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 Are the charts still relevant in an age when Top of the Pops has been replaced by YouTube as the number one destination for pop fans?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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  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    To be honest, I think current music is so safe, middle of the road and boring. Music used to speak to people and was part of a lifestyle, like myself and grunge. Ask yourself, will people still be listening to todays music in 10, 20 or 30 years time. Don't think so and I think Cowell is to blame for that, although he did give me a big laught when RATM beat his X factor act to crimbo no 1

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Rap music has the C missing off the front.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    US in the days of vinyl records - going gold on release just meant that many albums/singles were in the store - Certified gold meant they actually sold instead of being destroyed by mfg. In the days of downloads, only sales should be counted - not listens or thefts -- American Idol would be so much better if instead of voting you had to buy the song from a download site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    @34 Roshcatz
    "For the 2000s top selling singles by decade, wasn't it Evergreen by Will Young, rather than Anything Is Possible...?"

    It was actually a double A side. Evergreen is the song that most people would remember though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    In history there's always been a difference between what is 'popular' and what is 'good'. Bear-baiting used to be popular, as did Communism. Perhaps in 20 years people will say "Rhinna was popular in the teenies". The charts reflect the most 'sold' singles - but that doens't make them 'good' songs. They're not. Time will prove us oldies right ! The Beatles will be played forever. Rhianna won't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Thank Jimi there are still plenty of musicians, (I'm one myself), songwriters, performers and other talented folk still out there, scratch away the rubbish on the surface and there is still lots of good music available.

    If your only source of music comes from the charts/Saturday night TV, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a dying art from.

    Thankfully, it's not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    Why do some people here get so angry about others' taste in music?

    Just because you like apples, it doesn't mean other people should not like oranges.

    Charts are mostly irrelevant to me, except on the rare occasion I hear a song I like- then they are useful

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Pop Music Charts are irrelevant as there isn't much music in the 'pop' to start with just a lot of semi orchestrated noise. Used to get laughed at because I like opera and it was in foreign languages...I was supposedly a snob. This hip hop and rap are even worse to understand and their supposed to be some form of English....should be uncharted never mind in the charts!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Stop trolling Ciaran.

    'Pop' music has always been rubbish. Everyone should just go out and buy 'The Best Rock Album in The World' released in 1994.

    First album I ever bought and I have never looked back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Bin it off...

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    To be honest, I don't buy as many cds as I used to. I tend to go on youtube and listen to obscure artists and world music, or watch Later.. with Jools. It's wonderful how you can take a musical journey across the continents. The only time I purchase cd's is at music festivals. As for chart music, it doesn't tickle my fancy these days!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    If you geriatrics are really concerned about your stuff not charting anymore, then may I suggest you set a side a bit of your pension each week, (maybe one less trip to the Bingo Hall) and buy your favourite classics from a time gone by, then if enough of you do it, they may get back into the charts.

    No point just moaning on here about it, do something, you could write a letter to points of view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    The choice of mainstream music is decided by a handful of people who take results of a handful of surveys and come up with the idea that "everyone likes this".

    It's like the BBC's Eastenders tag line - "Everyone's talking about it". Sorry but they're not. The same goes for what the record companies would like us to think "everyone is buying".

    To believe it is supply and demand is naive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Music snobs of the world unite!! And they all seem to be here on this site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    But may I point you to the "modern day" equivalent of Led Zeppelin - Rival Sons....

    Thanks 153.ravenmorpheus2k will check them out

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    The charts are still relevant, and it's good to see someone like Robbie Williams topping the singles chart after Radio 1 saying he's not relevant enough to be played on their station. The decline in sales in the last decade I attribute to the amount of people not paying to download music, and it's killing the industry - technology has its drawbacks sometimes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    @124 Ciaran Donnelly,
    The stuff the geriatrics are suggesting on here isn't popular so doesn't get played.

    Led Zeppelin,have sold an estimated 300 million records world wide.So who is buying all these records ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    @151 When Nirvana topped the charts records companys fell over themselves to sign any grunge bands, When Cobain said goodbye those same record companys dumped them all, same happened with Brit Pop in the 90's, happening now with female singer/songwriters, one makes good the industry drops all the guitar bands and signs any female singer/songwriter good or bad just to cash in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    apart from a few exceptions, the charts are simply reflective of how much the music company/label has invested in marketing and promotion. It should be called "top 40 investers in crap music"

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    @ 150:

    The current music scene? What is that? What does it sound like? Where can I find it?

    Are you just talking about the bare minimum you hear on the radio? Sound like it to me. Music and Media has diversified massively since the 80s, the charts barely scratch the surface. You can't just go by the music you hear from one source to describe modern music, use the internet, go to gigs.


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