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