Before I start writing about Number Ones again, a quick bit of stattery around the current state of the charts. This is an extremely wonkish post, so reader beware.
The official Top 100 Streaming chart was launched 30 weeks ago. Let’s see what’s up with it.
Of the 100 songs in the streaming chart.
44 have been in it for 30 weeks (i.e. since the first ever chart)
38 have been in it between 10 and 29 weeks.
18 have been in it for fewer than 9 weeks.
Compare this to the official chart – which incorporates the streaming chart, of course.
33 in it for 30+ weeks
36 in it between 10 and 29 weeks.
31 in it for fewer than 9 weeks.
I should have done that as a graphic or something. Basically, streaming charts are slower. As streaming grows as a proportion of “sales”, it’s likely to slow the charts down further, as the die-off of hits gets longer.
How about just looking at the Top 40?
For the streaming chart using the same definitions as before, you get 15 out of 40 sluggards (vs 7 in the main chart), 10 out of 40 newbies (vs 14 in the main chart), and 15 in the middle (vs 19). Again, a big skew towards long-stayers in the streaming chart – maybe even bigger than looking at the full 100. And streaming is going to grow in importance.
None of this is reflected in the Number Ones, because record label marketing teams are usually very good at getting hits to a high initial placing, so there’s a high turnover of Number Ones that’s completely atypical of the sludgey inertia below.
There’s an argument that a slow chart reflects listener behaviour and taste better than a faster one. That’s true, but only up to a point, and I think the streaming chart goes well past that point. There is an average wear-out time for any given hit – the number of weeks people want to keep hearing it. There is also a distribution curve for each hit – not everyone is introduced to it at once, and new people keep on discovering it.
So imagine you have two people who both like Hozier’s “Take Me To Church”. One heard it in the first week of release. The other in the 14th. And let’s say that for a Hozier fan, 15 weeks is about the die-off time before even they are tired of hearing it. What it means is that the first Hozier fan is getting tired of “Take Me To Church” just at the time the second fan is getting enthused about it.
Record shops – and even online shops – have always favoured the first person, explicitly (in the days when rack space was at a premium) and implicitly (in the days when homepage real estate is). Even radio playlists – which the UK charts have never included – have some commitment to refreshing themselves. Streaming services do no such thing – the music is there, free, all the time, catering for fans all along the distribution curve. That sounds very fair. Except it means that everyone at the front of the distribution curve – who hear songs early – now have to wait for a song to work its way along the curve before it goes away. Eventually, enough of the people who will ever like Hozier will have heard Hozier and got tired of Hozier, and Hozier will drop out of the charts. But that might not be for a very long time.
Short version: streaming is a subtle flip in the way the charts work. Sales charts have always been geared towards reflecting people who pay attention to new music and come to a song quickly. Streaming charts are equally geared towards reflecting people who don’t pay attention to new music and come to a record late. There is nothing wrong with those people! But the result is a slower-moving chart and hits whose lifespan is a function of their slowest fans, with chart stays extended beyond most individual fans’ tolerance. The question of what a weekly chart is FOR – or at least, who its audience is – becomes more and more open.
(This may have a bizarre – and surely unintentional – outcome. The behaviour familiar to a generation of British pop fans – listening to the Top 40 to hear the latest music – is now actually penalised. If you listen every week to the charts, you will run through your tolerance for individual hits with the bulk of their lifespan still to run. A slow moving chart rewards occasional dips more than loyal following.)