Entertainment & Arts

Charts seek to stay on top after 60 years

It is 60 years since American crooner Al Martino topped the first ever UK singles chart. Are the charts still relevant in an age when Top of the Pops has been replaced by YouTube as the number one destination for pop fans?

When Robbie Williams scored his 14th number one hit earlier this month, there was little doubt about what being at the top of the charts meant to him.

"I haven't been number one since 2004 and it's great... I am number one - it feels brilliant," he said. "There's a lot of vindication, happiness and relief."

For Williams, wounded by a series of flops, being number one again was proof that he was still a star.

More singles are now sold than ever - about 3.5 million per week - and, judging by the ear-splitting screams that greet stars like JLS and One Direction when they step near a stage, pop music still matters.

Image caption Robbie Williams has been number one in the UK for the past two weeks

But a lot has changed in the last decade or two. More than 99% of all single sales are now downloads and pop fans have many more ways of getting music - from YouTube to file-sharing to streaming services like Spotify, none of which count towards the charts.

It also feels like the charts are less central to our lives than they were when the Top 10 was beamed into 15 million living rooms every Thursday night on Top of the Pops.

"In an environment where singles sales are booming, the chart still is very relevant," says Martin Talbot, managing director of the Official Charts Company. "You need to sell about twice as many copies as you did about 10 years ago to get to number one."

After the demise of Top of the Pops, MTV became the home of the official charts on TV. Rather than 15 million, 1.1 million people watch the Top 20 and Top 40 rundowns across MTV's channels per week. A further 1.2 million tune in to the weekly countdown on BBC Radio 1.

When Top of the Pops was axed, the BBC said it was a victim of competition from "multimedia and niche musical outlets which enable viewers to consume music of their choice, any time night or day".

The internet and countless digital TV and radio channels now offer seemingly endless choice, and have split the music scene into a honeycomb of self-sufficient niches.

Today, chart pop is just the biggest niche. Those who do not like it can easily ignore it.

And fans no longer have to shell out to hear a song they like. YouTube offers a virtually exhaustive jukebox and recent research from the US suggested that more teenagers now listen to music through YouTube than iTunes, CDs or the radio.

The rise of video sites and streaming services have made tracking the popularity of a song much more complicated.

"That's the constant challenge that we face - trying to ensure that the official singles chart is the definitive representation of popularity," Talbot says.

"Clearly, when the chart was first launched, they were very innocent times. There was one bloke picking up a phone, calling a couple of dozen retailers, writing down what they had sold on a piece of paper and then compiling it into a chart."

The singles chart still simply counts sales rather than YouTube views or Spotify streams.

"The only way of changing that at the moment, by adding streaming, would effectively compromise what that chart is all about - make it less transparent, slow it down, make it less dynamic and fundamentally make it less interesting," Talbot says.

"The reality is that I don't think the chart is any less interesting, relevant and reflective of what music people are enjoying on a week-by-week basis."

New developments

The Official Charts Company did recently launch a separate streaming chart, based on information from the likes of Spotify, We7, Napster and Deezer.

Some 2.6 billion audio streams were delivered in the UK last year - dwarfing the number of download sales - and countries including the US have begun to incorporate such streams into their main singles charts.

But that is unlikely to happen in the UK - at least while download sales are still rising, Talbot says.

"The number of downloads being bought on a weekly basis would need to start to stabilise and start falling, and we would need to start seeing a decline in the number of singles you need to sell to get into the Top 10 or 20," he says.

"It's going in exactly the opposite direction at the moment. And we need to see streaming as an activity begin to catch up with purchasing as an activity."

If a streamed single counted towards the official Top 40, one thorny question is how much one stream would be worth compared to one sale.

"When you start getting into formulae, inevitably you begin to chip away at that transparency and immediate understanding of what the official chart is about," Talbot says. "That's a big philosophical step for us as an industry."

The simplicity of the charts has been an asset as the music industry and media have transformed around them.

And as long as the charts are around, musicians will always want to get to number one.

Pop Charts Britannia: 60 Years of the Top Ten is on BBC Four on Friday 16 November 21:25 GMT.

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