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Saturday Deluxe / 2 January 2021

Hey, streamers! Leave our charts alone.

Wham!‘s 1984 single ‘Last Christmas’ is this week’s UK number one. This was confirmed yesterday evening, and since the song is the most famous ‘number two’ (and the biggest selling) of all time in this country, the general mood was one of ‘finally!’

However, at the risk of being called a humbug, I’m rather conflicted by this and feel that a combination of the current chart rules (“reviewed on an ongoing basis by the Official Charts Company in partnership with the music industry”) and passive consumer behaviour has, effectively, rewritten chart history. Let me explain…

‘Last Christmas’ is a brilliant single and is one of the ‘classic’ festive songs. That was obvious the moment it was released in 1984. Wham! / George Michael had already enjoyed three UK number ones that year (‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’, ‘Careless Whisper’ and ‘Freedom’) and it seemed a certainty that ‘Last Christmas’ would follow. Then Band Aid‘s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ happened and ‘Last Christmas’ was famously held at number two for five weeks, as 1984 turned into 1985. It sold over a million copies. This is clear cut. There are no nuances, no grey areas, no questionable interpretation of what a ‘sale’ is. A million people actively went into a shop and paid for a physical single. The end.

Most pop fans of a certain age remember this very well. It’s part of the folklore of 1984 and part of Wham!’s history. Many bands have this. The ‘what ifs’. The ‘could haves’, ‘should haves’. The Beatles‘ 1967 single ‘Penny Lane’/’Strawberry Fields Forever’ (arguably the greatest 45 of all time) deserved to be number one, but Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Please Release Me’ kept it off the top spot. This one blip stopped the Fab Four having 18 CONSECUTIVE UK number ones. Ultravox‘s 1981 single ‘Vienna’ should have been number one as well, but Joe Dolce had other ideas.

Life isn’t fair. We know that. These things happen and such quirky events become the pop quiz questions of tomorrow. But as I said earlier, this is history being rewritten. Today, when I look at Wham’s single discography in Wikipedia is now shows a clean sweep of number ones from ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ onwards. Really?

‘Come on’, I hear you cry. Plenty of singles have been re-released and and done well. Queen‘s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ got to number one again in 1991 after Freddie Mercury died. Jackie Wilson‘s ‘Reet Petite’ reached the top spot in 1986 having peaked at number six way back in 1957. What’s the problem?

The problem is that ‘Last Christmas’ hasn’t been reissued. There wasn’t even one of those ‘campaigns’ to try and get it to number one this year. The problem is that the Official Chart Company (OCC) and the music industry’s definition of a ‘sale’ is so weak and meaningless that it creates hit singles – number ones – just because we as a nation decide collectively to listen to a song a bit more than we normally would.

‘Last Christmas’ was streamed 9.2m times last week which sounds like a lot – to be fair, it is a lot – but how is listening to a song a ‘sale’? It’s not. The OCC recognise this and so have determined that a song should be streamed 100* times before it becomes a sale. Hang on, if one stream isn’t a sale, why are 100 streams a sale? Don’t know. It’s just a rule someone invented.

These are paid streams by the way (people who pay £10 a month for Spotify, for example). For unpaid streams to count as a ‘sale’ it requires 600 streams. You only have to listen to the song for over 30 seconds and that is considered a ‘stream’. So if 100 people who have a paid subscription to Spotify all listen to 35 seconds of ‘Last Christmas’ you have one sale. That, apparently, has equal value to one person getting on the bus, going into town and buying the seven-inch single in a picture sleeve.

We are told that 9.2m streams equated to sales of 40,149 for ‘Last Christmas’. It pipped Mariah Carey‘s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ to number one by just 714 sales, apparently. Almost the entire UK top 10 is made up of Christmas classics like Band Aid, Shakin’ Stevens, the Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl… which makes it blindingly obvious that this week’s UK singles chart is defined entirely by people putting a Christmas playlist on their streaming service of choice as they opened their presents or prepared a festive meal. Everyone does that, but should that be allowed to mess around with the charts and re-write chart history?

If you do the ‘math’, you will see that approximately two-thirds of those 9.2m streams must have been unpaid. Not only are those people not paying 79p for the seven-inch single of ‘Last Christmas’, they don’t even want to pay £10 a month for an unlimited amount of music, that includes ‘Last Christmas’!

To put it another way, the rules that currently determine the singles chart allow people who don’t buy physical singles, don’t buy downloads, and don’t actively contribute one single penny towards the streaming that they listen to, to create s significant amount of ‘sales’. Around one quarter of the ‘sales’ (roughly 10,000, equivalent to 6m streams) that have now taken ‘Last Christmas’ to number one, are from these non-contributors. That is nothing short of a joke.

Converting streams into sales may have been reasonable when the singles chart was made up of a combination of physical sales, digital downloads and streams, but now that the singles chart is close to being 100 percent streams, there is a problem. It works in a vacuum, as a measure of the popularity of contemporary releases when compared against each other (e.g. how is Taylor Swift’s new single doing against Billie Eilish’s) but it is not fit for purpose when measuring old songs against past chart performance.

