Charting the decline of charts
In two of the biggest music markets in the world, getting a Number One record is not merely about the quantity of plays and sales now – but the quality of the play. Earlier this year, Billboard, which publishes the definitive album and song charts for the U.S. music industry, revamped its chart formulas, giving more weight to paid streams than free ones. Now, the UK’s Official Charts Company says it is following suit.
Time was, not so long ago, that the music charts tracked what people bought. The pace and flavour of the charts changed when paid downloads started to count. Suddenly, album tracks could appear in the singles chart, or old songs might race up into the top 40 without being re-released by their record company.
Adding streaming changed things again. Now the charts reflected listening behaviour as well as buying behaviour. This led to weird situations like Ed Sheeran taking 16 places in the top 20
in March last year.
Now the charts companies are changing things again. The UK Official Charts Company will count 600 free streams, or 100 paid streams, as equivalent to one traditional sale.
The struggle for chart operators to get their formulas right reflects not just changing consumption habits, but also the changing way we view music as a culture. We have access to more music than ever. It’s now perfectly possible to be a highly engaged music consumer and never once know whether a song is in the charts. What’s featured on a popular Spotify playlist can b more relevant than what’s in the top 10.
Charts are now so complicated, and listening behaviour now so diverse, that it’s almost like ‘what’s the point of a chart anyway?’
The days of a number one song dominating our lives for months on end is over. We each pick and choose our musical worlds, and the charts are only really relevant to the music industry and to people who choose to follow them as a form of entertainment. Represent musical culture, they do not.