The new UK digital singles chart tries to avoid the old hype

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 7 January 2007

Today marks a significant milestone in the history of the British singles chart, as when on Sunday afternoon the BBC counts down the Top 40 it will be the first time that downloads and physical singles will be competing on an equal footing. For me it is a bit like coming full circle, as it means that one of my projects, the Sony Connect digital music store, is now a proper "chart return store", just like the record shop in Walthamstow I used to work in back in 1990.

It has been a long road for the UK music industry to include digital sales in the charts, and it has gradually relaxed the strict rules with which they were first included. The official chart company website doesn't have a new set of rules online yet, but the set I could find from March 2005 show how complicated the requirements to be chart elegible were.

  • Digital variants of a physical single will be chart eligible
  • Minimum Published dealer price = 40 pence and /or minimum price chargedto online retailer (Please refer to The Official UK Charts Company Stand Alone Download Chart Rules Summary for full dealer price definition)
  • Maximum playing time = 20 minutes (less than two tracks), 10 minutes (2 track digital equivalent), 20 minutes (maxi equivalent), and 40 minutes (remix maxi equivalent)
  • In addition to 3 physical formats, multiple digital variants of the featured track may be combined
  • Digital Singles without a physical variant will not be eligible
  • Digital variants of a physical single will be eligible for the Official Singles Chart the week prior to release of the physical formats.
  • All digital formats of a track must carry an IRSC reported to OCC or its nominated agency together with the barcode of the physical product it is to be linked to
  • All digital bundles must carry a unique identifier (i.e. digital barcodes) andISRC codes for individual tracks
  • Promotional tracks (free to consumer tracks) will not be chart eligible

The new rules remove the fudge that physical singles could only chart for a certain period of time, and the chart lifespan of a digital download was tied to the amount of time a single was available in shops. Part of the reasoning behind this was so that retailers wouldn't have blank spaces in their chart displays, but the market has shifted so rapidly towards the adoption of the digital single that this isn't considered so important anymore.

Under the last set of rules nobody could ever beat the records for the longest run in the charts, as songs were simply not allowed to chart for that long anymore. Another promised side effect of the new rules is that album tracks and songs that gain sales due to seasonal factors (like Last Christmas) will be able to chart without being physically re-released. There are two schools of thought on this. Some people argue that the chart should be a place to market and find new music, and there is no need for it to be clogged up with oldies-but-goldies, but personally, I welcome the fact that the chart will once again more closely resemble a picture of consumer sales activity rather than the result of a co-ordinated marketing exercise by record companies, radio stations, and music retailers.

(Mind you, too much power in the hands of the consumer can be a dangerous thing - I see Virgin Radio's listeners have just implausably voted "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol the best song of all time with a Goo Goo Dolls track in second place, ahead of the collected works of any classic act you care to mention from Elvis and Cliff to the Beatles and the Stones. Kids eh?)

Another aspect that intrigued me about the rules for digital downloads is that to be eligible tracks have to be a permanent digital dowload:

One song, purchased individually, which is digitally downloaded and permanently owned by the consumer.

Of course, there is no obligation that the consumer should be permanently able to play the tracks, which due to some DRM models is likely to not always be the case. I also wonder whether in the future with the growth of services streaming music on demand, either over broadband to PCs or to phones over 3G, might not contribute to the chart.

But it hasn't just been the advance of digital that caused the charts to have complex rules.

From Percy Dickins’s first UK Singles Chart back in 1952, through the rock'n'roll years, the swinging sixties and the bulk of the 70s it was all pretty straight-forward. You released a 7" single, added up the sales, and produced the top sellers list. The single ruled supreme, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood pretending to be a radio DJ doing chart countdowns armed only with a record-deck equipped with an auto-changer, and my dad's pretty comprehensive set of great singles from the 50s and 60s.

The rise of disco and "dance" music and the introduction of the 12" single first added a new format into the mix, and in the late 1970s and early 80s there was already a dabble with the cassette single format, which never really took off. The chart rules gradually got more complex as record labels sought ways to bend the rules to give their records an advantage in the marketplace. In the early 1980s a rule came in that you couldn't give away a free gift with a single that was worth more than the single itself, ending offers such as "Free T-Shirt with this single". Double-pack formats also became a give-away fad, whether they were a bespoke giveaway with unique content, or simply some unsold stock of the artist's previous single shrinkwrapped to the new one. They were outlawed in the mid 1980s.

It was the late 80s and early 1990s though that saw the real explosion of multiple single formats. At the time I started working in Note For Note you could expect most singles to be released on 7", 12", CD and cassette, and any band with a significant following or marketing push behind them could also expect to release additional remixes on 12", or a picture disc or poster format. Or an etched disc. Or boxed set, or something of that ilk. Rather like a consumerist arms race, record companies had to keep devising more and more format variations. Fine Young Cannibals were one band whose chart placings relied on an inordinate number of versions of singles being made available. The infamous post-Christmas replacement of Cliff Richard's "Saviours Day" with Iron Maiden's "Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter" at the number one spot was achieved by EMI picking one of the quietest single retail weeks of the year and blitzing the market with a multiple formats. That release included a 7" single where the sleeve packaging swung open on a hinge to reveal a picture-disc of the inside of Eddie's brains.

The Cure were another artist whose label shamelessly ripped off their obsessive completist fans, by releasing the single "Pictures Of You" in an array of formats with variations on the live tracks included on the b-sides, and the colour of the 7" and 12" vinyl formats, setting dedicated fans back something like 35 pounds to collect the set - all in the name of getting a higher chart placing.

