Since 1952, the Official Singles Chart has tracked the best-selling songs in popular music. Now, in the biggest shake-up in its history, it's to begin factoring online streams into its weekly rundown of Britain's favourite current singles, meaning the Top 10 won't be decided by what music fans are listening to, but how much they're listening to it. Why now, who's to benefit and what does this mean for UK indie? NME's John Earls caught up with Official Charts Company chief executive Martin Talbot to find out more...
Why have you decided to include streaming figures now?
“The first time we started to look at it in practical terms was two years ago, when we launched the Official Streaming Chart. Spotify, Deezer and Napster were included, and people first started to ask us about merging the two then. Other markets began including streaming data in their overall chart around that time, such as Germany. About six months ago, we began to seriously start thinking about doing this.”
Is the move an admission that sales no longer reflect music fans' true listening habits?
“We’ve seen such an upsurge in streaming figures, it became clear we needed to act. Streams have grown from 100 million a week in January 2013 to 260 million now. Streaming is a progression from downloads in the same way that downloads took over from CD and vinyl. The charts have always reflected consumers’ consumption of the most popular songs every week. Moving forward, to have a chart that’s meaningful, streaming needs to be incorporated.”
How did you decide that 100 streams of a song is equal to one download or physical sale?
“The principle of using a simple divider is one we’ve learnt from other singles’ charts which already use streaming figures. The Netherlands, Germany and parts of Scandinavia already incorporate streams in their charts, as streaming has grown faster there. We decided to go with a round number because it’s easy to understand – there’s a transparency about the chart which we wanted to maintain.”
So how many seconds of a stream counts as one play?
“It’s the point at which royalties are paid on any stream, so it’s 30 seconds. It’s the industry-recognised standard. If someone hates a song and doesn’t want their stream counted to the chart, they’ve got 29 seconds to stop playing it. Research has suggested that, if people skip a track, they do so well before 30 seconds. It feels a safe amount of time.”
Are you limiting the number of times people can stream a particular song? Sounds like the system could be easily rigged.
“We’re capping it at 10 streams per user per day, so an over-enthusiastic One Direction fan can’t just play their new single for seven days solid and skew the figures. It prevents people using streaming services to manipulate the chart. If they choose to play the same song 10 times, so be it. It’s not unusual for someone to play a song 10 times a day if they love it. You have to strike a balance, and streaming is a different form of consumption. If you buy a single, you only need to buy it once, whereas if you stream it, you’re more likely to play it repeatedly.”
But what’s to stop record labels employing multiple bots?
“Limiting the number of streams is there precisely to prevent that. It’s theoretically possible for someone to set up multiple numbers of users’ accounts, but you’d still have to generate a lot of streams. It’s often not the record labels who get over-enthusiastic, it’s more likely a small manager or a singer’s parents, in our experience. In the digital world, there’s a trail which didn’t exist in the physical realm. There were stories in the past of labels sending out buying teams who’d buy multiple copies of singles from record shops around the country without leaving a trace. Online, you have to register your credit card and e-mail address. It’s much easier to track.”
Why aren't YouTube views included among the chart-eligible streaming services?
“We’re not saying never, and we’ll keep an eye on video streaming. But people going to sites like YouTube are often not just consuming the music, it’s the visuals too. We have to ensure we’re comfortable that we’re not allowing the chart to be distorted by salacious videos, for example, where it’s about the video rather than the song.”
Are we going to see a different Top 10 each week under these new rules? Can indie artists stand to benefit?
“On a song-by-song basis, the most popular tracks stay broadly the same. The three best-selling songs so far this year are ‘Rather Be’ by Clean Bandit, ‘Happy’ by Pharrell and ‘Timber’ by Pitbull and they’re the most-streamed songs too. So there’s a correlation. But there are lots of artists who, across an album, perform better in streaming. Arctic Monkeys are the most-streamed act ever in the UK, with over 100 million streams. That isn’t the same across their single sales. Alt-J are a good example. They’ve had one Top 75 single, ‘Breezeblocks’, which was No 75 for one week. Their album ‘An Infectious Wave’ only reached No 13, yet they’re the 28th most-streamed act ever. They do very well on streaming, so for assessing popularity they should benefit. If you buy a track, you don’t necessarily love it but the sale still counts to the chart. With streaming, you’ll only continue to listen to an act’s music if you like it. It’s more democratic. That’s why established artists like Arctic Monkeys, Alt-J and Imagine Dragons over-index on streams.”
