The UK charts are ignoring their audience

By Flo Sayers

I remember the summer after my GCSEs very vividly. It was the longest summer holiday I’d ever had, I was free of revision and exams and teachers, and Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ dominated the top of the UK charts for a record-breaking ten consecutive weeks. And it rained, rained, rained, non-stop. The irony was not lost on me.

I mention this because it’s the last time I really remember being interested in or concerned about the UK singles chart. Until earlier this month. That’s because, at the beginning of July, the Official Singles Chart has had a full on shake-up.

Worried that the charts are sliding into irrelevancy with the introduction of streaming, anxious to avoid the ‘Ed Sheeran effect’ (an embarrassing period of time where 16 of the Top 20 singles came from Sheeran’s newly released album ‘÷’), and with the more positively-stated aim of ‘supporting new talent’ in the music industry, the Official Charts Company introduced the following straightforward and common-sense rules:

– A maximum of three singles by a lead artist will be allowed in the singles chart

– Tracks that have been on the chart for more than ten weeks and have seen declining sales for more than three weeks will have their streams-to-sales ratio reduced from 150 to 300.

???

I know.

Like any brand, product or service, the charts do need to move with the times in order to remain relevant. And the Times they are A-Changin’, it’s true.

But.

I find these new rules so problematic. Because they simply do not reflect how people listen to music.

By rejigging the charts in this way, the Official Singles Chart have committed the oldest sin in the book: they haven’t listened to their audience.

At first glance, allowing only three songs from one artist made some sense, because in the past you would only know where official ‘singles’ charted – the rest of the album never used to feature. But, in this age of streaming, as people have access to whole albums and can cherry-pick their favourite tracks without the artist formally releasing them, then people’s listening habits will change, and the charts have to reflect that. Even if it means Ed Sheeran ranking at every place in the whole Top 100. God help us, but if that’s what’s popular, if that’s what people are actually listening to, then that’s what the charts need to show.

And rule two – which essentially reduces a song’s impact over time, even if people are still listening to it at the same rate – makes no sense at all. Creating these weird algorithms to try and do what should be a very simple job just confuses everything. This rule essentially ignores consumer opinion, behavior and demand, and so runs the risk of alienating said consumers. It’s as bad as mangling data to make it fit your argument, rather than crafting a real argument from the data you have. And, it shows the Official Charts Company have a fundamental misunderstanding of their mission: not to shape culture, but to reflect it. If unprecedented sales mean that Rihanna dominates the no.1 spot for ten months, causing snowstorms or heatwaves or any other meteorological abnormalities all year long, then so be it. It’s the will of the people.

There’s a lesson here that we really need to learn. The charts are making these changes to try and stay relevant, but by essentially ignoring their audience, they are sliding even deeper into irrelevancy. Brands, businesses – follow suit at your peril.

A final note here; creative thought starters if you will. The stated objective of these new rules was to showcase new music, not actually to stop the slide into irrelevancy. I only inferred the latter from the market context, target insight, etc. In reality, the Top 40 has never been a vehicle for new music – they’re a vehicle for popular music, and that’s fine. But, if they are really serious about fulfilling that objective, there have to be better ways to do that than trying to tweak the existing model. How about a ‘New Music Top 10’, which can only feature artists who have never released a song before. How about creating Official Charts-branded playlists of ‘if you like this, then you’ll like this’, where new artists and established pop behemoths with sounds in common get paired up. Just bring back Top of the Pops, if you’re really stuck for ideas. If the charts decide that new music is something they want to invest in, there are other routes to doing that beyond the established solution. Hint: it’s called innovation.

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