Jan 09

The Strange Death of the UK Charts

FT/64 comments • 6,105 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. 1
    anatol_merklich on 6 Jan 2009 #

    Just a couple of points for the record:

    1) Re-entries (including downloads of older tracks) are often included as entries. Whether this happens or not in a particular case of reentry is I think a) based on Guinness books; b) possibly somewhat haphazard. This means that the situation may actually be *worse* than it appears (seen from your POV), as “In The Air Tonight”, “Fairytale of NY” etc etc are actually *included* in later years.

    The reason I can’t give the exact procedure is that

    2) the data material stems from *polyhex.com*, to whom should be given large credit.

  2. 2
    Tom on 6 Jan 2009 #

    I think the minor plummet from 97-00 is caused by more stringent crackdowns on first-week marketing techniques, by the way: that’s when the engineering of chart rules to provide singles with an up-and-down arc started.

  3. 3
    anatol_merklich on 6 Jan 2009 #

    BTW: When I said “reentry” in #1, I actually meant “reissue” as Guinness marks things. Reentries after e.g. a few weeks are *not* counted again.

    The difference was more clear-cut before, with for instance new/same catalogue number as original issue being usable as criterion. With downloads (infinite stock!) the whole thing breaks down obv.

  4. 4
    Tom on 6 Jan 2009 #

    BTW Anatol can you email me the excel data for this – there’s another way I’d like to look at it?

  5. 5
    anatol_merklich on 6 Jan 2009 #

    Of course! Sending to leagueofpop.

  6. 6
    Tom on 6 Jan 2009 #

    Thanks Anatol! I will express the findings in an UPDATE to the post.

  7. 7
    Marcus Warner on 8 Jan 2009 #

    Great post!

    Will flag it up on my blog forthwith…


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    Pete Baran on 8 Jan 2009 #

    I am assuming this massive drop is the hang of downloads in the 75-40 region, where previously hyped but poorly selling indie singles and briefly hot dance numbers would pop in and out for a week or two. I think we had just got rid of Chasing Cars when Leona came along with hers, and I an sure she’ll be in the 75 forever too!

    So I would also (though fear this info is not availible) stats for the top 10, top 20, top 20 and the bottom 35.

    And also what would be useful would be to know how many eligible tracks are released each week (ie what proportion of new releases actually chart) plus their marketing spend. It is possible now to release a single for no money at all, which would suggest more money for ad spend, but I suggest the exact opposite has happened.

  9. 9
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #


  10. 10
    Tom on 22 Jan 2009 #

    My own bump of this has been eaten by the spam filter I think!

  11. 11
    Billy Smart on 22 Jan 2009 #

    From today’s Guardian; http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jan/22/top-40-music-chart

    Is the top 40 dying? Has the decision, two years ago, to allow downloads to chart without an accompanying physical release broken the back of a British institution? Well, it depends who you ask. Recently, the passionate and perceptive pop blog Freaky Trigger posted a graph demonstrating that the number of new entries is in freefall. Last year, only 202 songs entered the top 40, the lowest number since 1988. At the same time, a single’s average chart run passed 10 weeks for the first time ever. The result, argued Freaky Trigger in a piece headlined The Strange Death of the UK Charts, is less drama and less fun.

  12. 12
    Pete Baran on 22 Jan 2009 #

    The issue raised by Dorian boils down to what do you want your chart for. The democratic cultural water cooler melting pot of some bygone age, or the fast moving, low impact, possibly irrelevant beast it became in the nineties. From a music journalists point of view the former is clearly preferable because it makes their job more important. They can make swathing assertions about the charts again, and chart success. I remain to be convinced that number of artists in the chart is either a good or a bad thing.

    As I mentioned above I would be more interested what this has done to promotional budgets, and breaking new artists.

  13. 13
    Tom on 22 Jan 2009 #

    I think the bit DL’s wrong about is the “unifying hits” bit at the end – the amount of sales needed to get a #1 isn’t much higher in 2000, so it’s hard to argue that the Ting Tings hanging around is because they’re somehow unifying the nation, except via forced exposure.

    Also, Dorian, if yr reading! “Same Old Brand New You” is a great bit of pop, fully deserving of its #1 status :) I can’t say the same of “Day And Night” sadly.

  14. 14
    Pete Baran on 22 Jan 2009 #

    But the reason the Ting Tings are hanging around is because people are still buying it. In the nineties that would not have been possible. Once you were out of the top ten, they’d stop pressing the CD’s and you would have to buy the album. Which then led to much more of an album buying culture, which then led to the irrelevancy of the singles chart which then led to the career path of the Britpop album and the dwindling of the one off hits which brought innovation and colour into our lives.