The truth of the matter is that while many hundreds of thousands of people actively wanted to buy ‘Last Christmas’ in late 1984, only 1,555 people wanted to do that at the end of 2020. How do we know this? It’s because that’s exactly how many digital downloads of ‘Last Christmas’ were bought last week (yep, people still do that, it seems). Those figures were published by Music Week, along with the streams. That is the only true, comparable measure. The will of fifteen hundred people have overruled the will of a million people. History is re-written.

Arguably, this very specific issue that only rears its head at Christmas time, but nonetheless, the industry should rethink the rules and perhaps exclude ‘old songs’ from the contemporary UK singles charts. I have a fondness for pop chart history and I don’t like to see it messed with. How many campaigns are we going to see to ‘right wrongs’ and to get old songs to number one?

Loads of people love listening to ‘Last Christmas’ – which is understandable because it’s a great song – but there is something wrong when music industry rules convert passive listening habits (playlists in the background) into chart ‘sales’ that supersede the highly engaged fans of yesteryear who actually put their money where there mouth was and bought the single and created history.

‘Last Christmas’ selling well over a million copies and only getting to number two back in the day has, over time, become a badge of honour. Selling just 1555 units and being declared the UK’s number one (and supposedly ‘surpassing’ the previous achievement) is surely quite the opposite. An embarrassing state of affairs.


*Update: Thanks for those who pointed out that with ‘old songs’ (actually “after 3 consecutive weeks of decline”) something called the Accelerated Chart Ratios (ACR) kicks in, which requires 200 paid or 1200 unpaid for one single ‘sale’. So this would have been the case for ‘Last Christmas’, although the total streams quoted is correct and I don’t think the general thrust of the argument is affected by this.

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206 Comments

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Rod Mas Farquharson

My first copy of Last Christmas came as a Bonus Track of the Russian Bootleg of Listen Without Prejudice, and it felt like a victory because down under here in South America, was pretty difficult to get the song back in early nineties. So Numer one or not, it will be always a favorite of christmas time!

David Bates

It’s nowhere to be found in the Top 100 now this week!

Alex Stassi

The first “chart entry” in history to go from Number One to outside the top 100 the following week. Says it all really.

Philip Marshall

Another one here in total agreement with you Paul. When I bought singles on 7″, 12″ or CD I didn’t have to report how many times I played them, that one purchase counted towards its chart placement and that was that. I’m not even sure I’m making a valid argument here but you get my drift. There is something fundamentally wrong in the way the chart is compiled these days and it ruins what used to be an obsession of mine.

Joe Atari

This was totally what I was thinking all December as I watch the chart disentegrate into the soundtrack to a family Christmas dinner, with grandad snoozing on the sofa by 5pm. Whatever people think of what charts these days, and I actually think its better on average than it was 15-20 years ago (boybands? pop idol? crappy novelty hits) having the same old Xmas hits invade the chart every December (when once, auntie would have shoved on Now That’s What I Call Christmas on the stereo) spoils the opportunity for anything except terrible charity singles having a chance. Even though X Factor is pretty much extinct in 2020, is this actually better. I dont mind Little Mix claiming the first proper number one of 2021. That’s how it should be. I’d actually support a band on anything over 10 years being eligible for the singles chart at all. Music has to evolve, without being strangled by stream sales of classics year after year. “Last Christmas” itself is still great though, but it was only one Wham single, and it belongs, chart wise in 1984.

Ved Shadler

Hi all,
I kind of agree with everyone . Firstly thank you Paul as you have expressed what bothered me most about the charts. Personally I just think they need to separate the chart rule changes eras and keep those achievements intact and restart count at the start of new chart rules. So Last Christmas would be a singular number one on its own and rightly deserved based on current rules but not counting towards their previous string of number 1s because they were achieved under different rules. I also just miss when a single was a single, none of this album cut tracks. Like a single is what is sent to radio, there is a video, mixes, digital or physical formats. Perhaps first of all the charts needs to be only formal singles. Ok 1 or 2 entries per artist that are formal singles. These days I mostly look at charts to see what the folks are listening to, discover new artists and songs. It’s annoying when 3 -4 artists have debuted their whole album there and half their songs are just meh. It would be nice to separate album tracks into its own chart. Just like how we have dance, club etc, most streamed, most searched etc etc sometimes meaningless but yet still relevant in their own way. Song/video stream is more about stats, likes and views albeit a few seconds and I am guilty of it but that is how they measure it I guess and I am ok with a chart that tells me what’s popularly streamed or viewed online but I also wish there was a proper formal singles chart with restrictions on being a proper current release (within last few months, sent to radio, club, video, available to stream, ringtone, remixes, artist promoted etc.) Can I whine some more?

martin farnworth

I agree it is a bit of a farce although I suspect most of people are older music fans complaining on chart rules are not streaming songs in the Top 10 generally speaking although this i think is less true in the past week with all the old Christmas songs.
The singles chart was dead back in the mid 2000s and something had to be done. It’s become more and more irrelevant and homogenised as many established acts quickly disappeared from it. I don’t know anyone who cares for it whatsoever. I suppose Wham deserves its place as its deemed the most popular song that week, albeit due to questionable rules to put it simply. Not convinced it should be excluded because of it’s age.

