Jan 09

The Strange Death of the UK Charts

FT/62 comments • 4,823 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.

Plot graph showing number of UK chart hits per year

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


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  1. 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.

  2. 52
    Steve Mannion on 7 Dec 2015 #

    BIEBERGEDDON. Hadn’t noticed just how many JB songs there have been in the charts since the album dropped – three in the top 5 even.

    Along with 1D he’s ensured the overall total of chart hits this year will exceed 300. It may not have done otherwise – still on course for the lowest quantity since the Top 75 began.

    My page for UK chart hits playlists (Spotify only – anyone making equivalents for other services please link!) including 2015: http://ghostfood.tv/music/playlists-ukcharthits.html

  3. 53
    weej on 9 Dec 2015 #

    Sure it’s been noted by many already, but not only has JB replaced himself at #1 (only previously done by The Beatles, John Lennon after he was killed and Elvis Presley when they were re-releasing all his singles) but he’s done it with “Love Yourself”, a track which hasn’t even been released as a single – the first time one of these has actually managed to get to the top. And on top of this he has a whole 13 tracks in the otherwise-Christmas-song-packed midweek top 100.

  4. 54
    Tommy Mack on 13 Dec 2015 #

    Speaking of JB replacing himself, has anyone seen his new poster around: he seems to be seriously going for the serious moody grown-up emo ninja messiah look!

  5. 55
    weej on 31 Dec 2016 #

    Just an update for the end of 2016 – this year has seen a whole TEN new chart-topping singles, the lowest figure ever and a frankly astonishing crash from the 38 we had in 2014. At current rates we will have NONE AT ALL next year.

  6. 56
    Steve Mannion on 31 Dec 2016 #

    Under 300 hits for the first time since 1974 too I think (EDIT: actually according to Polyhex’s luvly graphs this year saw exactly 300: http://www.polyhex.me.uk/uksingles/total-new-entries-in-the-top-forty-uks.cfm). This might also explain why Mariah’s ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ did a bit better than usual this Xmas (top 10 for the first time since its initial download-led run in 2007) – sales and streams probably around the same as have been for that in recent years but the general thinner spread and/or slower pace of sales and streams in the chart overall results in its boost. Maybe next Xmas it will finally get to #1 (and stay there for weeks).

  7. 57
    speedwell54 on 2 Jan 2017 #

    The number of top 10 hits also takes a tumble. Following my previous post on here at 51 above, the number of top 10 hits each year steadied itself;
    2012-142, 2013 -143, 2014-144.

    But in 2015 it fell to 110, and last year 2016, to just 67!

    Whether this was a freak year or not, time will tell, but I hope we can move back towards the 100 mark.

    There’s a balance between a chart that moves so quickly, that one can barely remember it, and one that moves so slowly, that one struggles to forget it.

    The Official Singles year end chart for 2016 has Panda by Desiigner at 36 (a song that managed just 2 weeks in the top 10 over the summer) and Rockabye by Clean Bandit (8 weeks at number 1 at Christmas) at 37.

    How things change- James Arthur a few years ago made the year end top 5 with the X factor single which must have only had two or three weeks sales up to the end of the year.

    Christmas -in the singles chart at least- seems meaningless, it all about time served. Half the top 10 didn’t reach number 1, but stuck around. Stressed Out didn’t make the top 10 at all, but managed year end chart at 31. The difference in sales (physical/download/streaming) of the number 1 track and the number 40 one, must be narrower than ever before. I am not optimistic the change from 100 to 150 streams will do much to halt this decline.

    Re Steve above, I agree with the reasons for Mariah charting so highly. Also there must be a rota for organising the music for the Christmas party (rather than sticking with the mug we got last time) hence a new person downloading each year.

  8. 58
    Steve Mannion on 3 Jan 2017 #

    Several Xmas songs now peaking higher in addition to Mariah – Shakey into the top 20 for the first time in eight years and Wham! in the top 10 with double impetus. Even The Waitresses ‘Christmas Wrapping’ is finally back in the charts for the first time since its original release (albeit at a lowly #96).

  9. 59
    Steve Mannion on 15 Dec 2017 #

    Haven’t counted this year’s entries (yet – nor indeed the position of ‘Christmas Wrapping’) but guessing we’re down to less than 300 now.

  10. 60
    Steve Mannion on 20 Dec 2017 #

    Elton’s ‘Step Into Christmas’ doing significantly better this year for some reason – see also Chris Rea and Brenda Lee. Mariah herself is back at 2 and on the cusp of finally going all the way.

  11. 61
    lockedintheattic on 20 Dec 2017 #

    Quite a few are doing better than usual this year, some better than ever:
    Michael Buble at 18 & 55, Elton John at 19, Chris Rea at 23, Ariana Grande at 29, Kylie at 47 are all higher than their original peaks at release.
    Mariah, Wham, Band Aid, Brenda Lee, Shakin Stevens, Wizzard, John & Yoko, Andy Williams, Bing Crosby, Paul McCartney, Boney M are all at their highest for at least 10 years.
    At the other end Mud, Jona Lewie & the Pretenders are so far lower than usual

  12. 62
    Steve Mannion on 7 Jan 2018 #

    Important Christmas Wrapping Update: It re-entered at #87 in the 29 Dec – 4 Jan chart weirdly, along with a few more Xmas songs – so it’s definitely on the up…

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