I’ll never forget the worst Top 40 of my young life. In autumn 1998, Cher’s Believe was No 1 for seven weeks. As a nine-year-old chart fanatic, I was raging. Who was this ageless cyborg? What was she doing in my charts? Wasn’t hogging the top spot against the rules? (Rules I had made up – like thinking an album had to contain 10 songs.) If it hurt when she kept Steps’ Heartbeat from its rightful No 1 spot, it was nothing compared with the injustice she dealt to Bryan Adams and Mel C’s When You’re Gone. I had a devout faith in the UK Top 40 as a beacon of all that was right and true. But looking back on the charts of my childhood, they resemble the toy aisle in Woolworths, full of plasticky pop that would have repulsed fans of Britpop, which had dominated proceedings just a couple of years earlier. Still, I kept faith for a few more years.
Most music fans had a point at which the charts ceased to be a key reference point for music – mine was around 2002 – but since the demise of Top of the Pops in 2006 and the introduction of streaming, there have been fewer and fewer reasons for anyone to jump on in the first place.
Ed Sheeran's ÷ is an absolute outlier. And you shouldn’t change rules for extreme casesMartin Talbot, Official Charts Company
Ed Sheeran’s total chart domination this week – all 16 songs on his album ÷ are in the Top 20 singles, and all of his three albums are in the Top 5 albums – will be the first time in years, save the odd Christmas chart battle, that most of us have had a clue what’s going on in the Top 40. Since the introduction of streaming in June 2014, the charts have become granular and stagnant, with fewer new acts breaking through. According to BBC figures, in the first six months of 2016, there were 86 new entries in the UK singles chart, compared with 230 a decade earlier. (Incidentally, Sheeran’s single Thinking Out Loud was the first streaming-abetted No 1.) The Official Charts Company underestimated the huge effect the change would have. In 2014, the format accounted for just 41.5% of the overall singles market, at a time when 100 streams were the equivalent of one “sale”. This January, the OCC announced that the figure had almost doubled to 80%, and that it was changing its rules, though not significantly: you now needed 150 streams to count as one unit.
I asked OCC chief executive Martin Talbot if Sheeran’s chart domination would induce another shift. “We will review chart methodologies (as we continually do) to see if there is something we could or should change,” he says. “But we shouldn’t (and won’t) rush to any kneejerk actions. The highest number of streams for any album before was Stormzy last week, which achieved 21,000 album streams, then a record for a No 1 album. As a result, Stormzy’s album ended up with one track in the Top 20 and seven tracks in the Top 40. In contrast, ÷ has generated 79,000 album streams. It is an absolute outlier. And you shouldn’t change rules for extreme cases.”
You can see why they wouldn’t: the overwhelming success of a British act is great PR for an organisation that’s dwindled in relevance next to YouTube and Spotify, with their more immediate metrics of plays and stats. But it’s also terrible PR – proof, if it were needed, that the charts are now, essentially, meaningless. The UK Top 40 has never been a pure reflection of an artist’s success – in the 1990s, labels took advantage of formatting rules by releasing singles in multiple versions to encourage the diehard fans to buy them all; previously there had been badges and picture discs and all the gimmicks designed to give one single an edge over the other. The system of compiling the chart from a small number of “chart return” record shops meant it was easy to game the Top 40 by sending people in to buy particular singles in bulk.
What’s different now is that the dominance of streaming rewards passivity – repeat listening – rather than active discovery. Streaming is a measure of a person’s available listening time, which concentrates the vote into the hands of a certain group who love playing the same tracks over and over. The public’s most prevalent tastes are thus revealed in gory detail, even though the focus on enduring popularity is like ranking the most popular supermarket purchases. Milk and bread will always dominate the upper echelons, with occasional exceptions for weeks when Saturday Kitchen does something cheeky with tamarind paste and everyone ransacks the specialist aisle.
It would be snobbish to lament Sheeran’s dominance, because his music clearly means the world to millions, and the thought of an album becoming part of the fabric of people’s lives is always heartening. (Saying that, Galway Girl, the dire mishmash of Irish stereotypes that Sheeran’s label tried to keep off the record, is proving to be its second most popular track: really?) And it’s not really about him (although Sheeran is a notorious figures hound, and delayed the release of ÷ to avoid clashing with with potential competition). This also would have happened before, with Adele’s 25, if she hadn’t initially withheld it from streaming to encourage physical sales. Sheeran and Adele are among a handful of artists with the power to distort the charts like this: Sheeran knows that the only act likely to dethrone him this year is Taylor Swift.
Can the charts be fixed? Do they need to be? Adding new rules – “You can only nominate X number of singles from an album, which have a shelf life of X number of weeks before being reabsorbed into the album,” for example – would only enhance the artificiality of the enterprise. But who would new rules satisfy and serve? Arguably, the only people who care are listeners of a certain age – those old enough to remember when the charts actually were the undisputed measurement of success, and when the songs you’d hear kids singing at bus stops were the ones at the very top of the chart (and I’d count myself, at 28, in that group).
The problem isn’t so much the charts as what streaming is doing to music itself. The vast gap between pop’s behemoths and everyone else is a problem that the medium only compounds. Just this week, Hudson Mohawke’s label LuckyMe was lamenting the fact that BBC Radio 1 isn’t breaking as many records out of specialist shows as it once was, but instead following streaming analytics in choosing what to play. It also results in a winnowing of sound. There may be 16 Ed Sheeran songs in the Top 40, but there are at least half a dozen more forged in his image. With the news that Sheeran is auditioning talents for his very own boyband, who will sing his songs and support him on tour, the Sheeran Singularity only beckons.