22
Jan 09

The Strange Death of the UK Charts

FT/ • 3,403 views

This is a graph – done by anatol_merklich off the Poptimists LiveJournal community, so massive thanks to him – showing the number of new entries in the UK singles chart for each year from 1952 to the present.

The final drop-off is for 2009, where there’ve only been 3 new entries so far, so the last relevant data point is the one before that – 2008 – which shows a dramatic fall from 2007, but on an already declining recent curve. The number of new entries in the Top 75 last year is less than half what it was in 2004. In fact, last year’s total is the lowest since the chart became a Top 75, back in 1979. (Before that significant changes in the total were largely down to the expansion of the chart’s parameters – from 20, to 30, to 50 to 75.)

What does the graph tell us? That the 90s saw a “pop bubble”, for one thing: the number of new entries peaked in 1997, with an average of more than 20 new entries every week. It seems to me that the bubble was caused by two things: better first-week marketing of new singles (including aggressive discounting and multiple formats) and the explosion of interest in dance music, a genre which thrived on singles formats.

So what’s caused the bubble to finally burst? The really key factor has been the inclusion of downloads in the chart – this started in April 2004, and that’s when we see a really precipitous drop in the number of new tracks charting. From 2007, any download – rather than simply ones tied to physical releases – has been eligible for the chart, and increasingly no physical release is required. This has accelerated the drop in new entries.

But why? After all, the new download rules mean that far MORE songs are eligible for chart status than ever before – almost any track can get into the chart. But this obviously isn’t happening. Some of this is down to the contracting music biz meaning that less acts are getting promotional push, but the main issue is one of shelf life. The freedom from a physical release that opens the charts up to far more songs is also a freedom from the restrictions placed on records by their reliance on physical distribution networks. In the days of Woolworths (RIP) and HMV, a song slipping out of the Top 40 was quickly axed from stock to make way for newer releases: but in a digital world, songs can (and do) bounce around the lower reaches of the Top 75 almost indefinitely. The expanded longevity of each hit song means far fewer spaces for new songs to break through.

In other words, what the charts have become is a demonstration of how the increased choice offered by a Long Tail system actually leads to LESS diversity at the top end (the “hit head”). The forces acting as gatekeepers over what could be bought were also hidden gatekeepers over when things could be bought: this power sped up the pop turnover and helped make the charts more vibrant. (NB: I like having a fast-moving chart with a lot of different records: your mileage may of course vary).

What’s the overall lesson? That when you remove artificial barriers in a content-based system the speed of turnover slows down, perhaps? If you think about a distribution curve, a gatekept system punishes innovators and to some extent early adopters by stopping the kewl things they discover from reaching an audience quickly. But it also punishes late majority adopters and laggards, by artificially curtailing the shelf life of content. And there are more of the late majority and laggards than there are the innovators!

(UPDATE: I’ve now run the figures to find out the “hit rate” for each year – the percentage of new entries as against *potential* new entries – with 100% being some kind of madhouse scenario where the entire Top 75 changes every week. This supports the “bubble” hypothesis – the hit rate is now at a 34-year low, of 12.4% (in the bubble years – 1990 to 2005 – it was above 20% every year). But it’s within the 10-13% range it was in for most of the charts’ first 20 years: the exception being a slump to under 10% at the start of the 70s – the lowest it’s ever been. Whether it will keep dropping is the question – and whether a low hit rate is a healthy sign for a much more stylistically diversified biz than was the case in 1974. Of course, if you believe the singles chart doesn’t matter much, this is all irrelevant, but I think it’s an interesting finding anyhow!)

This article was the jumping off point for an article in the Guardian by Dorian Lynskey – Ed

Comments

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  1. 26
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

    and there was me thinking you were on about Kid Kudi =:-O

  2. 27
    Tom on 22 Jan 2009 #

    I haven’t read the Long Tail either! But I wasn’t trying to ‘disprove’ it – I was suggesting that the removal of physical limits which makes a Long Tail cultural market possible also means that hits grow their own individual Long Tails.

    Combine that with record company marketing techniques you get what I’m going to call “mullet hits” – short at the front (pre-peak) and then long at the back: a lengthy falling off as the audience gets into the late majority and laggards. The early adopters and early majority start getting pissed off at this point.

