I am a big fan of the UK Top 40. I have been following its ins and outs with great interest from an early age. I used to love watching Top of The Pops to find out what new songs have sold enough to make it to the top 40. My favourite round in Pointless is where they are asked to name top 40 hits by a particular artist. My party trick (if you call it that) is that if you name an artist or musician, I can immediately tell you what their highest charting song is and what position it got to. So far I've only been stumped twice.*
Yet in the past few years, the chart has changed beyond all recognition. There isn't the same variety in the charts as there was five years ago. Many of the songs are very similar and seem to blend into one big blob. For some, this has led them to dismiss the charts as irrelevant. A wonderful piece from the music blog The Recommender has suggested that the because the charts have become so generic, they have lost their relevance in today's musical landscape. Whilst the post does a great job at examining what it is that the charts seem to have lost, it doesn't seem to fully address the reasons why the so called "credible" music doesn't feature in the charts to the same extent it used to. Therefore, as someone who holds a deep affection for both the charts and for new and upcoming music, I have listed six reasons why I believe that some of the artists that we love who might have made the charts in the past don't seem to have a chance of doing so in the current climate.
I should point out that I am not suggesting that these are the only reasons for the changing face of the chart. Furthermore, whilst these reasons might also be relevant to other charts around the world, I believe that many of them are specific to the UK Chart, due to it being based solely on sales.
1. You need to sell a lot of copies to get ANYWHERE near the chart.
In 2006 it was estimated that an artist needed to sell 2,500 copies in order to stand a chance of making the UK Top 40. While it might be a lot for an artist still building a fanbase, it was still a reasonably achievable goal. Now fast forward six years, and the bar has been raised much, much higher. Now an artist needs to be selling at least 8,000 copies to stand a chance of making the Top 40. If an artist doesn't have that number of followers of Facebook or Twitter, then the chances of them making the charts are slim-to-none.
2. Downloads mean that there's more competition
Prior to 2005, if you wanted your song to reach the charts, you needed to have a physical copy of your single in as many record shops as you possibly can in order so that you could sell enough copies to make the chart. This gave a big advantage to major record companies over smaller indie labels, as they had a better infrastructure in place to distribute their records into the shops that reported their data to the chart company. Because these costs become minimal when selling singles as MP3s, I was surprised that when it was announced that downloads would be counted towards the chart, it was the indie labels that cried foul. I thought that as it would be easier to get their songs to consumers, it would help to put them on a level playing field to the major record labels. How wrong I was.
Now, instead of competing against the 500 or so single releases that would have been available to buy in record shops, a newly minted song finds itself in direct competition with EVERY SONG EVER RELEASED. Album tracks, b-sides and other oddities have just as much chance of making the chart as a brand new song that was first put onto iTunes. Who could forget that moment in 2007 when Led Zeppelin, a band who famously never released any singles in the UK, got to #37 with "Stairway to Heaven"?
Similarly, if a major recording artist dies, then you better believe that their most beloved songs are going to be cherrypicked by their grief-stricken fans. Just witness the chart from July 2009, when the death of Michael Jackson led to a whopping THIRTEEN of his songs making the top 40.
3. The act of purchasing a single is quicker and more prone to impulse.
There has been no shortage of songs in the past that have become hit singles as a result of being used in an advert or being performed on a TV Show. The only difference between then and now is the time-frame. When The Clash allowed one of their anti-establishment anthems to be used to flog jeans, it took several months after its premiere to print the singles to allow it to become a hit. This year, within hours of being featured in an advert for an ineffective internet browser, Alex Clare's hit "Too Close" raced up the charts. It's been noted that if a song is "performed" on a TV show such as the X Factor, then its position on the iTunes chart (other download charts are available) will rapidly increase, hence why "Iris" & "Cannonball" made the top 10 for the first time last year.
Once again, downloads play a hand in this one. In the past, buying a single has been more of a conscious, thought out decision. If you heard a song on the radio or in an advert and wanted to buy it, you'd have to make the trip down to your friendly music provider to purchase a copy, if they even had one in the first place. Now if you hear a song you like, you can go purchase a copy of a song on your computer or smartphone and own it within seconds. If you regret your decision later on, it's too late - your money has been taken and Mr Clare has another sale to his chart tally. This is one of the reasons why it's been mainly club and dance music that has thrived in the download era, as these are the genres most prone to the impulse buys, the sort of songs you download to your phone after hearing it on a night out whilst half-polejaxxed. If you're a fan of thoughtful, introspective indie-rock, then you're not going to find much to your taste in a chart that gives an edge to the perpetually inebriated.
4. Multi-formatting is dead
If you look back to the UK charts of the 1990s, you might be surprised to see some of the bands that have had top 40 singles. Sebadoh and Rocket From The Crypt graced the charts with "Flame" and "On a Rope" respectively, Pavement made the top 40 twice, Teenage Fanclub have five hits to their name, whilst The Wildhearts have accumulated a massive THIRTEEN top 40 hits. What is the factor that made it so easy for these bands to float into the charts? The answer is by encouraging their fans to buy as many copies of the single as possible.
"On A Rope" got to #12, believe it or not.
