In the last few months, the top charts have been nothing short of ridiculous. It seems now that every time a big name in music brings out an album, they are guaranteed at least a few spots in the top ten. The obvious examples are of course Ed Sheeran, Stormzy and Drake, but the list just keeps growing. With such complete domination, it’s not surprising people are getting fed up. It’s one thing to have a single hold on the top spot for weeks on end, but for album tracks to enter into the general top spots completely eradicates any chance for variation. So it’s not the best if you’re not a fan of the album. The question then arises: what is the point of the charts? What did the charts mean before and after streaming, and do they have any relevance to a modern, digital generation of music listeners?
Originally, the number of sales indicated the most and least popular songs; pure sales. In June 2014, streaming was introduced to chart numbers, with 150 streams counted as equivalent of 1 sale. Arguably, this was a necessary addition. Three years on, it is far more likely that the majority of people listen to music via streaming rather than buying physical copies or individual songs: it’s cheaper and more convenient. It’s notable, though, that these figures include listening for free as well as subscription; it’s no longer just counting music which has been bought, some way or other. According to BBC figures, in early 2016 (at which point only 100 streams counted as 1 sale) there were 86 new entries into the UK singles chart, compared to 230 new entries in early 2006. What this suggests is that the introduction of streaming has meant songs are staying in the charts for longer, and as a result there are less new entries to vary them.
Whether we see this as a bad or a good thing depends on what exactly the charts are meant to represent for us. What they do currently is reflect exactly what the majority of people are listening to at particular points in time; a representation of the facts. For the younger generations, this is probably the assumed function of the charts. However, this static reflection isn’t necessarily what it used to represent. For some, it was an introduction to music. Bear in mind that once upon a time, songs weren’t just there at the push of a button. The charts provided a way for people to listen to new songs, and different songs. It was essentially what the discover section of Spotify now is.
In this sense, the charts have gone downhill since the introduction of streaming. It lacks the purpose it once had in the days of vinyl records and CDs being the sole music technologies. The problem being that once one of the names brings out a new album, everyone has immediate access to it, and can listen to it before they decide if they like it or not. Listening to music doesn’t have the same big decisions that it did when you had to pay for physical copies, or even digital albums alone. On one hand this is fantastic – we now have access to thousands of songs we probably wouldn’t have otherwise listened to; streaming lets the listener explore and find what they like by experimenting, no commitment needed. However, this does make it more difficult for smaller, lesser known names to get their spot in the charts. There is less room for movement and variation when it comes to what everyone is listening to.
Alison Wenham, head of the Worldwide Independent Network, argued that the domination of Sheeran and Stormzy of “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.” Despite strong criticism, the Official Charts Company have said that they don’t want to rush any “kneejerk decisions.”
While chart dominations may be indicative that the charts no longer provide the same service as they need to, chart domination is not exactly new. For example, the Beatles held the top 5 positions in the Billboard Chart in 1964. The Beatles were, obviously, a phenomenon of British music, and one which hadn’t really been beaten until this year’s chart takeover.
It could be the case that complete domination will become a trend of this year. Equally (albeit more unlikely) it could be the case that the examples we’ve seen so far are extreme cases. Either way, it’s interesting to think about what we want from the charts. It is important for artists to get recognition for their work, and so in this sense they will always be relevant. But for the listener, the charts arguably don’t do much anymore, but cause for repetitive radio shows. Streaming has well and truly taken over the music industry, with curated playlists discover pages taking over the job that outdated charts just can’t do anymore. Either they figure out a new direction, or the charts will cease to be relevant at all to the modern listener.