Mark

Not a single album released in 2020 sold enough to get platinum status!

Music listening soared during lockdown https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-55528392

Jocke Gunnarsson

As a “chart nerd” I agree with you Paul. Every week I take a look the current charts (albums and singles, or “singles”) of UK and my native Sweden and sometimes the Billboard Charts. I also, for nostalgic reasons, check out the UK charts from 25-55 years ago. So this week I check out the charts from the first week of 1966, 1971, 1976, 1981, 1986, 1991 and 1996. Very nerdy but also lots of fun. I’m not that interested in including charts after 2000 as there is so much dance/techno/boy bands etc. that I hardly remember while the list’s from especially from the 60’s and 70’s are filled with classic stuff (plus the Humperdincks…). My biggest problem with the current charts isn’t all the christmas songs though. It’s when Taylor Swift, Katy Perry or some rapper release a new album and suddenly have 6,8 or 10 songs on the “singles” chart.

stuart plummer

great article Paul,
The term sales should only ever be used when it is an actual sale of an album or single, in physical or downloaded format…streaming is play counting and as you point out, you only have to listen to 30/40 seconds for that to count..!
I must have listened to some of my records/cd’s thousands of times, they don’t count for extra sales…

dazzler

Well written, Paul. I can’t agree more. As a chart archivist of your generation I share the same feelings. The day Last Christmas reached the UK number 1 spot might enter history as the day the music charts died.

James Pigg

The problem is it isn’t 1984 anymore, it is 2021. The world has moved on, as has the way people listen to and digest their music.
I’m the same age as you Paul and definitely lament the absence of a proper chart. But I can’t really see what can be done about it.
I guess the world will move on again eventually and streaming one day will be as passe as buying a 7″ single in WH Smith.
Something new will emerge and hopefully whatever that is it will mean a level playing field for the artists and charts that mean something.
Until then I’m gonna stick on my Wham! Japanese greatest hits CD and turn it up!
Which reminds me Paul – will 2021 finally be the year you announce you will be curating a Wham box set complete with every 12″ remix and b-side? I bloody hope so!

Chris Balfour

I’m not too bothered to be honest. People bought physical music formats in the olden times as they liked it. That meant it was popular and that is no different to people streaming because they like music now. The split up version of the charts is available for people that can be bothered to check it out.

Pete

I’ve scanned through many of the comments and it’s been an interesting read but I’m surprised no-one has commented on the issue of self-perpetuating playlists and the stagnation it causes in the charts. That is, something gets added to a “chart/hits/popular” playlist, it then charts highly, remains on a “charts/hits/popular” playlist because it’s in “the charts”, remains in the charts because it remains in the “charts/hits/popular” playlist. And repeat and repeat and repeat. This appears to be why so many tracks remain the charts for whole years nowadays and why the top of the chart is so unbelievably stagnant with very little movement (2020 has had the fewest no.2s in chart history because everything that gets to no.1 these days just slips marginally down the charts. It’s a mess but I honestly don’t know how the OCC sort it out.

SimonH

Really interesting point which leads onto the whole issue of music being made with an eye on making it into a playlist, that can involve all kinds of influence on making the music fit certain criteria such as short intros etc…
Again a reflection of music consumption becoming more like a utility that you turn on and off like a tap!

Jan wouter

Spot on Paul!
Scrap the singles chart if it’s not based on sales
Oh how I long for the days when we were waiting for the charts to be published: Sunday was then an all important day on my calendar
The excitement has all gone these days

John MC cann

I thought it was Tuesday lunchtime?

Blue Mountain

Not sure if it has been mentioned already but the BPI has just put out a report on music consumption in 2020 – https://www.bpi.co.uk/news-analysis/fans-turn-to-music-to-get-through-2020-as-a-new-wave-of-artists-fuels-streaming-growth/ It mentions that physical is more important than streaming for the album charts, at least for the number 1. It also says that 139 billion streams is equivalent to 155 million CD sales. I somehow doubt there is the same equivalence when the record companies are paying artists. Maybe a sale for the purposes of the charts should be the same as a sale for the purposes of paying the artist.

The Misnomers

That’s the best idea I’ve heard in 2021!

Geoff D2

Perhaps someone else made this comment … another problem with relying on streams is who created the playlist that most people use. Playlists set up by Spotify (or another streaming service) include the usual suspects like Last Christmas and All I Want … and will be played more as they are always on these playlists and usually near the top

Ken

Thanks for pointing out the corruption of all these 21st Century pop charts and expressing what most of us music fans think.These charts all became meaningless the moment they were changed from recording real purchasing preferences to mere popularity streaming.I have long been disillusioned with the way the internet and the reduction of the physical sales of actual manufuctured products has warped and distorted how the popularity of singles and Lp’s is being recorded. Change and reform is definitely needed,especially when actual music careers of talented people can be harmed just because their music offerings are failing to reach chart positions in these meaningless charts that their financial backers demand as proof of popularity.So inaccurate charts can have harmful real world effects.

