Martyn McLaughlin: Top 40 is a spent force, but is there any point fixing it?

The advent of streaming has played havoc with the pop charts in the digital age, writes Martyn McLaughlin

When moving house last summer, I came across a battered cardboard box that had been gathering dust for years. Filled with cassette singles and albums, it had been sporadically pared back during spring cleans, but the idea of dispensing with it altogether was out of the question.

Its contents included cherished formative purchases that were the foundation of enduring musical love affairs (The Cult’s Wild Flower) as well as cringeworthy mis-steps (That’s What I Like by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers). It was a job lot which had no value, save for its status as a sentimental totem of youth’s skittish, self-conscious cultural journey.

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The box’s greatest treasures, however, were to be found buried away at the bottom. A thick wedge of C90 tapes, their spines covered in a spidery Biro scrawl, they formed an anthology of every top 40 charting single between 1991 and 1993. Rediscovering them sparked memories of Sunday evenings spent in the company of Mark Goodier, Tommy Vance, and Bruno Brookes.

Listening to the music itself was secondary; the real purpose was staying abreast of wider trends, dutifully recording the non-movers and highest new entries as part of the never-ending teenage pursuit of credibility. In an age when the internet was in its infancy, the charts were a way of connecting with your peers and, invariably, rubbishing the very single you had spent £1.99 on in Woolworths the week before.

With the demise of the CD market, it has been some years since the weekly top 40 – in essence, a who’s who of revenue generators – has wielded any cultural significance. Other than the annual novelty parade for the Christmas number one, its most recent incarnation is the first time the listings have made the headlines in some years.

The reason is the remarkable showing from the singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who has laid claim to the charts as his own fiefdom. His tracks occupy nine of the top ten places, with all 16 songs from his latest album, Divide, making the top 20. Such an extraordinary achievement is testament to Sheeran’s popularity, but it also reveals how a rankings system once regarded as gospel is now broken beyond repair.

The UK singles chart has a long and glorious history. It first took shape in the autumn of 1952, when Percy Dickins, the enterprising publisher of the New Musical Express, realised he needed a way of drawing in advertisers to the newly-launched publication. The solution was crude yet effective. Dickins telephoned a handful of his friends in the retail trade and tallied up sales of new releases. The result was an aggregated chart which acted as a barometer of the nation’s musical tastes.

As the pool of retailers expanded, the weekly chart carried an unquestionable authority. But just as the music industry has struggled to come to terms with the advent of streaming services such as Spotify, so too has the Official Charts Company (OCC).

Fearing a headlong plunge into irrelevance, it agreed three years ago to include streamed songs as part of the metrics used to compile the charts. The formula was fiercely contested, particularly by those who believed only those songs that were bought should be included in the count.

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The OCC brokered a compromise: every 100 streams of a song would be classed as the equivalent of one physical or digital sale. The idea was to balance consumption against purchase power, but with the weight constantly shifting in favour of streaming and repeat listens, it proved an ineffective model.

In response to Drake’s One Dance spending 15 weeks at number one – threatening Bryan Adams’ 26 year-long record – the OCC upped the conversion rate to 150 streams for every sale. Sheeran’s dominance – his new album was streamed 273 million times on Spotify in its first week – shows the company has yet to find the answer to a persistent problem.

Of course, for every purist who believes the sanctity of the charts must be preserved – mainly middle-aged men called Keith who have an alphabetized collection of 7” singles stored on custom-built shelving system in their childhood bedrooms – there are those who will wonder what all the fuss is about.

The chart is a spent force and much as the OCC may try to present Sheeran’s feat in the context of popular music’s history, it is disingenuous to compare his success with that of The Beatles, given the way in which the industry has transformed.

There is no straightforward fix that would restore the credibility of Dickins’ brainchild. Excluding streaming data would present a woefully incomplete snapshot of the nation’s inclinations, while limiting the number of designated singles that can be taken from an album feels restrictive.

Change of some kind is required, however. A mere 11 songs reached number one last year, the lowest number in the 65-year history of the charts, and the Sheeran farce makes clear just how difficult it is for emerging artists to break through into the mainstream. There is a wealth of exciting new music being produced in this country, but it requires visibility in order to prosper.

Fixing the charts may be perceived as a fruitless battle against nostalgia. In fact, it is a necessary step to combat the real and growing threat of homogeneity in today’s music scene. There was a great deal of guff on those C90 tapes, but they remain a treasured possession, squirrelled away in a corner of the loft. Even Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers.