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For years now, the Official Singles Chart has been something of an unhappy compromise. Now in 2024, it’s in real danger of finally creaking into oblivion, weighed down by the sheer number of bolt-on changes and rule tweaks that it’s endured since streaming was added almost a decade ago. As we approach that milestone 10-year streaming anniversary this coming June, maybe it’s time to re-assess everything and go back to basics. 

Firstly though, how did we get here?

It was on Sunday evening 6 July in 2014 that ‘Problem’ by Ariana Grande featuring Iggy Azalea became the first no.1 single that had both download sales and streams combined for its overall tally. Six weeks later, a former Record of the Day called ‘Am I Wrong’ by Nico & Vinz became the first song in history to appear on the Top 75 without selling a single copy, having done so on streams alone. But we were still in the era when downloads were king, and its release on UK iTunes a week later then propelled it from that lowly starting position of no.52 all the way up to no.1. By December that same year, we saw the first example of a song topping the chart thanks to its dominant streaming figures – that was ‘Thinking Out Loud’ by Ed Sheeran.

Famously, Ed’s the guy who flipped the chart on its head in 2017 when the streaming numbers from his brand-new album ‘Divide’ were so huge on its opening week, nine of the Top 10 songs were by him. An incredulous Greg James had the honour of revealing that historic event on the Radio 1 Top 40 that Friday evening. And it was clear that something had to change. On 26 June that same year, a new rule came into effect which still exists today, meaning only the three most popular songs that week from a lead artist will feature on the singles chart. Around that same time, we first saw and heard the terms SCR (Standard Chart Ratio) plus the dreaded ACR (Accelerated Chart Ratio) halving the streaming tallies for any current song that had essentially been around a bit too long, or even permanent ACR for anything that was more than three years old.  This was the last time that 100 streams were regarded as being the equivalent of one sale, with an alteration meaning that was now 150:1, and those songs that had been around for more than ten weeks and seen their sales decline for three consecutive weeks would see that cut to 300:1. Looking back, those 150 and 300 numbers seem to have been plucked out of thin air at the time, and with video streams now featuring (you need to be a boffin to understand just how they weigh up against audio streams), it’s quite frankly an unholy mess of formulas and algorithms that render the entire chart process incomprehensible to the public at large. Which could be one of the reasons why interest appears to have waned so much.

That brief history lesson brings us to where to we are today, and your head is probably already spinning. We feel it’s time to relook at all this, particularly considering the enormous change in consumption habits that we’ve seen in recent times. Audio streaming leads the way, and one daily glance at the Spotify Top 50 gives you a much truer picture of what the nation is really consuming. How can we fix the Official Singles Chart? Let’s throw some ideas out there for discussion. 

First, it’s surely time to scrap ACR completely, is it not? You could be overly brutal and ask: if a new release isn’t good enough to compete against any catalogue title, does the whole current A&R process needs addressing from top to bottom? But that’s another story, and we’ll try not to be flippant here. What is inescapable though is that songs are blowing up from every genre and every possible era on a week-by-week basis, often without any sort of label control, and their true immediate popularity often isn’t being reflected by the existing chart rules. There can be an annoying lag before they sometimes show up properly on the chart, which seems a bit silly really. We saw this first in 2022 when ‘Running Up That Hill’ by Kate Bush surged back to life after its inclusion in ‘Stranger Things’ and was the most-streamed song, yet only ranked at no.2 on the Official Chart behind Harry Styles with ‘As It Was’. It was only a media uproar that forced the hand of the chart bosses to dump Kate’s ACR status, give a song a reset, and then see its true popularity shine through. It’s happened again just recently when ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ by Sophie Ellis-Bextor has outgunned every other UK-signed act, even though the song is 23 years old. ‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Bedingfield also returned and had a bit of a reset, while the perennial favourites ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers and ‘Riptide’ by Vance Joy were also among the 20 most-streamed songs that week, but were inexplicably downgraded, so didn’t show up inside the Official Top 40. If ACR went, the chart would feel much more natural and reflective of what people are really listening to and loving, even if that does mean oldies. Certain songs might hang around for months on end, of course, but if that’s what people are consuming, the chart really does need to better reflect that to maintain its relevance as a true barometer of the nation’s music tastes. If that prospect alarms you, fear not as the arrival of big new music will always push those tracks out of the way if they have genuine mass appeal.

Next, how about this for a simple tweak – labels must decide going forward which song from an album bundle they want to be the so-called ‘focus single’, and that would then be the only one that shows up on the singles chart. Everything else would then be regarded simply as an album track. Beyond that, you could now introduce a four-week eligibility gap between each ‘focus single’, which would help enormously with radio airplay, and the artist builds up a string of multiple ‘focus singles’ on the chart from that album, now without being restricted to just three titles, should they choose to keep releasing a new ‘focus single’ every four weeks. If their streaming levels remain strong for months on end, you’d see that properly reflected on the weekly singles chart. 

