Popping the Question: How will streaming affect the UK Singles Chart?

When I first heard the news that streaming was to be included in the UK’s Official Singles Chart from July, I was concerned, but I wanted to wait to see the effect of the change before I made my judgement. I don’t like to be negative in my Popping The Question posts, but I also have to be honest, and following the publication of the first chart incorporating streaming, I’m ready to say that I think it was a mistake. I wrote earlier this year about why the Singles Chart is still important in 2014, so it’s sad to see that its validity and its value have been damaged by a poor decision.

I understand that the Official Charts Company are trying to keep up with the changes in music consumption as technology develops. They were quite slow to add download sales to the charts, and perhaps that’s why they jumped in headfirst with streaming, not wanting to seem out of touch. However, in doing so I think they have missed the point quite spectacularly.

Downloading a song is buying a song – it might be a different format, but it’s the 21st century equivalent of buying a CD, cassette, record etc. It made perfect sense to add download sales into the Singles Chart. Conversely, streaming a song is not an act of buying, but an act of playing. It is essentially the same as playing a track on your iPod, or putting on a record from your collection. If we are going to include streaming in the charts, we might as well include Last.FM play counts too. And then, to make it fair, we’ll have to get everyone who still listens to CDs to make a diary of everything they listen to and submit it to the OCC each week. Now you’re starting to see why this is ridiculous, right?

There are a few ways that adding streaming to the Singles Chart could be appropriate. For example, if the OCC only counted the first ever play of a track by an individual listener, or when they added a song to their favourites/library/playlist. I tried to check the chart rules online and they hadn’t been updated since 2013, but I assume this is not how streams are being counted.

As well as the Singles Chart, the OCC have decided to continue publishing the sales-only chart, now known as the Official Singles Sales Chart. This means that we can directly compare how a song would fare on the old chart to the new chart. I went through every song in the Sales Chart top 40 to see if the new Singles Chart rules worked in its favour or not.

My research found that the new rules are most beneficial for the year’s big hits. Songs such as Rather Be, Hideaway, Fancy and Nobody To Love are significantly higher in the Singles Chart than the Sales Chart. This suggests big singles will enjoy more longevity, slowing down the turnover of hits overall. It makes sense, as people go back to songs they love week after week. In the old chart, your love of a song would be counted only on the week you bought it, but now it counts every week that you choose to listen to it.

In contrast, it seems that tracks by big artists that haven’t caught on as massively as they might have been expected to, will fall out of the charts more quickly. Some of the songs which were notably lower in the Singles Chart than the Sales Chart included Usher’s Good Kisser and Here For You by Gorgon City – both top 10 hits, but not the kind you’ll be hearing again and again for the rest of the year. To be fair, it’s not a big loss for the charts if over-hyped, underwhelming songs don’t stick around, but it could be the end of “the grower.”

All four of the tracks from Ed Sheeran’s new album X that are currently in the top 40 are higher in the Singles Chart than the Sales Chart, which shows that the new rules also help big, established artists dominate the chart more than ever. It won’t be every week that an album will be released which is highly anticipated enough to have several tracks in the top 40, but we can expect to see this happen increasingly often. Many people use streaming as a way to “try before you buy,” so a new album should logically have very strong streaming numbers in its first few weeks. This could cause a decrease in the number of artists who have a song in the Singles Chart each week, blocking new and smaller acts from reaching the top 40.

Another reason I think the addition of streaming to the chart is damaging to new and less established acts is that my research suggests new entries will, on average, chart lower. At the top end of this week’s chart, probably because the difference in sales is so large, streaming didn’t have an effect on the new entries. Problem by Ariana Grande and Chandelier by Sia charted at no.1 and no.6 in both the Singles Chart and Sales Chart. However, DJ Fresh’s new single reached no.10, whereas it would have been no.7 if the rules hadn’t changed, and Milky Chance entered the chart at no.32, rather than no.28. For a new act, or an act returning with a make-or-break comeback single, this could be the difference between a top 10 hit or just missing out – and we all know what happens to pop stars who don’t make the top 10.

The change to the chart rules is annoying for fact fans like me, because it undermines what the Official Chart is supposed to stand for, and its 45-year history as a measure of sales. But I’m perfectly aware that most music lovers are not that geeky, and don’t really care. However, I think that the effect this change will have on musicians and the UK music industry is worth caring about.

I’m proud to say that when I look over the charts of different countries when I’m compiling my Top of the Poptastic list each month, I see that the UK is much less homogenised than most others. Our chart features famous names alongside new artists from a wide variety of genres, including homegrown talent and international acts, and it has always been very fast-moving. In other countries the same songs by huge world-famous acts will dominate the top 10 for months on end. In the UK, we see new songs come and go, artists can come out of nowhere to become huge practically overnight, and the result is a fun and fascinating chart to follow.

Adding streaming to the Official Chart makes it more similar to the US Billboard Hot 100, which is based on radio play, streaming and sales. So far this year, the Hot 100 has had only six different no.1s, compared to the UK chart’s 20 different chart-toppers. Why would we want to change the rules and lose that variety, that excitement? To me, it makes no sense at all.

The change has been made now, and there’s no point crying over spilt milk, but I can say I’ll be paying much more attention to the iTunes chart and Sales Chart ongoing, rather than the Singles Chart. Considering younger music fans already follow the fast-paced, exciting iTunes chart more closely than the Official Chart, I’m sad to predict that the new rules will make it seem even less relevant.

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