Tweaking the UK Singles Chart Won’t Bring Back Its Relevance
The Official Charts Company will now limit how many songs from one album can flood the charts but may be missing the point.
Ed Sheeran basically made the charts company rethink everything. Photo by Eva Rinaldi
Everyone breaks at one stage or another. I once watched an altogether calm woman, sat on a bench in Brighton, turn into a snarling and screaming flurry of flying hair, bared teeth and flapping blouse when a seagull casually swooped to grab the sandwich she was eating out of her hand. She'd been having a real nice time, minding her own business, and had already shooed the bird away once with her foot. But this was too much. She'd reached her limit.
And so to this week's news, of the UK's Official Charts Company – the entity that looks after both the album and singles charts – having it all the way up to *here* with Ed Sheeran and Drake stans making the charts a monolithic mess. They've announced rules that will take hold in July, setting the maximum number of songs from a new album that can enter the singles chart at any one time to three. You may remember, in the days after releases from people like Sheeran, Drake, Stormzy or Chainsmokers, headlines revolving around how each artist had managed to push a load of album tracks into the singles Top 40. At one point, for some context, all 16 songs from Sheeran's album were in the Top 40, which is not only an embarrassment for this country but a sign that the way the industry's trying to account for digital streams hasn't quite got it together.
Before the internet existed, one artist's chart saturation on this scale was unheard of. Sure, acts like the Beatles, Whitney Houston and Bryan Adams have all enjoyed runs of singles that settled down on top of the charts and refused to budge for weeks. But now that we can all make a playlist of our fave's new album, hit play then toggle "repeat all" on a loop for all time, the way the singles chart accounts for hits has been kicked in the side and sent wobbling. "In the past 12 months," read the Official Charts Company's statement, "artists including Drake, Stormzy, Kendrick Lamar, Chainsmokers, Little Mix, The Weeknd and Ed Sheeran have had multiple tracks in the Top 40. The changes will limit the domination of such artists, with streaming of tracks (as music fans listen to their favourite albums) spilling over into the singles chart."
These are the very real times in which we live, where even the people who have to spend every working day analysing and understanding the buying behaviour of casual music fans, your nan who likes Rag'n'Bone Man and the teens who log onto their older cousin's Spotify premium accounts for infinite streams have snapped. They've had it. And they've come to realise that the way music is consumed now no longer gels with how the singles charts work.
But beyond setting a rule that picks a certain number of songs from a single album that can chart, you'd assume the OCC were also stepping back and rethinking their logic more broadly. Back when Sheeran's album flooded the charts in March, the company's executive hinted to the Guardian that they would consider another tweak as a result, with the caveat that "we shouldn't (and won't) rush to any knee-jerk actions". Looks like we've reached that point, where more rules are being added to a system that may not be quite ready to admit something simpler: the charts don't hold the same sort of significance for music fans that they did decades ago.
In December, the OCC upped the number of streams that count as one "purchase" from 100 to 150 to try and deal with the force of obsessive fans who smash replay on the same artists over and over again. What we have here, with this three-song limit, feels like less of a reform than a temporary solution while the recording industry grapples with yet another wave of change in the way that people listen to, and consume, music. I'm guessing that if you sat around with your friends – and with those who say they love music most in particular – it's unlikely you'd all be referencing the singles and album charts as important places for you to discover artists.
It'd be a stretch to even consider the charts as inspiring musical locales, spots where your tastes can billow and stretch around the forms of songs you'd be unlikely to bump into on your regular traipse around the artists you love. I mean, lol, by the time Top of the Pops died so had most of the excitement around whatever was even in the "hit parade" your parents used to love so much. More often than not, an unfamiliar name in the singles Top 100 right now would lead you to the dregs of the last remaining pop house producers – ie: number 29 at the time of writing, November 2016 single "Solo Dance" by Martin Jensen – or whoever's dropping tropical pop house in time for a song of the summer contender (hello, Jonas Blue featuring William Singe, on "Mama" at number 6). The way we all get into music has splintered in so many directions that we're just not united by that one list in any sort of a meaningful way (though absolute kudos to Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee uniting both the US and UK in love for the "Despacito" remix this year).
So yes, while changes to the way the charts are computed are probably very interesting for people knee-deep in the industry, it's hard to tell how much any of that will mean to music lovers and the sorts of people who spend hours losing themselves on Soundcloud, their favourite digital radio stations, DJ sets on slippery dancefloors, playlists made by their friends and whichever blog stalwarts they may still follow. Simply, if you can't remember the last time you tuned into the BBC's chart coverage and thought, 'hmm yes this is an absolute banger that I will now buy immediately,' you're becoming the norm: a music fan who doesn't need the charts. Specifically, a music fan who doesn't pay attention to them. And maybe that means that, without even realising it, you made the choice to do your own thing. In a far less dramatic way, you reached a breaking point of your own.
You can find Tshepo remembering what it felt like to care about the charts on Twitter.
(Photo by Eva Rinaldi)