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    Matt DC on 22 Jan 2009 #

    I have gone full circle on this and am now firmly in the ‘charts don’t matter only the music in them matters’ camp – the idea of anyone ‘following’ a song’s trajectory in the charts is something that pop critics talk about an awful lot, but I’m not convinced many people actually do it. Kids included.

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    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

    dorian sez ‘contrary to CA’s influential book The Long Tail…’ – but is it? the charts is all about looking at the head, so it’s not going to contradict LongTail observations. (ok, I’ve not read TLT! )

    Tom says it = “less diversity at the top end”. does that get a mention in CA’s book. it seems some likely.

  17. 17
    definitely not Kat at all oh no on 22 Jan 2009 #

    I am siding with the theory that the actual number of singles released each week (not just the number of singles charting) has dropped considerably since the mid-90s (i.e. less music is being released altogether). I would be interested to see stats on the number of new entries on the dance and indie charts, where a) physical vinyl releases are still vaguely relevant.

  18. 18
    Tom on 22 Jan 2009 #

    Yes I think that’s true – it’s the “unifying” spin on it I don’t agree with!

    What downloads have done is broken the trade-off between range and duration of availability. What happened in the 90s and 00s is the record labels and shops realised that aggregate demand for singles was shrinking and the pop market was more fragmented, so they could get a wider range of product out there by clipping how long everything was available for.

    Downloads mean you can have a huge range and long availability – win-win, except the underlying fragmentation hasn’t changed. So what’s happening is that every single now gets to maximise its potential audience (ppl who like a song enough to buy it), but that doesn’t necessarily mean said potential audience is any bigger than it was in 2000.

  19. 19
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Jan 2009 #

    re matt dc querying anyone following the track of a song in the charts — can’t answer for today’s youth but my mum did just this in the early 50s, when she was a teen… in fact she drew little diagrams of the rise and fall and everything (and had no plan to become a rock critic as this was not an option then)

    (her actual plan as a grown-up was to spend the day drinking creme de menthe and reading vogue, she once said, tho later she vehemently denied saying any such thing…)

  20. 20
    Tom on 22 Jan 2009 #

    The article is being slightly disingenuous too when it suddenly focuses on #1s rather than the whole Top 40. I reckon the change in rules *has* been beneficial to #1s – I still don’t think the songs that get there are unifying public hits but they are meaty representatives of various genres and styles, and the insane turnover in 2000 isn’t preferable.

    But as I said in the original post, it’s what’s happening to these songs AFTERWARDS that’s problematic – yes, climbers are back, hurrah, but songs that climb slowly now also FALL slowly without the cut-off mechanism of physical stock being liquidated. Which clogs up the charts (and playlists). It’s as much of a problem for the successful acts too, as it hampers promotion of follow-up singles.

  21. 21
    Pete Baran on 22 Jan 2009 #

    This PopJustice story still seems to suggest that there are groups of fans for whom chart placement matters intensely:

  22. 22
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Jan 2009 #

    re #19: this is a supply and distribution issue which goes way beyond the charts — when music required a physical vehicle (whether vinyl or tape or cd), it underwent periods of scarcity (sometime time-related, sometime geographical, sometimes both) which impacted on cost-value, use-value and cultural value (and how these three values interracted)

    when the CD “total reissue” project combined with P2P, scarcity became a rather different kind of characteristic (it now means: “not yet converted to digital and supplied for free on the internet”); it still impacts on cost-value, use-value, cultural value and their interractions, but in a very different way

    (cost-value is not zero incidentally — it’s merely collected at a different point: viz in the cost of the hardware required to accesss p2p)

  23. 23
    Dorian on 22 Jan 2009 #

    I feel obliged to say how much I liked Tom’s initial post and Anatol’s graph, without which I wouldn’t even have thought to reconsider what I believe makes the charts interesting/relevant/healthy. My focus on number ones wasn’t so much disingenuous as it was a result of limited space and the need to address readers who don’t diligently follow the charts. Once you start delving into the Polyhex data it’s hard to stop, and I was wary of statistics overload. Also, the subhead rather distorts my point. I don’t believe that the bubble only favoured dross – I enjoyed high chart placings by bands I liked such as the Manics and the Chemical Brothers (Tolerate and Setting Sun are two of the 90s’ great freak number ones), a phenomenon which won’t happen under the new regime, but on balance I think it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

    I’ll have to take your word for it about the A1 song, Tom. I literally have no memory of it whatsoever.

  24. 24
    definitely not Kat at all oh no on 22 Jan 2009 #

    There’s an awesome Almighty techno mix of ‘Day And Night’ btw! See also the bosh medley of all Billie’s hits :)

  25. 25
    CarsmileSteve on 22 Jan 2009 #

    on the other hand Dorian, i have been singing the blasted thing all morning!

  26. 26
    Alan on 22 Jan 2009 #

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

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    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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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/

  30. 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)

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