    On my way to get a sammich I thought about what the ‘solution’ for this might be – a best-of-both-worlds secnario. I reckon if, outside the Top 40 (or even 20), a song got delisted when its sales had been declining for 3-4 straight weeks, we’d remove this logjam a bit.

  3. 28
    Pete Baran on 22 Jan 2009 #

    I am not sure it matters really. I remember the Top 40 radio show from my youth was only 2 hours long. They only played the new entries between 40 and 20 and played the top 20 straight – effectively presentationally what you suggest. There is no reason why we at Freaky Trigger could not make that OUR official chart, it’d be easy to set up (ie the tedium adjusted chart!)

    Things I would also like to see from the stats is the effect of playlist positioning. Does a song get a bump when it drops off a playlist – ie I can hear Chasing Cars all the time on the radio, why would I want to buy it -OH NOES IT HAS GONE.

  4. 29
    Tom on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Interesting btw that this piece appears on the same day as an article in Graun Technology predcting the death of downloaded music: link and background here http://www.paulbr.co.uk/the-death-of-the-download/

  5. 30
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

    aye — the cloud v download. now that i can listen to the The Best of Billie 24 hours a day without a download — where are your mighty charts now, eh?

    (ps i wasn’t saying you were trying to disprove the long tail, but that Dorian had taken it that way)

  6. 31
    CarsmileSteve on 22 Jan 2009 #

    but alan, what if you are not in range of teh cloud, eg on the tube/in cornwall???

  7. 32
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

    true. more importantly, which is more likely to happen first – wifi in the tube or electric lighting in cornwall?

  8. 33
    SteveM on 22 Jan 2009 #

    #29 link – Yes Spotify and the like make that much more palpable.

    For me the charts are pretty much dead and irrelevant. I like that things like Kid Cudi+Crookers can (eventually) do well in them but the alternative universe of pop filled with “this ought to be a top 10 single” wonders is now so vast and immediate and there is no way for that to be measured and contained in a chart in any way that could satisfy me now.

  9. 34
    cis on 22 Jan 2009 #

    “Day and Night” for me was a brilliant number one for its utterly straightforward formalism, that and samantha mumba’s ‘gotta tell you’ were like steps toward perfection of the pop-in-2000-formula. I don’t think either of them were actually written by cheiron productions but they sounded like it, like refinements on ‘crazy’ and ‘it’s gonna be me’. Which – I was only just starting to get back into pop, then, after my time at the indie coalface – was really thrilling to me, and still is, the idea that a sound could be seized upon and tweaked endlessly until it got as close to the ideal as possible and then got boring and then was discarded, right out in public.

    (but obv this kind of formalism is only fun if you like the thing they’re formalising)

    er i had a way i was going to link this to the end of the bubble but i forgot what it was.

  10. 35
    CarsmileSteve on 22 Jan 2009 #

    of course one could just “tape” billie’s greatest hits off of spotify…

  11. 36
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

    detail from that technology article (interview with LastFM bloke)

    “We have a generation of music fans now who’ve grown up with the iTunes standard of 128kbps, which is the quality we stream music at on Last.fm”

    but they don’t say what codec. when everyone is up-to-date with Flash, we can dump mp3 streaming as they put aac support into 9 (and we’re now on 10). but every (open source) flash player i’ve seen still uses mp3 :-(

  12. 37
    SteveM on 22 Jan 2009 #

    either way 128kbps really isn’t a step backwards from muffly old C90s.

  13. 38
    vinylscot on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Tom,

    There’s a lot of good valid points in here, but I need to disagree with your idea at the end of post 27. The “logjam”, as you put it, is there because the consumer wants it to be there; tracks should continue to be listed according to sales, no matter whether these sales are increasing or decreasing. If a track is to enter the top 75, it must sell enough copies to be one of the 75 best selling tracks; anything else would devalue the integrity of the chart.

    Back in the late 70s, not long after the chart expanded to 75, there were a further 25 listed, numbered 76-100, and these positions were dependent upon increased sales; I can’t remember the exact criteria, but it was along the lines of two weeks decrease in sales disqualifies a listing. This was discontinued after a fairly short time, as it was recognised that the song listed at 100, may really only be #150 or something.

    By your model some of the finest of all chart runs would have been curtailed early – Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round”, Jennifer Rush’s “Power of Love”, even Frankie’s “Relax” would probably have been dropped from the chart before they really took off, and others like Evelyn King’s sublime “Shame” would have vanished much sooner and lost their status as long-runners. As you’ll no doubt appreciate, once a record drops off the chart, promotional spend (usually quite rightly) disappears.