You see, back in the 1990s, it was traditional for a band to release their single across three different formats, the maximum the Chart Company would allow. This would normally consist of 2 CDs and a cassette, or 2 CDs and a 7" vinyl, and could contain between one and three extra tracks on this release. Theoretically, this meant that if you were to buy on all three formats, you could end up getting up to EIGHT new, exclusive tracks in addition to main song being promoted. It kind of takes away from the concept of it being a SINGLES chart, when you think about it. I absolutely love Suede, and I am especially proud of the fact that they achieved five top 10 singles from their "Coming Up" album. However, if it wasn't for their aggressive multi-formatting, and their incredibly impressive b-sides, it wouldn't have been possible at all.
Just like being able to throw a bad record away like a Frisbee if it's terrible, multi-formatting is one of those things that has gone out the window when downloads became the main source of single sales. It's hard to convince someone to buy the same single (or "bundle") more than once when it consists of nothing more than 0s and 1s.
But if an artist is willing to continue multi-formatting, and has a big enough fanbase willing to buy all the formats available, then they can continue to reap the rewards chart-wise. Noel Gallagher has got 4 Top 75 hits from his first solo album, whilst Biffy Clyro released six singles from their "Only Revolutions" album with 18 exclusive b-sides, and they all made the Top 40.
5. Without Radio 1, you're dead in the water.
The one thing that unites almost all of the songs in the current UK Top 40 is that they are or have been playlisted by Radio 1. For those who are unaware, most radio stations have a list of about 50 or so new songs that will received regular airplay on the station over the next week. If an artist isn't on the Radio 1 playlist, then you kiss goodbye to any chance of making the charts.
There are a three main reasons for this. Radio 1 is the third most listened to radio station in the UK. Only Radio 2 & 4 have greater listening figures. Secondly, the station caters for the younger audience of people who are more likely to buy singles. This is why being playlisted on Radio 2 doesn't have the same impact on the singles chart, despite having double the listeners.
Thirdly, many commercial and community stations use the Radio 1 playlist as a reference point when it comes to drawing up their own playlists. Speaking from experience from my role as Head of Music for Queen's Radio, I am very reluctant to forward songs for our playlist from dance, pop & urban artists unless they have first made the playlist at Radio 1, and I think that other Music Programmers are of the same opinion as well.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. In the past 2 years, songs by The Wanted, Lawson & Cover Drive have made the top 5 despite not being playlisted on Radio 1. However, given that all these artists are managed by the company that owns Capital Radio, it's fair to say that they haven't been entirely neglected by all radio. Also, being playlisted on Radio 1 doesn't always guarantee a chart entry. From the current playlist, I really can't see The Gaslight Anthem, Bastille or Grimes making the chart anytime soon.
(NOTE on 29/10: since writing this article, Bastille managed to get to #21 in the chart with "Flaws". Mea culpa)
6. Artists either don't understand how the chart works, or seemingly care about it.
Every so often, I come across a Facebook group for another over-optimistic, naive unsigned artist who thinks that they are going to gather enough support from their supporters to engage in a 'campaign' to get their latest song into the charts. Whilst there have been some artists that have achieved this (Koopa, Urbnri, Lahayna, Honey Ryder), these mainly date from when a track could first chart from downloads alone, and haven't become a weekly occurrence in the charts.
Urbnri. It's Irn-Bru backwards. They're Scottish, you see.
The next time you come across one of these groups, have a look at when they advise their fans to start buying the track in attempt to storm the chart. 9 times out of 10, I bet you that they will tell them to start buying from Monday. This ignores the fact that the Official Chart Company starts compiling charts from Sunday to Saturday, meaning that they will be losing out on a day of sales. If they don't understand how the chart works, then how do they expect to storm right into it?
Maybe I'm being a bit harsh on those artists. After all, if I wasn't such a chart otaku who has been a member of various forums on the subject for years, I certainly wouldn't know the ins and outs of how it works. But perhaps those artists don't realize that making the chart isn't a one way ticket to riches and fame. Of the four artists mentioned above, none of them have been able to build a lasting career out of getting Top 40. Making the chart should not be the pinacle of an artist's achievements. Instead it should be used as an incentive to spur on an artist into having a successful career, not an end in itself.
Bis on TOTP. It happened.
It's a pity that Top of the Pops isn't on anymore - it's cancellation is seen as one of the reasons why artists/labels don't care about the charts anymore. After all, the incentives to push for a chart place aren't there if you don't get the opportunity to perform on national TV as a reward. And perhaps, as The Recommender article suggests, the internet offers other alternatives to the main chart. On The Hype Machine, for example, an artist could reach the number 1 position if they can get about 1,000 people worldwide to 'heart' their song, instantly opening themselves up to a wider audience.
So that's my two pennies worth on the UK Charts. Even though for the most part, the music isn't my cup of tea, I will still tune into Radio 1 at 4pm whenever I can to hear which artist has sold the most copies in the last seven days. Who knows, maybe several of the artists whose single I bought within the past seven days will be played to the millions of people listening. Or not. You never know.
*In case you were wondering, those artists were Big Audio Dynamite and Crosby, Stills & Nash.