Why Is The UK Singles Chart So Stagnant? Radio 1’s Head Of Music: “The Playing Field Is Not Level”

In this week’s UK singles chart, there are no new entries in the Top 40. Everything in the Top 20 has been out for at least four weeks, and the Number One single – Drake‘s ‘One Dance’ – has lounged in that position for the past 13. What’s going on?

Ever since February 2015, when the Official Charts Company began including streaming figures alongside sales of singles and albums, ‘streaming equivalent’ figures have made up a bigger and bigger proportion of what used to just be called ‘sales’. Between February 2015 and November 2015, streaming’s share had risen from 22% to 43%. It’s now even higher. NME spoke to the Head of Music at Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra, Chris Price, to learn more about the impact streaming is having.

Why is streaming affecting the chart so much?
Chris Price: “We’ve moved away from measuring this one-off purchase behaviour, that’s essentially why this has happened. We’ve moved away from somebody walking into HMV and being a physical single, or downloading a 99p download from iTunes, and we’re moving much more towards measuring engagement over time. It’s less like somebody walking into a shop and making a purchase, and more like somebody sitting at home in their bedroom and listening to something several times over.”

So it’s to do with listening behaviour?
“From the point of view of the Official Charts Company, a stream is a stream is a stream, essentially. So whether that is somebody actively and selectively searching for Justin Bieber and pressing play on ‘Love Yourself’, or whether it is somebody pressing play on a playlist called ‘today’s top hits’, which contains the song Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, both of those behaviours will lead to that listen counting toward the chart.”

So playlists are to blame, then?
“To my mind, a playlist that has been curated, for example by Spotify, is much more akin to radio airplay than it is to consumption of a track that you have purchased. So we have this situation where editorial on streaming services counts towards the chart, whereas editorial on the radio, for example, doesn’t.

How do you think things should change?
“Obviously the way that the chart is compiled is absolutely the domain of the Official Charts Company, but I do have a concern that the playing field, at the moment, is not level. Either we should discount curated playlist streams from the chart, or we should include radio airplay – of course that would include radio airplay across the whole country, not just Radio 1, obviously. That would bring the UK chart into line with most other charts in the world, actually, including the US chart – which has included radio airplay for decades.”

In the meantime, do you think it’s radio’s job to keep things fresher?
Radio can play a part in keeping things fresh. But because such a large proportion of ‘sales’ in the chart come from streaming there’s only so much that we can do. The chart inevitably will slow down because people are discovering things at a different rate, aren’t they? Hard as it might be to believe after twelve weeks, but there are still people discovering ‘One Dance’ by Drake. So, yeah.

Will you get to the point where you just remove ‘One Dance’ from the playlist even if it’s at Number One still?
Well we’ve kind of already reached that point, to be honest. There is a slight tricky situation with Radio 1 because obviously we’re so big that we have a dramatic effect on the chart. You can say that ‘One Dance’ by Drake is on Radio 1’s playlist because it’s at Number One in the charts, or you could say that it’s at Number One in the chart because its on Radio 1’s playlist. I think both of those things are true, and that’s always been the case. But yes, we do have to think about when we move off things.”

Are streaming services dangerous for radio, or can they complement it?
“Both. On the one hand, radio, especially big radio stations like Radio 1, they’re sending listeners to streaming servers in there millions, every single day. So that’s great, and brilliant for streaming services, for the most part, streaming services recognise the importance of radio to their bottom line, frankly.

“Whereas seven or eight years ago streaming services were well established as the go-to place to consume the music that you know and love, more and more these days they’re focused on helping you discover the music that you are going to love next. So in that respect they’re moving more into the space that radio historically has occupied.”

“Radio 1 has been curating music for fifty-years, so I like to think that we’ve gotten pretty good at it in that time. Streaming services have only been doing it for a very short time, they aren’t that great at it yet, and therefore I don’t really see them as competition.”