Charts seek to stay on top after 60 years


Tony Blackburn runs down the first ever UK top 10 on the chart's anniversary

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It is 60 years since American crooner Al Martino topped the first ever UK singles chart. Are the charts still relevant in an age when Top of the Pops has been replaced by YouTube as the number one destination for pop fans?

When Robbie Williams scored his 14th number one hit earlier this month, there was little doubt about what being at the top of the charts meant to him.

"I haven't been number one since 2004 and it's great... I am number one - it feels brilliant," he said. "There's a lot of vindication, happiness and relief."

For Williams, wounded by a series of flops, being number one again was proof that he was still a star.

More singles are now sold than ever - about 3.5 million per week - and, judging by the ear-splitting screams that greet stars like JLS and One Direction when they step near a stage, pop music still matters.

Robbie Williams Robbie Williams has been number one in the UK for the past two weeks

But a lot has changed in the last decade or two. More than 99% of all single sales are now downloads and pop fans have many more ways of getting music - from YouTube to file-sharing to streaming services like Spotify, none of which count towards the charts.

It also feels like the charts are less central to our lives than they were when the Top 10 was beamed into 15 million living rooms every Thursday night on Top of the Pops.

"In an environment where singles sales are booming, the chart still is very relevant," says Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company. "You need to sell about twice as many copies as you did about 10 years ago to get to number one."

After the demise of Top of the Pops, MTV became the home of the official charts on TV. Rather than 15 million, 1.1 million people watch the Top 20 and Top 40 rundowns across MTV's channels per week. A further 1.2 million tune in to the weekly countdown on BBC Radio 1.

When Top of the Pops was axed, the BBC said it was a victim of competition from "multimedia and niche musical outlets which enable viewers to consume music of their choice, any time night or day".

The internet and countless digital TV and radio channels now offer seemingly endless choice, and have split the music scene into a honeycomb of self-sufficient niches.

Start Quote

When the chart was first launched, they were very innocent times”

End Quote Martin Talbot Official Charts Company

Today, chart pop is just the biggest niche. Those who do not like it can easily ignore it.

And fans no longer have to shell out to hear a song they like. YouTube offers a virtually exhaustive jukebox and recent research from the US suggested that more teenagers now listen to music through YouTube than iTunes, CDs or the radio.

The rise of video sites and streaming services have made tracking the popularity of a song much more complicated.

"That's the constant challenge that we face - trying to ensure that the official singles chart is the definitive representation of popularity," Talbot says.

"Clearly, when the chart was first launched, they were very innocent times. There was one bloke picking up a phone, calling a couple of dozen retailers, writing down what they had sold on a piece of paper and then compiling it into a chart."

The singles chart still simply counts sales rather than YouTube views or Spotify streams.

"The only way of changing that at the moment, by adding streaming, would effectively compromise what that chart is all about - make it less transparent, slow it down, make it less dynamic and fundamentally make it less interesting," Talbot says.

"The reality is that I don't think the chart is any less interesting, relevant and reflective of what music people are enjoying on a week-by-week basis."

New developments

The Official Charts Company did recently launch a separate streaming chart, based on information from the likes of Spotify, We7, Napster and Deezer.

Some 2.6 billion audio streams were delivered in the UK last year - dwarfing the number of download sales - and countries including the US have begun to incorporate such streams into their main singles charts.

But that is unlikely to happen in the UK - at least while download sales are still rising, Talbot says.

"The number of downloads being bought on a weekly basis would need to start to stabilise and start falling, and we would need to start seeing a decline in the number of singles you need to sell to get into the Top 10 or 20," he says.

"It's going in exactly the opposite direction at the moment. And we need to see streaming as an activity begin to catch up with purchasing as an activity."

If a streamed single counted towards the official Top 40, one thorny question is how much one stream would be worth compared to one sale.

"When you start getting into formulae, inevitably you begin to chip away at that transparency and immediate understanding of what the official chart is about," Talbot says. "That's a big philosophical step for us as an industry."

The simplicity of the charts has been an asset as the music industry and media have transformed around them.

And as long as the charts are around, musicians will always want to get to number one.

Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top Ten is on BBC Four on Friday 16 November 21:25 GMT.

Chart showing top singles sales in Uk over the decades

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  • Comment number 74.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Say 3 minutes of instant gratification and that sums up a single. Most are dross (imo) but someone likes them but they are soon forgotten. Occasionally the charts are lt up by an exceptional song that is known down the decades but these are by talented people not wanabees with little talent who fade into obscurity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    The Charts are redundant and have been for quite some time. As for those of you complaining that electronic music is not real music are full of it, keep your ''in my day'' attitude and recognize that music like the society it is part of has progressed somewhat over the years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    @bligbladblob - do you know what 'sic' means? As you appear to have spelled 'Little' correctly...

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Probably controversial, but I never really got the concept of 'charts' anyway. It tells you what everyone else likes. I'm only interested in what I like, musically speaking.

    So I'd try out what was in the shops, magazines, and later on, online.

    Not saying that the charts are bad; just that they are probably more important to the artists themselves rather than the average listener.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Anyone else get the impression the charts are largely dominated by naive little girls?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    So what's the problem with YouTube taking over?

    Turn Music back into a hobby, not just a Business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Charts are completely pointless today IMO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    47 Minutes ago

    I'm into rock/heavy metal....
    Totally agree, I too enjoy everything from Muse to Lamb of God, not top 40 fodder, but musically far superior. If you believe the hype all the kids listen to is the X factor clones, however going to concerts it clearly isn't the case. Rock/Metal has always been ignored but still flourishes despite or maybe because of this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I feel a little sorry for a generation growing up listening to low bit-rate streamed music on tinny speakers.

    Mind you my music listening started on a mono cassette player which doubled as the source for my ZX Spectrum.

    So much for technology ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    It cracks me up when bands get a "Gold Record" for sales these days.

    In the good old days a band had to shift a shed load of records to even hit the charts. It seems these days it's just a couple of thousand downloads at 10p each to get to number 1....

    I'm 82 you know....

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    The charts always has and always will be for people who dont care about music. Its the same for daytime radio 1 listeners, people who watch the X Factor and tune in to The Brits. Its easy to keep in touch with popular monotomy. But its hard to go out and find truly brilliant music that never gets the credit it deserves. Thank god for festivals and the Mercury Prize.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    @57. RayCraig

    Too true - things just aren't the same any more.....Reggie and Ant n Dec just don't cut it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    As a 45 year old music-lover, I'd like to see separate charts as in USA. I do look at the charts but only to scoff at the dire music that is downloaded almost indiscriminately these days by 13-30 year olds who know no better.
    Time for a Rock chart, an AOR chart etc. Then proper talents like The Feeling, Badly Drawn Boy, and re-issues of genuine talent from the past can have recognition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    The charts were always an insult to intelligence. Music should not be an ever evolving competition for someones profit. Like most 'performance competitions' the product with more push (money) behind it wins. A No. 1 slot just puts you on a par with The Muppets and The Wombles. Ex chart music is in bargain bins everywhere, music bought to own personal preferences stays in peoples collections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    The charts just aren't worth checking anymore, but I'm pleasantly surprised to see one song worth downloading from the top 40. Disclosure - Latch is an excellent song and part of a fantastic, creative and diverse genre which is currently thriving in cities such as Bristol, London and Manchester. Others to check out: Julio Bashmore, Jamie xx, Burial, Four Tet, Blawan, SBTRKT, Koreless. Enjoy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    @43 - Along with a certain Mr. Simon Cowell who single handidly ruined the music scene. I would not say the music was better in the "Good old days" but in the charts you had all different kinds of music and not dominated by X-Factor, cater for the little girls, love song rubbish. And R&B back then was R&B and not RAP with a capital C in front.

  • Comment number 57.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    @25 FatPeace.

    80's music was pretty much electronic. . . . . . New Romantics, Visage, OMD, Human League to name but a few. Not 'real music'. Real music is played with real instruments, written and produced by the artists themselves in my opinion

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    The Charts are just a way for the pop industry to sell there easy unchallenging music to 12 year old girls.


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