Mathew Lauren

“Streams are not sales and no amount of mucking around with conversion ratios is ever going to make it so.” (P. Sinclair)

I think that says it all. Well done, Paul!

Cheers,

ml

Terry Settle

Streams are like counting radio plays in the Olsen days. Physical sales or downloads is the only way. Saying that the charts have lost their shine.

The Thorn

I fully agree. And, on a similar note, an artist shouldn’t have a #1 single if they piggy-backed on someone else’s work. Collaborations are one thing, but only the main artist should register the win.

At this point, instead of putting full albums worth of material, releasing tons of singles, artists simply have to show up on someone’s else track to can rack up a chart hit. It’s uninspiring and unfair.

No wonder all past records are being broken. Sheesh.

Eric Generic

Paul, I completely agree with everything you’ve said in your post. Absolutely spot-on, Paul.

This nonsense drives me nuts!

EG.

Sven

I like your argumentation, Paul, but have another idea.
In Germany, as far as I remember, there is/was a rule that sales of older songs do not count anymore once the song has fallen below number 50 AND reached 9 weeks in the charts or so.

In other words, this rule meant that:
– a song which never reached position 50 or higher could, theoretically, remain for ages in the charts.
– a song which reached position 50 or higher left the charts once it falls out of the top 50 provided it had already spent 9 or so weeks in the charts

What could be suggested is that only songs qualify for the singles charts that have a dedicated release date and come up with an individual promo campaign (e.g. music video), to make sure album-only tracks are not counted, and that tracks are counted for a maximum of x weeks once they haven fallen below top 50 or so.

Randy Metro

Maybe the charts should be tossed and let die. What does #1 versus #2 mean? Especially now. I often read that T.Rex singles Truck On Tyke and Teenage Dream were failures because they “only” reached #12 & #13. Whereas – in hindsight – artists are considered successful when they’ve had several top #20 singles or several top #40 singles. What is the difference between “top” and “several #20 singles? Ride A White Swan charted #2 while Clive Dunn’s Grandad took the #1 spot. Unless you’re British, who remembers Grandad? Those same successful T.Rex singles did not chart in the USA at all, unless you count Ride A White Swan charting at #76 in the US (who knew?).

I’ve never understood the charts as a measure of what? Success? Profit? Sales? downloads, streaming, supermarket “muzak” background pleasure listening? I have no alternate suggestion to measure success except chart numbers.

I may be missing the whole point here or maybe not. #1 versus #2 doesn’t mean anything to me. #1 / #2 Last Christmas will always be a popular song. How often do you hear #1 Grandad? #6 The Laughing Gnome rewrote it’s own history going from no charting to #6 on re-release. I’m sure a lot of #7 charters are miffed with that one. How high did Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer chart? #48 in the US.

Are are gold & platinum records measured? Physical, downloads, streams?

Klaus

Metro:

thanks for making me aware of the song “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”.

As I’m German i’ve never heard of it before. Checked it out on Spotify and had quite a laugh… I especially enjoyed the version by Blackfoot.

DiscoAdam

I just played the re-issue 12″ vinyl of New Order’s Blue Monday and it inspired me to comment Paul. Charts should separately count only physical product sales or -paid for- digital downloads. Streaming should never be included in the same chart. Steaming means nothing versus a real product sale. It is a crime against generations of musicians who sold us physical product, because we loved the music so much we wanted to own it, to count a ‘stream’ as if it were a real sale. I intend to die weighted down with CDs and records and even some cassettes [bought Kylie’s Disco on cassette and the new HURTS Faith on cassette and Sophie Ellis Bextor’s Kitchen Disco greatest hits on cassette too in 2020!]. Long live physical music!

Wayne k

I agree whole heartedly. None of these are like the other nor will they ever be either in terms of making a living for the artist or sales itself. Streaming is inexpensive and I love it but it isn’t a viable model,for income for artists.

Fredpsotman

What a great article Paul, my sister in law [a lifelong George fan] was deflated when i showed her this brilliant piece.
For me personally the charts ended when physical product stopped being issued a few years ago, as a Madonna single collector since the beginning for instance, I have had to make do with cd promos or bootleg versions …..

Andrew Abley

Great article Paul and leading to a great debate.
The real issue is “data” and the use of data. More in this world of ours, we find data is used /interrupted to provide a perceived outcome such as “No 1 this week”. Indeed, the response alluded to this Last Christmas “got” to Number 1 but “Everything she wants ” remains at No 2 ” is correct in some peoples view, highlights the data challenge. How IMO can anyone split Last Christmas/Everything she wants………………. !!!!! it is a double A sided single and a physical item end of, you didn’t have to like both sides but it was what you purchased and be definition they were equal partners.
I think music charts are classic disconnect in “data” or to be more accurate the accounting of “consumption” v “purchase/ownership” and what is defined as “real” use of an item or product in the new “age” of big data. Indeed “LadBaby” is the classic oxymoron in the world of big data.
Many of us will have our Christmas play list, mine is all physical purchases a combination of vinyl and cd. Albums or releases which are Christmas centric such as Sufan Stevens Songs for Christmas, Luther Vandross and Alexander O’Neil reappear every year on my play list at this time of year. These don’t hit the play list at any other time of the year. The key to this is I choose to actively consume these songs and they are something I have previously purchases. Streaming as many points out is quiet often “passive” and you get what you are fed and much like “payola”, chart outlet shops can and will be manipulated by record companies Maria and Sony been an example.