    Today’s long-runners do reflect a more mature approach to music buying. There’s no mad rush to buy something in its first week or two to take advantage of early cut-price offers or limited availability timespan. This reduces both “routine” buying, where the purchaser will buy anything released by an artist, and “impulse” buying where the purchaser feels he must buy now or miss the boat.

    The ready availability of almost everything on legal download services has, some would say surprisingly, reduced the impetus to buy. You don’t need to buy now, because it will always be there, and there is therefore less buyer’s regret involved as more purchases are the result of some thought rather than an automatic reflex.

    The parallel availability of free illegal downloads also replaces much of the “reflex” purchases, and also contributes to the overall phenomenon.

    The chart reflects what people are willing to pay for, and that’s how it must be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show what the most popular tracks are; illegal downloads make that impossible, but it’s as close as we’re gonna get.

    There have always been people who have an interest in chart runs, positions, performance etc, over and above just an interest in the music itself. I was one of these throughout the 70s into the early and mid 80s. Although I now have far less interest in the actual music now, I find myself becoming more interested in the chart again.

    So, I don’t think the slowing down has had a detrimental effect; in fact I see it as infinitely preferable to the in-and-out-in-four-weeks nonsense of the nineties and early 00s.

    Apologies for length. I’ll go away now.

  14. 39
    definitely not Kat at all oh no on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Veering a bit off topic but wrt the Graun article on the death of the download: on our daily music news mailshot this morning we were triumphantly told that the iTunes store had had its best quarter ever leading up to wobsmas. (Tho this could be just a by-product of Apple dropping the DRM?)

  15. 40
    definitely not Kat at all oh no on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Cis – ‘Day & Night’ was produced by Stargate (Rustan/Eriksen/Hermansen), ‘Gotta Tell You’ was Arnthor Birgisson who wasn’t Cheiron but was sort-of mates with them I think.

  16. 41
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

    DRM was dropped after the time covered by that quarter. iTunes store performance is more likely down to the app store for the ipod touch – nowt much to do with music

  17. 42
    wichita lineman on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Re 27: I’ve often wondered if Billboard used to do this, as American hits tended to have an Edwyn Collins 1980 ‘do rather than a mullet, falling from their peak position very rapidly.

    Can’t agree though, Tom, I think the chart has to be based on supply and demand – same as TOTP, when it finally returns, has to be based on the singles chart. Snow Patrol potentially overtaking My Way’s record run is just something we’ll have to live with.*

    Longest Billboard run, last time I checked, was Tainted Love which never even cracked the Top 5.

    *maybe it already has? The Guinness book doesn’t seem to print such info these days.

  18. 43
    AndyPandy on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Re Pete at No14: That’s really interesting I never realised that that had started to happen to singles ie that they were deleted very quickly after they left the charts.

    I suppose it shows when I lost bought pop singles but I still blithely believed things had stayed like they were in the 70s and 80s when many singles stayed on catalogue more or less indefinitely and even less well performing ones were available for a considerable amount of time after they’d disappeared from the charts. Hence the occasional phenomenon of a single suddenly spending a rogue week or two at the bottom of the charts again months or years after its initial success.
    I’m definitely with those who think the moment the chart doesn’t list the Top selling singles purely on sales for that week an already generally irrelevant concept becomes completely pointless.

  19. 44
    vinylscot on 22 Jan 2009 #

    re post 42, according to the Chartstats site, the Snow Patrol track will equal Frank Sinatra’s record this coming weekend, if it stays in the top 100 in the next chart.

    It is currently at #80, up from last week’s #82. There is a debate however over whether 30 of Snow Patrol’s weeks should count as they were spent in between #76 and #100, and therefore are outside the normally publicised scope of the “Chart”.

    It’s also been suggested in certain places that its chart position has not always been strictly accurate, prompted by the fact that it has spent six (non-consecutive) weeks at #75, every one of these while the chart position has been on a downward trend, the inference being that it was artificially kept in the top 75.

    I don’t know what the official view is; perhaps other contributors may have views on this.

  20. 45
    Tom on 23 Jan 2009 #

    http://www.theilliterate.com/archives/illiterati/00001057.htm

    …has the details for the US charts! Very interesting.

