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 Are the charts still relevant in an age when Top of the Pops has been replaced by YouTube as the number one destination for pop fans?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 294.

    What an out of date concept. The market is so fragmented now the top 40 is rendered useless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    USAperson, what point are you making exactly? (Sorry, it's not you, I just don't understand what your point is)

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    291. MaxB15 In the past Record companies discovered talent in clubs or dances where the talent was singing/playing for money & developed their own style. Todays singers/groups are created from dancers who can do a aerobics exercise routine while lip sinking to a records that has been digitally adjusted to cover up any flaws in singing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    The majority of chart songs nowadays seem to be about love, parties and clubs (whatever they are), with too much ooh-ing, ah-ing and eh-ing. Yes, there's some catchy tunes, but nothing of any real substance. It's rare to find a well-written song in the charts, and even rarer to find in the charts serious songs about the problems facing the world today

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    Still relevant? ...probably about as much as Jimmy Savile?

    Now where did I put that reel-to-reel of Cliff Richard?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    Why are old songs (from '60s, '70s, '80s, etc) never played on Radio 1? It would introduce great, often timeless old songs to its young target audience. A lot of young people (well, at my school anyway) only listen to Radio 1 and most of the music they hear is, quite frankly, not up to the standard of older music, which they may never get to hear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    276. Spooky
    >>>I don't actually like the music from the 1970's to now

    Yeah, I liked all those artists too. However, come on! To suggest that all today's music is bad, is as silly as saying that all music then was good! There was some godawful stuff put out in the 60s! Maybe time to stop old farting and go get an earful of artists like Rumer, Bombay Bicycle Club, Foster the People, The Killers

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    Most people discover new music online or via of word of mouth. not from the charts. I like Radio 4; it's a speech station and sticks with that remit like glue. There is no equivalent music station playing pretty much continuous music, the "posse" presentation format and long chat breaks killed music radio. Oddly, even the Beeb doesn't have a continuous music channel - which it should!

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    Speaking of Radio 1, the man who banned Status Quo still in charge? I'm guessing he isn't, seeing as that was back in the '90s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    @13. Keith Burtons -

    Actually Keith, you'll find that the indie groups out there are the ones just wanting free air time and promotion and that YOUR idea of "paying for music" to reduce the x-factor type bands is a load of rubbish because that's where they make all their money these days!!!!

    Get a GRIP on reality!

  • Comment number 284.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    Makes me chuckle what the good old beeb are letting us have our say on at the mo...the bbc is on it's a** and a time without the telly tax is rapidly approaching hopefully-and they try to divert with a question about music!!! not a chance this will get past the mods but worth a try.past it's sell by date by about 30yrs imo

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    Kids buy and listen to what they are told is their generation's music. As you grow up you start to branch out into other era's - and other types of music. My mix tape's/CD's/IPod groups can contain classical, big band, elvis, michael Jackson, the Beatles, Billy Idol, Jazz etc. Of course no caterwauling diva's, rap, metal, I can hear the high notes that make finger nails on chalk board soothing.

  • Comment number 281.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    Don't listen to the radio much, never watch MTV, can't stand Cheryl Cole/Peter Andre/George Michael/Kylie Minogue/Robbie Williams. I would like to have a lot of these singers actually sing without noisy backing, then we can hear what they really sound like 'live'. They certainly wouldn't be able to sing as good as some people think they do, take away the noise, listen to the voice, bad and badder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    I like a lot of different styles in music because I just love music, I find the best way to new stuff is chat to many varied people on the net & ask about anything good they've heard from around the world then check it out for myself, I'm told I have a very interesting collection by many, I think some of the best I have has never been recorded by companies, it's just people doing their own thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    The charts are irrelevant because 90% of the songs are karaoke or that awful dirge called 'rap'.

    If you want to listen to real talent, where the artists write their own songs, sing without autocue and play instruments, you need to look outwith the charts.

    Of course, if you're a chav or a yardie, radio 1 will do just fine. Ya get mee, innit blud.

    There's no England now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    Yeah, you talk about pop charts. Let us comment on pop charts and not on what Israel has done today. You are soooo indiendent aren't you? Have I ever expressed my admiration BBC? No - oh, why not???

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    Music from the 30's to the 60's. I was a teenager in the 60's so loved the music of Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Paul Anka and the like and of course the King, some British stuff & lots of old musicals. I don't actually like the music from the 1970's to now, there are few singers today that can actually sing well, bad singers use loud backing to drown out how bad they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Points of social focus are more fluid than ever. For decades radio 1 , top of the pops were unchallenged .
    Now we have many points rapidly changing , soaps reality tv , websites social media . Maybe the computer software can make more sence of this dynamic multi node culture .

    Or maybe it will not and we will regress to a near zero media state as differentiation become imposible.


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