It doesn’t surprise me as such that “newer” Christmas songs are more “popular/consumed” and makes me wonder what happened to Slade, Wizard, Bowie and Bing? They seem to have disappeared from the lists / charts at Christmas in the new digital world.

Jason Brown

The conversation about ‘representing the most popular songs that week’ is wholly valid.
Ditto methods of reflecting the consumption of the day.

The thing is, though : ‘back in the day’, you had to buy the song. Make a concious choice / selection. Even a download, same thing applies. A concious choice to purchase. No-one can make you buy a track / album.

I agree chart manipulation has always been a thing (airplay, format restrictions, payola, etc) which is why the Radio One / Official chart show I (and I suspect others) valued – it was sales only (and even then, there had been suspicions i.e Rod Stewart / The Pistols in ’77). Yes, sales can be hyped, discounted, etc – but people still have to choose to purchase. Even if you’d bought a single for your Mum’s birthday, it was still a choice (Once Upon A Long Ago
was that single, ironically).

Streaming in the currently popular medium, no doubt. But the fact that a playlist can allow streams of songs which are not consciously picked / selected to be counted to the ‘most popular’ selection for that week is simply not, however you address it, an apples to apples comparison with the past.

If streams that are actively selected /chosen only are counted, then that is getting to a fairer comparison with the past whilst reflecting modern technology. The issue about paying for it will still be present (and personally, I still buy downloads of individual tracks, and all my albums physically).

As John Vickers said earlier, the individual charts are there, and published. But the focus is always on ‘the weekly number one’ as a single entity, when it just isn’t the same currency as before. Thus why we have conversations like this.

Quatrmass

A paid download is a sale, for sure.

But I’ve always thought of subscription streams as much the same as listening to the radio (and, sure enough, radio plays used to be factored into US chart positions… maybe they still are). Shame artists don’t get paid the same as they do for radio plays.

Unpaid streams? Basically the same as taping the song off the radio (or a friend’s copy). Ridiculous.

David Bates

It also now overtakes Pet Shop Boys as most #1 by a duo. Which, let’s face it, isn’t really fair on the Petties is it?

John

I think that OCC should find a way to limit the weeks that streaming from a certain device counts to the chart.In the old days the consumer did not buy a copy of his favorite record each week for months or years.There were 2 or 3 chart eligible formats.So we did not purchase the same single for a period of more than 4 or 6 weeks. It is not fair that if a person listens to a certain track 100 times for 52 weeks, this to count as a ” sale “. After 8 or 10 weeks if you listen to a track from the same device (PC or phone), these streams should not count as sale. So if more people decide to listen to this track, this would show its popularity for an extended period of time.This would be a way to make the charts more interesting again, because more singles (or tracks) would have a chance to enter the higher places.

John MC cann

Why bother with a chart?
Just listen to wot you want when you want!
Who cares!

ed

Much of this discussion is missing the key philosophical point of defining what a #1 single should actually represent. Surely a song should be #1 if it is the most popular song that week. Over the years there have been many ways to quantify that and just as many ways that labels have sought to game the system. But surely we can all agree that a #1 single should be the most popular song that week? Given how many people chose to listen to Last Christmas (and chose it over other Christmas songs which naturally charted lower) I’d challenge anyone to assert that there actually was a more popular song that week?

Prince Fan

Just ask them to change it to “popularity momentum”. All this fuss about a No.1 single is OTT. It’s a good song, it’s a poular song and Andrew Ridgley is happy and says that GM would be proud.

Graeme

The whole idea of including streams is ludicrous, as I previously stated. Physical plus download sales may well be insignificant in comparison but it’s the only way. How, for example, can someone listening to Last Christmas for, say, 10 times over the Christmas period count towards a chart position and the 10 times I listened to the same song on my music system(s) not count, purely because I had previously bought the song? That is another reason why it is impractical to include streams in any shape or form because you cannot say it’s the song being listened to most without full listening stats from every household!!! It’s similar to including radio plays – as someone pointed out they were at one point used in the US but the only way to get back to anything resembling a proper chart nowadays is to include sales only. Streaming has ruined the music industry in more than one way. If you were to BUY the rights to stream individual songs, now that would be different. Would you pay a one off, say, 10p to ‘purchase’ a track stream for life? Is that really too much to ask? It would also give artists a much better, if still ridiculously low, income (pardon the pun) stream.

It’s too late. The charts are dead.

