don’t apply to the current culture.”
Mark Mulligan, an analyst at MIDiA Research, said the industry had become caught in “existential angst about streaming” and that the singles chart was no longer fit for purpose.
He said: “Do we want the charts to reflect how popular an artist is? If we do then we do what we’re doing now. Or do we want one which reflects sales and where the revenue is flowing? If it’s that then we need to do something else.”
Sheeran’s album sold 672,000 copies in the UK, 451,000 copies in the US and 97,014 in Australia. It is also at the top of the charts in Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden.