Islands in the Stream

islands

Islands in the Stream

by Niall McMurray

What on earth is going on with the UK singles chart these days? It’s a question I ask myself a lot these days, ever since I started banging on about flops here at Into the Popvoid.

As I write, Drake’s One Dance is sitting at no.1 for the tenth week – an unusual, but not unprecedented length of time as the nation’s most popular song. Most of us will remember the sixteen weeks Bryan Adams spent there with (Everything I Do I Do) it For You, Wet Wet Wet’s fifteen with Love is All Around, and more recently, Rihanna’s ten week stint with Umbrella. However grumpy we got about it, we couldn’t really argue about it, because people were going out and buying these songs. They were making an actual choice and they were doing it in their thousands, week in, week out. The difference with Drake is that for the last four or five weeks, One Dance hasn’t been the most purchased song in the UK. Often it’s not even been the second or third most purchased song, at least not on iTunes, where most chart sales are recorded nowadays. Rather, it’s stayed at no.1 because of its colossal streaming numbers.

Streams were incorporated into the British singles chart a little under two years ago, at a point when songs were regularly beginning to break the 1 million per week barrier. It was decided that 100 streams would be equal to one sale, meaning that if you hit a million in a week it was equivalent to selling 10,000 downloads. That probably seemed quite fair at the time, but since then it’s expanded its reach hugely, and in its ninth week at no.1, One Dance notched up 5.6 million streams – equating to 56,000 of its total 73,000 ‘sales’. For the records at the top end of the chart at least, streaming is now where it’s at. And that’s worrying me slightly.

Change, of course, is nothing new to the record industry, and certainly not to the charts. The popularity of a song was once determined by how many copies of sheet music it sold, and in my own lifetime I’ve seen numerous changes to the way the chart is compiled – from time limit impositions on CD singles, limitations on free gifts (no more bonus 12″ double-packs!) and the introduction of downloads. All of these were fair enough because they didn’t fundamentally change how the chart was compiled: you still had to sell the most copies to get to no.1.

I was always very happy that the UK compilers over the years resisted the temptation/pressure to count radio airplay towards the chart, as has been the way in America for decades. For me that decision kept the chart as pure as it was possible to be in an industry where the playing field is anything but level. The plain fact of the matter is that the UK top 40 never has been and never will be a reflection of the best records – it’s a combination of a lot of different factors, among them likability, hummability, fanbase loyalty, radio exposure, promotion and availability. The last of those points is an important one – many of the songs in this blog failed because they barely made it into the shops in sufficient quantities to register. Which, of course, connects back to promotion. Having a hit took a lot of work, and it wasn’t fair for everyone by any stretch of the imagination –  but by close of business on a Saturday (now Thursday), it still all came down to who people had bought the most. And that always lent the UK chart a kind of integrity.

I was briefly excited when downloads first started counting towards the chart because it felt like the ground was as level as it was ever going to get. Nobody had to worry about there not being enough physical copies in a shop anymore because it was always in stock at iTunes. The difference really was noticeable too – the chart reverted to its 70s and 80s form, where songs entered low and then climbed a few places a week as they began to take hold in the public consciousness. You still got your big ‘straight in at no.1’ blockbusters, but the era of the first week peak (most of the 90s, basically) was over. Sales got a big boost too, and from my viewpoint things were looking pretty good.

Then streaming came along. We all thought that downloads were the big format change of the century, but they weren’t. They were just a stepping stone on the path to the future of music consumption – and that path has led to a place where simply leaving on a Spotify or a Deezer or an Apple Music playlists counts as an emphatic ‘thumbs up’ to a song. Repeated across the land in homes, shops, offices and on trains, buses and in cars, can it be true that ‘passive’ listens really equal the act of physically choosing to buy a record? I don’t think it can be.

As a 44 year old, I do know that this is not my time, and that things always change and indeed must change. Perhaps a way to differentiate between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ listening has already been worked out, and because Pam in Accounts had nodded off while Cheap Thrills was on, it won’t be counted for this week’s chart. But if it has, I don’t think we’ve been told yet. And I also know that music will survive and find a way to thrive because people will always love it and need it, and music always does. But what saddens me is that it feels like the biggest casualty in all of this is going to be the singles chart itself. Those epic stays at no.1 used to be the subject of national conversation, frustration and they got discussed in the tabloids – it was big news when Wet Wet Wet eventually deleted Love is All Around (a theoretically noble act, but I’m certain designed to squeeze in an extra couple of weeks at the top before Whigfield rode in to ‘save’ the day). Now, unless I’m very much mistaken, nobody cares, outside of us chart obsessives.

You could argue that the charts becoming irrelevant to the people who listen to music the most is a good thing – that they have freed themselves from the shackles of mass popularity, which gives new music the opportunity to flourish. But I don’t think it’s quite working out that way, do you? We’re just swapping fairly harmless shackles for slightly more uncomfortable ones: we used to curate our own collections, but now – for a lot of people at least – other people are doing it for us.

The good people over at the Official Charts Company have a thankless task at the moment, and I don’t envy them. They have to try and keep a British institution relevant at a time when institution is a bit of a dirty word. I genuinely find the streaming revolution fascinating, and if it means that people listen to more music more of the time then that’s a good thing. But if it’s now cannibalising sales – and that One Dance week 9 figure suggests it most certainly is – and artists aren’t recompensed fairly, it will lead to there being a much smaller amount of new music to discover. And if someone takes a stand – as Taylor Swift has done – and removes their music from streaming platforms, then their chances of having a no.1 hit become reduced quite significantly. Few people may lose any sleep over that particular example, but while streaming holds such sway it means that the slightly more level playing field we were seeing is starting to look more like a mountain range. But that’s a whole different argument for another time.

I’m sure it will all come good eventually – we are, after all, in the early days of this particular revolution – but at the moment it’s not quite working. I don’t doubt that One Dance is a huge, smash hit, beloved by thousands. But I’d be happier seeing it at no.1 for an eleventh week if it had actually sold the most copies. Is that so old-fashioned?