Phil W.

Your principal concern about actual “sales” seems to be a slight red herring. The official definition of the singles charts today is: “ The Official UK Top 40 chart is compiled by the Official Charts Company, based on official sales of sales of downloads, CD, vinyl, audio streams and video streams. ” It isn’t claiming that it was pure sales that derive the final number. Yes, the algorithm is that x streams is artificially factored to y sales, but the definition shows the component parts.

When looking back at the charts from the golden age of a million singles, let’s remember that for a time in the 1980s, the singles charts were determined NOT by actual total sales, but by the sales in only 250 “chart return” designated stores. Interestingly enough, shopping in such stores was a different experience to marching into whichever Main Street store would offer a 7” single for £1.49 or whatever, to popping into, say, “Lullaby of Broadway”, a small independent store in West Ealing (London, W13), would see a treasure trove of special versions e.g. coloured vinyl, double disc, free 5 track cassette version, double 12” version etc. etc. All of which I still have copies of and can name if required!

The times have changed so the methodology for counting has had to change. It isn’t perfect, but it never was. Journalists will always look for the easy and catchy headline, that’s the only thing that won’t change!

Ed

A fascinating article and you definitely raise some good points. I’ve been a chart fan for many years and whilst I still keep an eye on the charts there is very little in the chart each week I actually listen to . I don’t think streaming is the same as buying but I also don’t think we should be going backwards as a sales chart at this point would be embarrassing by announcing a no.1 that sold a few hundred copies . The Christmas no.1 week is about the only chart week now that has any interesting chart action so if you now remove all the Christmas songs all were left with is the usual Ed sheeran action . It’s a difficult one as in a way it has ruined a fascinating chart record but on the other hand wham getting another no.1 is surely not a bad thing ? I suspect given the fact that Mariah and wham having now both finally got to no.1 the rules are likely to reviewed again . I honestly don’t think George Michael if he was still alive would have been unhappy getting another no.1 . The charts are no longer what they were and they never will be again

John Vickers

Excellent article, Paul, and a good subject to start off the New Year with! I understand your pr0blem with ‘rewriting history’ and I agree that plays are not sales. As someone who grew up in the ‘60s and still has an entire series of “The Guinness Book of Hit Singles”, I certainly regret the demise of the charts as we once knew them but I also understand the continuing need for a way of measuring the popularity of today’s songs. Having read your article and everyone’s comments, I think that the most relevant points are the following, with the final one providing some comfort!

Jerome: I think it’s reasonable for the music industry (and thus, the charts) to try their best to stay current and reflect people’s current, actual listening habits, which is what they are doing by factoring the current streaming ratios the way that they do.

Adam W: There are already [separate charts], have been forever. Take your pick:
Physical: https://www.officialcharts.com/charts/physical-singles-chart/
Downloads: https://www.officialcharts.com/charts/singles-downloads-chart/
Streaming: https://www.officialcharts.com/charts/audio-streaming-chart/

Jeff Schumacher: The Wikipedia page for Wham!’s discography (Singles) now shows a peak of #2 for the double A-Side “Everything She Wants/Last Christmas”. If you go down to “Last Christmas” – re-issue & re-entry positions, that’s the only place it shows the #1 peak.

Matt Wells: The problem isn’t with the chart company, it’s not even with streaming, it’s the reporting of the story that’s the problem.

Jeremy

Of all those golden oldie Christmas hits which clogged up the UK charts last week thanks to the bluetooth streaming generation, only one (as far as I know) has recently been re-released as a ‘new’ physical single. Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is You’ was reissued in 2019 as a 5-track cd single in the USA. Given the increasing rarity of cd single releases in the last couple of years, this was a nice Christmas gift to her enduring cd-buying fans. It would be good to see more of these oldie Christmas songs reissued as cd singles in the future. At least that way the charts would reflect some level of actual physical sales.

Inner Space

Great article, Paul.
Everything you said was spot on.
Couldn`t agree with you more.

Now…..Last Christmas finally making it to the no.1 spot in an alternate reality (because, frankly this is what it really is) just got me think what would 1984 – as my favorite year in music ever – be like in my own alternate chart reality……

David Austin would indeed become the biggest star of 1984 – as announced by George on the Cheggers Plays Pop June 84 edition – look it up on YouTube) and his mega smash hit single Turn To Gold would enter the singles charts at no.1 easily and would not drop 77 places in the following week……:)

At the time being, unfortunately, I still have to live with knowing it only entered the chart at no.100 with the highest position being no. 68…….:(

Craig Hedges

In my alternate 1984 Kajagoogoo are the biggest band in the world!

blink

If the US can have Black Music (Hip Hop and R&B), Country and Pop charts, then I don’t see why we cannot separate between actual sales (physical and download) and streaming charts…

For me personally the charts have become meaningless as nothing sells in any relevant quantities and whatever gets streamed is just the current latest crap no one cares for a month later, probably mostly by people who do not care one way or another what plays in the background.