We’ve recently seen a few of the majors (with one notable exception) trying to ‘game’ the chart by dropping physical product at appropriate moments in the release cycle, and it has worked very well for some big-name acts, particularly when the streaming numbers may not have been as impressive as hoped, but a high chart position was needed to sort-of save face. This needs a radical overhaul. One solution could be that a £1.99 maximum retail price limit is placed upon the physical CD single. And no physical will count toward the chart if it comes after the steaming debut. Anything that does arrive on time must be only one track (no remixes or bonus songs if it’s truly going to represent a streaming equivalent). And if a label chooses to put physical stock out there, the song then gets removed from the Top 100 once your physical stock dries up, even if you continue to be streamed in huge numbers. Think of it as being like the days when tracks were routinely deleted. And all this might finally deter labels from doing down that desperate physical route. We should also look at the sales of physical product through artist’s own websites. How and why has this somehow become acceptable? Back in the days of old, this would be considered as pure hype, and any such sales would be excluded from the chart. Of course, a big international star like Taylor Swift, Adele, or Ed Sheeran is going to shift bigger numbers of physical than a new artist, by sheer virtue of the fact that they each can motivate a fan base of millions rather than a small core. Our recommendation would be that any sales could only count if it was generally available to the public through at least one mainstream outlet such as Amazon etc.  Oh, and we’d scrap cassette sales from the chart completely. Nobody plays them, after all. They’re probably one of the worst pieces of landfill with all their mixed component parts, and it’s about as relevant as counting a plant pot with an artist’s face on as a legitimate sale, claiming it’s somehow as worthy as 150 streams. Just get rid. 

You could go even more radical though, and simply dump all physical sales from the chart, full stop. That’d certainly keep it pure again, just like the old days when the Top 40 was an essential guide to the most-bought singles that week, nothing more, nothing less. One copy sold equalled one unit, and everyone knew exactly where we stood. Maybe 2024 is the year that the industry finally says the Official Singles Chart is simply the week’s most-streamed songs in its totally unfiltered form, free from any rules concerning the age of a song or its existing chart life to date. Incidentally, does anyone know why we still seem to be unable to differentiate between what is an elected play that’s been sought out on a streaming platform (and therefore arguably of higher significance) versus a ‘lean back’ one from a playlist? Surely that info is out there, but wasn’t it once claimed that between 80-90% of all plays were not coming from specific searches, and that could potentially undermine the perception of just how popular songs are if the public realised many high chart positions were therefore vastly inflated? 

While we’ve been pulling ideas together, we’ve heard from any industry contacts who’ve asked us why we care so much about this stuff. Is our interest in the chart not just a throwback to our teenage years, and today’s kids have simply moved on with barely a shoulder shrug for its continued existence? Yes, that’s possibly so, which then makes us wonder if there is indeed any hope for the future survival of the Official Singles Chart. Some say it’s always simply been a tool for the music industry and has been ‘gamed’ by them since its inception. But we do remain optimistic. Stripping it right back to basics feels like a positive start, and maybe somehow getting it back as an appointment-to-listen/see show on both radio and primetime TV each week is another thing that will help to lift mainstream interest in the weekly ups and downs of our favourite stars.

 

Summing all this up is tough. But here’s how we see it as we head into Q2 2024. 

  1. Dump ACR as soon as possible. It’s anachronistic, feels like a flawed and dated concept, and nobody will shed a tear at its disappearance. Ten years was more than enough. Just last week Beyonce took the no.1 title ahead of Noah Kahan, even though ‘Stick Season’ had been streamed many more times than Texas Hold ‘Em’. Incidents like that simply dent the credibility of the Official Singles Chart even further. 
  2. Consider excluding all physical product (CDs, vinyl singles, cassettes and possibly even downloads) from the Official Singles Chart to keep it purer and less prone to desperate hype from product teams. However, if the temptation to keep physical in there somehow persists, look at maximum price points that are closer to those of a download sale, not vinyl singles priced at almost a tenner.
  3. If you put into action those points 1 and 2, then simplify the name as the final part of the process – The UK’s Official Singles Chart becomes The Official Singles Streaming Chart in its pure unfiltered form, free from arbitrary restrictions on the age of songs, and everyone then knows exactly where they stand from now on.

 

Thanks to everyone we’ve spoken to when we’ve been canvassing opinions on all this. What’s clear is that nobody seems entirely happy with the Official Singles Chart in its current form, from both inside and outside the industry, and better transparency about how it’s complied and the stats behind each chart placing would certainly be a very useful start. We’re keen to keep the dialogue going, with some people who’ve been in contact also bemoaning the day the chart is released, the relative failure of New Music Friday to generate much impact anymore, and even a desire from some for a quicker turnover of big hits again. It’s impossible to please everyone, and we can’t turn back the clock either. Instead, let’s all work together for the best possible solutions and on-going chats to push forward what’s still one of the world’s most trusted, keenly fought and referenced list of our nation’s most popular songs. 


Lee Thompson

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25 Apr 2024

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24 Apr 2024

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