  21. 46
    AndyPandy on 23 Jan 2009 #

    Think the original (Guardian) article interesting except for as others have said this idea about the paucity of new entries “unifying” things to those pre-90s days when people knew what was No1 and records were “proper” hits.
    Surely its still fragmented niche markets but just as some people have said those niches buying them over longer periods.
    Surely nowhere better illustrated than with the Ting Tings (who I’d mercifully never heard of till this article) to be honest I can’t think of any act less likely to unify any music nation and who actually only appeal to a very small demographic of easily manipulated people who mistifyingly would think they’re less easily manipulated than the buyers of ‘Pop Idol’ etc.

    Someone made an interesting point about the charts being skewed by the effect that only legal downloads count towards the charts (and I’m sure I’ve heard a figure of 95% of downloads being estimated to be illegal).

    With many (but by no means all) of those who see legal downloading as laughable being younger and/or from a lower social demographic and with older more earnest/people from a social demographic worrying about such things as the artists getting paid/”development of new talent” bothering to pay for their tracks could an extrapolation from this explain the preponderance of easier listening/less urban music hanging around at least in the lower regions of the charts for ages these days…If someone has already said something similar I apologise

    PS To return to the Ting Tings what a completely awful band….well I suppose they have a sort of saving grace in crystallising all the most redundant, derivative, self-regarding facets of modern indie music in one handy package if you ever need to point just how worthlessly dire this type of music is…

  22. 47
    Alan on 26 Jan 2009 #

    http://www.slate.com/id/2195151/ An old Slate post worth linking here – that cites research showing that online purchasing makes for a long tail that is flat but that there remains a massive ‘unadventurous’ blockbuster head

  23. 48

    [...] Freakytrigger post shows that the number of new entries in the UK charts has dropped off a cliff in recent years. A negative effect of the long [...]

  24. 49
    Alan not logged in on 15 Apr 2010 #

    wonder if anatol can add more data now?

  25. 50
    Alan on 29 Nov 2010 #

    YEAH, what he said ^

  26. 51
    speedwell54 on 5 Dec 2012 #

    Saw this in the ‘moving box’, third blog down and the title caught my attention. All fascinating stuff Tom, and I enjoyed the links to the Guardian and the American version of the same story. Personally I do prefer the less frantic chart turnover that we have at the moment. I used to follow the top 75, but reduced it to monitoring the top 10 by the mid ’90s. This was partly due to the speed of the chart and top 10 singles going in and out so quickly that they barely registered.

    In the ’90s, 1997 was the peak of the “Pop Bubble” for the top 10, as well as the full chart. 216 going through it, more than half staying just one week in there. In the 17 years 1979-1995 an average of 135 records passed through the top 10, and save a couple of years it was within 10 of that figure. The change started in 1996, shooting up to 186, and then it averages 206 top 10s for the next ten years. The download rules change in 2006, Gnarls Barkley goes to No1, and the chart slows again. 2006-2011 we are again coincidentally averaging 135 per year.

    I am broadly in line with the views of vinylscot and Dorian Lynskey* on this one. In 1997 the No1s entered at No1 except a couple that entered at 2. Out of 220 top 10 singles that year, only one actually climbed in there! In 2012 Paradise, Good Feeling, Domino, Titanium, Somebody I Used To Know, and We Are Young, all climbed to the very top in a way that just wasn’t possible in 1997.

    Personally I want the chart to reflect weekly sales in whatever format, with no tinkering at the edges, and when I look at the top 10, I want to think, yeah I know that song and I remember the video, or have some recollection of how they look. I don’t want to think, what? who?

    Just a small point Dorian Lynskey writes in the Guardian in Jan 2009 “Last year, only 202 songs entered the top 40…” On a quick count I get 284 and that excludes 9 re entries in week 1. I haven’t looked more deeply, but even if you say “Hallelujah” by Alexandra Burke, Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley count as one ‘song’, I don’t think there were too many other examples. Maybe I am missing something. Later in the same article: “In 1987 there were 159 new entries; 10 years later there were 729..” I get 341 in 1987. There were 144 entries just in the top 10. The 729 I can’t easily check but it does at least sound reasonable, and I do get the point, just not the figures. Liked the article.

    My own figures include my own rules, but they are accurate enough for this.

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