Heck, given the numbers Wham could have become number one because of some randomly generated Christmas playlists rather than an actual choice by the listeners.

richard

The charts should reflect the most popular song of the week even if its a song from 1984. It is what people wanted to listen to. Congrats to Wham.

Andrew Robinson

Well, there is one fair way of doing it that would perfectly reflect things: an artist revenue chart. Sales, paid streams, free streams 7″s, 12″s, etc all count for exactly as much as the share of revenue that the label and publishers pay the artist & writers.

Somehow I can’t see the BPI going for that though!

O(+> Peter B

Actually, the singles charts should be based on how much in royalties an artist receives for the track that week. Artists don’t receive much from streams. This could level out the playing field and hopefully encourage streaming services to pay more to artists (rather than to Royal family members for podcasts).

O(+> Peter B

The “hit parade” was once based on sales of sheet music, before records became available and popular. Times change. I get the point of this article, but I think including streams in the pop charts is appropriate as this is how music is largely listened to now, especially with younger people. Including streams may not accurately reflect sales but it does reflect what the popular songs of the time are.
Altogether now: “you need a mop and a bucket for this wet…”

Burt

Absolutely spot on. All this current bollox is streaming makes the Charts completely irrelevant to me, it means absolutely nothing. For proof of this re Ed Sheehan & his dominance of the charts & every track on his album of the time ( what ever it was called ) purely because of streaming “Sales”. Total nonsense.

However, “Last Christmas” . No matter what’s it’s chart position by whatever means will always be excellent & always welcome in my life!

Personally. I mourn the days of the CD Single & chance to get new songs , live songs, demos etc when you had to leave your house to actually buy it, ie , you didn’t just “Click”, you Q’d & parted with money to buy it AND, the artist got paid properly. Far out eh?

CJ

I think the record companies have really messed up the concept of music “sales” and how we even have access to music. If 30 seconds of streaming counts as an actual stream, then I have “streamed” hundreds of songs that I absolutely hated because I decided to “sample” the music before deciding to purchase it or not.

But the record companies have been messing with music collectors for decades now for the sake of manipulating charts. In the US, back in the era of “Ice Ice Baby,” the record company decided to recall and delete the physical single to “force” people to buy the album. In the end, Vanilla Ice got a #1 album out of it, but people who just wanted the single may not have opted to buy the full length album if the option of a single had been available. Then illegal downloading came along, and the record companies scrambled to “deal” with this, but they opted not only to sue services like Napster and Limewire, they also started phasing out actual physical singles. Our local record store used to have an entire wall dedicated to CD singles, and within about two years, there wasn’t enough stock even available to keep it filled. People were still asking about singles, but they weren’t available to buy, and people who didn’t want to pay for the entire album turned to downloads (many of them illegal).

Now, it feels like the record companies are on a mission to destroy physical albums as well. Some albums don’t even come out as physical product anymore. Millions of CDs and LPs are still being sold, but the constant “common wisdom” you keep hearing in the press is that the physical album is “dead.” Compare sales of physical albums to books, though, and it’s still a thriving market. But retailers are phasing out their floor space for other products now. The FYE we have locally is now about 80% Funko Pops, t-shirts, action figures and other swag. There’s literally half an aisle of CDs in the back, and the company doesn’t even bother to send them new releases on street date anymore.

I’ve finally started just buying the bulk of my physical albums from Amazon at this point, because there is literally no local option for getting them. I know I’m not the only one, because every time I’m at the store, I overhear at least one person ask if some CD is in stock, and they leave empty handed, which reinforces the idea that physical media isn’t valued anymore. Customers reluctantly convert to downloads and streaming because they can’t get what they are looking for. Best Buy has completely stopped carrying CDs in their stores. Department stores have cut their CD sections back to small racks with only the most recent releases on them, and they don’t restock a title once it’s sold out, so if you don’t get one of the first 10 copies they stock, then you’re not getting it from a store. As far as an actual, dedicated store that specializes in physical media goes, I have to drive about an hour and a half to get to one. I still make the trip every month or so, but it’s not feasible for just popping in on new release day every week.

Record companies have killed the idea of an album having an “era” to it. I remember the excitement of the lead single coming out before the album, then the album, and then, over the course of a year or so, the follow-up singles. What’s the b-side? How are the remixes? None of that seems to exist anymore. This has killed much of the collectibility of music buying. An album comes out, has its initial run for a few weeks, and then everyone moves on to the next thing.

Record companies, of all things, have taught us that music is disposable. Why bother owning it? And, especially, why bother with an entire album? Just download the track that’s on the radio, if you really MUST have it. Otherwise, just stream it.

The collectors suffer, and so do the artists. The record companies make plenty of money off downloads and streaming–it’s just a matter of putting up a file and letting people copy it over and over again. They don’t have to worry about manufacturing anything, and they still charge about the same amount of money for the download as you would have paid for the physical product, but with no overhead. And I doubt the artists are getting more of a share out of this.

I think the whole thing is very sad. The excitement has gone out of everything. I miss b-sides. I even miss buying 11 copies of an album because every region had a different bonus track.