Will it affect how long songs stay in the Top 40?
“It makes a little difference, but the way the industry has evolved over the past decade is geared towards songs’ longevity. Before downloads were incorporated into the chart in 2004, a song only stayed for an average of four weeks in the Top 40. Now, it’s 12 weeks. The reason is that, within the industry, it was all about persuading you to forget about the single and buy the album instead. With digital, ‘Get Lucky’ and ‘Blurred Lines’ are always easily available to buy so they’re still around.”
Doesn’t that make it harder for new artists to break into the chart?
“Yes, and that’s a concern. That’s why we’re also introducing the Top 10 Breakers Chart, to give a leg up to breaking new songs. If you don’t make the Top 10, you can still climb the Breakers Chart. We want to give that chart as much recognition as possible. It is harder for artists to climb the chart, as we’re in an environment where the industry wants hits to peak in the first week. The Breakers Chart is for songs less than six weeks old whose sales have increased week-on-week. It’s a stepping stone designed to help new records.”
Did you have any fears about making the move?
“The fundamental worry was that, since it started in 1952, the chart had been based on sales. It was a pure count and is so simple for people to understand. By adding streams, you can’t just have them on a one stream equals one sale basis. By definition, that creates a formula, and that was our greatest concern. But consumer research was really clear – people use streams more, and they want them to count towards the chart. Streaming was 25 per cent of the singles market a year ago, and now it’s 40 per cent. You can’t deny it any more.”
Your chairman Korda Marshall says the move "signals how far we’ve come from the days of retail record shops.” Does incorporating streaming into the charts further damage record stores?
“We’re co-owned by the record labels association BPI and the Entertainment Retailers Association. ERA’s members include Spotify, Deezer, Xbox Music, O2 Tracks and Music Unlimited; the streaming services whose streams will be included. But ERA represents all retailers, including record shops. They organise Record Store Day, for instance. They’ve looked at this process all along its development and are fully on board. This isn’t the end of physical music, far from it. It’s the beginning of something different and growing. Streaming services encourage people to buy music.”
Some would argue the charts have become less relevant in recent years. Does this move do anything to change that?
“Single sales in 2012 and 2013 were higher than they were in 1978 and 1979, the two previous high years. You need to sell around 110,000 a week to make No 1. But lots of people don’t buy singles, and they felt they weren’t contributing to the singles chart any more. It wasn’t reflecting their taste, and this helps. Download sales have started to slow, and we’re taking account that people are moving away from ownership into an area of subscription services. As a barometer of what’s happening in worldwide music, people look to the British charts: around half the visitors to our website are from abroad. There’s no better playlist than the Top 40. You get offered 20 million tracks on Spotify and Deezer, and there’s a lot of experimentation within that. But a lot of people want a curated playlist. They want to be guided into listening to what the most popular music is. NME is brilliant at curating for your demographic of music fans, and the chart is brilliant at showing people what the most popular songs are every week.”
Why have downloads begun to decline?
“It’s taken longer for Spotify and Deezer to bed in here than in most of Europe, but these services are aggressively marketing themselves to music users and we’ve seen a proliferation of different models – you don’t just need a £10 monthly subscription anymore. There’s a snowball effect, and as people show their friends, more people come on board. But ownership is still very strong.”
To what extent is this the biggest shake-up the singles chart has ever had?
“It’s significant, but it was possibly bigger when download sales were incorporated for the first time in 2004. Up until then, we only counted bits of plastic. Downloads have transformed the availability of music. It’s made single sales bigger than ever, and lots of historic records can go into the charts with campaigns, like ‘Killing In The Name Of’ by Rage Against The Machine. That wouldn’t have happened before.”
Was there any resistance from labels or artists over the move?
“There was an initial reticence, but as soon as we started showing people how streaming is growing so quickly and downloads have begun to decline, the penny dropped. It wasn’t a difficult argument to make.”
The new rules only affect the singles chart. Could streaming eventually be used for the Official Album Chart too?
“It’s something we’re looking at, but the singles chart is more straightforward because it’s track-by-track. It’s a much more complicated process with albums. For a start, streams are reported to us on a track-by-track basis. A so-called album track could come from an album or any numbers of compilation. How do you decide what an album stream is? A whole album, maybe, but what happens when certain album tracks are held back from streaming services? But, yes, if we can find a clear way to decide on these matters, we’d look at including streams for albums too.”