So, eight years since the first Official Download Chart was launched in the UK – and the world is continuing to evolve. This time to streaming. This week, the Official Charts Company (who compile the Official Singles Chart broadcast by Radio 1 and MTV, and the Official Albums Chart broadcast by Radio 2) has announced the UK’s first Official Streaming Chart. The first rundown launches this coming Monday lunchtime.
Of course, music streaming has been around for a few years now – but it still remains a niche activity and this year is the year when there are enough services to compile a meaningful industry-wide chart. It definitely feels like a coming of age. We have certainly moved a long way since the advent of legitimate downloads in the UK. Back in 2004, it was Westlife who blazed a trail by taking the very first Number 1 spot.
Now, that may well have been the last (and possibly first) time the Irish crooners broke new ground in anything. But, at the time, it felt like the beginning of a new era of music. The iTunes Store was less than six months old in the UK, barely 200,000 downloads were being sold in the UK every week and the first series of X-Factor had just launched.
Fast forward eight years and those weekly download totals have multiplied 20-fold, as music is now available to fans anywhere and anyway they want – through handheld smartphones and digital “pads” which had barely been thought of in 2004. For the price of a cup of coffee a week, it is possible to access pretty much every piece of popular music ever recorded – barring a few exceptions, such as the Beatles, ACDC and… Jive Bunny - thanks to the likes of Spotify, Deezer, Napster, We7 and a range of other services.
So, what will the new chart show? What kind of music are we listening to? Another blog on NME.COM a few weeks ago argued that streams should be inserted straight into the Official Singles Chart (as they are now in the US), as they would push alternative acts into the heart of the Top 10. The fact is, they wouldn’t.
It is clear from looking at the Official Streaming Chart that the kind of music listened to by subscribers to such services spans the genres reflected in both the Official Singles and Official Albums charts. There is a huge contrast between the two charts in 2012 – on singles, the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Tulisa, One Direction, David Guetta and Rihanna tend to rule, while albums reflect a more mature audience, with Number 1s so far this year for Jack White, Marina & The Diamonds, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Weller, Lana Del Rey, among others.
Going by the test charts which have been compiled over recent weeks, the Official Streaming Chart reflects the popularity of the biggest selling singles, as well as tracks from the newest and most popular albums – along with one or two curveballs. Among the most streamed acts of the past two years are the likes of Ben Howard, Bon Iver, Two Door Cinema Club and Skrillex, acts which got nowhere near similar artist rankings reflecting singles or album sales. But while these more leftfield acts have an impact, they certainly don’t dominate.
The reality is that, while word of mouth has a greater impact on streaming popularity than perhaps the Official Singles or Albums Charts – because streaming services allow for more low-risk experimentation – the most bought singles and albums rate well too. The most popular artists so far this year are Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey - last year, they were Rihanna and Adele.
There are several reasons why we are not adding streams to the Official Singles Chart right now. For a start, it would have little impact on the make-up of the chart – because of the relatively low level of streams being generated – our estimates put the value of streams at little more than 5% of the total singles market.
This is partly because of the buoyancy of the singles market right now - 178m singles were sold in the UK last year, the biggest year on record, more than double what it was five years ago. And the market is still growing. It possibly makes sense in markets such as Sweden, where streaming has replaced singles purchasing – in the UK it doesn’t.
Plus, the UK’s Official Singles Chart – celebrating its 60th anniversary this year – has always been a pure sales rundown. While the US charts have long since incorporated radio airplay as well as sales, and now streams, the UK chart is pure, transparent and uncut – nothing added, nothing taken away.
That is not to say that further consideration will not be given in the future. But adding streams to the Official Singles Chart is not for today. Also, our aim is to use this new chart to promote the activity of streaming, a no-risk way of experimenting in music, listening to everything you might want. Who will be champions of the very first Official Streaming Chart, when it is unveiled next Monday at OfficialCharts.com, is anyone’s guess.
Martin Talbot is MD of the Official Charts Company