And in the end, it’s not like having a streaming subscription means you have access to the music forever. One day, you log in, and the album isn’t hosted by the service anymore. Hell, if you’re a Kanye West fan, and you liked The Life of Pablo when it came out, the album changed again a week later, and then again a week after that, because Kanye kept changing it, so you couldn’t even get attached to a specific version of the album.

I don’t care if I sound like someone griping about how “things were better back in my day.” We’ve devalued music and we’ve decreased artists’ abilities to make money off their recorded music. Imagine what the Beatles’ legacy would be like if they had needed to keep going on tour just to make any money, instead of being able to focus solely on recording new music and making some of the greatest albums of all time. A record is meant to be something that endures–it is a record of the coming together of artists to create something. A physical product has a chance of enduring. A file that disappears with the hitting of a delete key is not a “record” of anything. Archeologists are not going to be able to study Spotify in 200 years. But they will still have our CDs and LPs and even our shitty cassettes.

Climbing off my soap box now.

O(+> Peter B

I agree, well said CJ.

SimonH

You’ve articulated my feelings, and described a similar experience to mine, very well.
One of the best posts I’ve read on SDE, thanks.

Craig Hedges

Record companies have a long history of burying their heads in the sand. When the Compact disc was launched in 1983, none of the record labels were interested. But when they realised that if they killed the vinyl record it would mean they could get the public to re-buy their music collection. They even came up with a magic word ‘Remastered’. In order to do this they started to degrade the quality of vinyl records making them quieter with more surface noise. When cds took off record companies thought all their Christmases had come at once. Then in 1989 Sony electronics bought the CBS label in multimillion pound deal and in the years that followed every record label got swallowed up, which has led to the music industry being just a small part of the 3 big media empires. Look up how much money Sony music makes compared to the rest of their businesses and you wonder why they even bother. At the start of the millennium record companies thought they were invincible, they could keep re issuing classic album. Then Bang the bubble burst.

WayneUK

What you say is so true. Best comments love seen in ages. These music companies should take note of this whole thread. They are the ones killing physical music, not the general public.

dave

very well put sir

StevieT

The charts for a long time have been a complete farce. Last week’s number one is this week’s 78. I haven’t bothered to check where Macca lll is on the album chart. I did actually think Liam Gallagher’s song should have fared better, it was on the radio loads. In the 60s and 70s the charts really meant something, although there was obviously corruption on a high level. But at least the charts were not based on how many times a single was played once you got it home!

StevieT

Firstly, Happy New Year Paul, and everybody.
Secondly, yes Paul, PL/SFF just HAS to be the greatest 45 ever.
Thirdly, if for example a track is streamed 10 million times, and another track is purchased 50 thousand times, it does not mean the first track is more popular. The purchased track will be played many times.

Garax

I find this article a bit bizarre to be honest – the charts have always been iffy. Payolla – and any number of ruses – formats wars (Hi McCartney iii!) what have you. It’s as much true that Wham are No.1 this week as anyone else.

Chumil

According to Wikipedia the single “Living in a Ghost Town” by The Rolling Stones reached the number one spot in Germany due to physical sales alone. On 3 July 2020, “Living in a Ghost Town” topped the German singles chart, after several different special editions were released for the song, making the Rolling Stones the oldest artists ever to reach number one on the chart and giving them the longest-running gap between two number-one singles in Germany, following on from ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ reaching number one in 1968. Streaming numbers were not higher than they were for the past few weeks due to the placement in for the German Charts being purely sales-dependent; it does not depend on the number of streams.

I don’t know if Germany is the only country in the world where the charts entirely depends on physical sales alone. But rewriting history is of course always a problem, no matter if it’s being popcharts history or anything else historycally.

jason h

Three Christmases ago, a bunch of mates and I registered the UK’s biggest-selling Christmas single during Christmas week. We were stuck behind The Charlatans – but theirs wasn’t a Christmas song.

To the best of my knowledge we were absolutely nowhere within the Top 500 singles chart, while being #2 on the Physical Singles Chart. That’s because we did sod all business digitally – 99% of our sales were on 7″.

On balance I think I took more satisfaction from knowing that what we achieved was through real people handing over real money in exchange for a real piece of vinyl – just like it used to be during all those classic years of Christmas chart battles. I can’t imagine taking any joy from knowing success was down to virtually zero sales, merely a measure of one arbitrary form of “consuming” music whilst ignoring all other listening methods. Every time a needle is dropped again onto one of the singles we sold that year, is that recounted for the chart? No, of course it isn’t – so why on earth should “Alexa, play some xmas music” be eligible? It’s beyond farcical.

johnny

Hi Paul, Have you got the 2020 book “Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year” by Michaelangelo Matos? Sounds like it would be right up your street…

Thank for the article, and Happy New Year

BillyD

Thanks for the heads up!
Went over to Amazon, as we have no local book stores, and they said the Kindle ebook version would be an alternative. No it’s not. That’s much like an overpriced mp3…
So if I get it from the library which chart would that count on?

Troy

Whoa! Thanks for mentioning this. Ordered.