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This multi-format war became too expensive for the industry to maintain, so rules were brought in restricting single to first 5, and then eventually 3 chart eligible formats.

Multi-formatting still became a vital tool in the singles chart battle though. Anyone who was interested in music in the UK in the mid-nineties remembers the war of words and chart battle between Blur's "Country House" and "Roll With It" by Oasis. London's Blur pipped Manchester's Oasis to the top spot in the north/south Britpop battle, but what few people ever noted was that Blue issued two CD editions of "Country House" and Oasis only issued one version of "Roll With It". Blur may have got those all important chart eligible sales, but their getting to number one owed more to people buying two formats of the same single than it did to the sheer weight of numbers purchasing the CD.

The new digital era has also changed the way that artists are hyped into the charts, and here I'm not talking about the media hype generated by an artist having a MySpace account, I'm talking about the real fraudulant act of hyping an artist up the charts. The 2005 set of chart rules clearly state that:

No record company, distributor, retailer, Artist or other party should act or encourage others to act in any way designed to distort, or which has the effect of distorting the Chart by achieving a higher or lower Chart position for a record than it would otherwise achieve.

The industry, however, doesn't always stick to those rules, or at least tries to sail as close to the wind as it can without breaching them.

My first job in the music industry was at a shop called Note For Note in Walthamstow in London, and it was one of the UK's chart return stores, with the official chart barcode reader installed processing our every sale. Record company reps would try every trick in the book to boost the sales of their priority releases.

The most obvious trick played on an unsuspecting new employee at the shop was for one of the reps to say "We've had some reports that the barcode on the 7" format of blah-blah-blah isn't working - can you test it for me?". Cue gormless member of staff striping the obviously working barcode through the machine, registering a bogus sale.

The sales reps were also the deliverers of unspoken incentives. With a high priority single, a chart return shop might get off-the-record offers like "You'll get 10 free copies of a big selling CD if such-and-such a single goes top twenty next week". Whilst that contained no explicit incentive to register fake sales of the single in question, it was pretty obvious that it was in the interests of the shop to get chart album CDs for 0.00 wholesale instead of something like 7.88 per unit, provided the single charted well. And look who just happened to be in charge of registering the sales...

Naturally, the people running the chart had strict rules about how shops marked up their physical stock, so that on-the-spot checks could be done to match physical sales with those registered by the barcode reader. These were pretty terrifying experiences, as losing the chart machine would be pretty much the kiss of death to an independent retail store, since without it you would drop off the record companies radar. The checks were thorough up to a point. Of course, they never got to look into the sealed boxes in the basement of the shop where stock that had been given to the store FOC (Free Of Charge) as promotional gear waited to either become a collectors item or land-fill fodder, the barcode already safely registered as a "sale".

At least the official chart attempted to audit the match of physical sales figures to the charts. For a while in the early 90s the UK's commercial radio networks banded together to broadcast an alternative chart on Sundays in competition to the BBC's traditional monopoly on the official chart. The process for compiling this involved sending to stores each week a list of around 200 eligible records, and then a phone call to the shops towards the end of the week to get them to read through the sales figures one-by-one in order. It was my job to monotonously drone over the phone each Thursday or Friday "Five, three, one, seven, seven, zero, four etc". Not only was the chart less accurate than the official one because the sales period that was being calculated didn't include the Saturday just prior to the broadcast of the chart, but the sales figures were also down to the whim and scruples of shop assistants like me up and down the country.

As innacurate and prone to tampering as these chart collection methods were it was only in 1983 that the industry switched to electronically collecting the data. The heyday of chart hyping was apparently in the 1970s, when the charts were collated using physical books, or sales diaries, from each chart return shop. One music industry old-timer who I used to know told me that it was quite common for the sales reps from the companies to collect the books from the shops, and then all sit down in a pub together on Friday lunchtime and concoct between them the sales records for a whole region. He also once boasted of getting a single into the top forty when they had only actually pressed up enough vinyl to send promotional copies to radio stations, and the label in question didn't have a distribution deal in place to even get the record into shops.

However much the rules of the chart are adjusted, in an increasingly fragmented music market, there remains a question over whether they can still be as relevant as they used to be. From behind the counter in the early 90s it was pretty obvious that what was on Top Of The Pops on a Thursday night drove sales on a Friday evening and Saturday morning. On demand music stores in the home in the shape of iTunes, eMusic or Connect, plus multi-channel TV, and the prospect of digital radio stations selling songs directly have eroded that behaviour to the point where TOTP got axed.

The singles chart in the UK is nowhere near as important to me now as it used to be, but that is partly a function of age and distance. When I was a youngster in the 1980s it was essential listening, and it was exciting when I was actively helping to compile it in the early 1990s.

But despite the age and distance, I'm quietly excited again that some of the work I've done over the last couple of months on the Connect store will be contributing digitally to the countdown on today's Radio One show, and once again involving me in the development of the UK's chart history.

4 Comments

Nice history.

You might want to consider adding some of this information to the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UK_Singles_Chart , if you have time.

It's a bit harsh to blame the kids for the Virgin radio thing. Surely "Adults!" is the more appropriate exclamation :)

>> You might want to consider adding some of this information to the Wikipedia entry


Or mabye some well-intentioned Wikipedian will do it for me, and cite me as a source ;-)

Really good post. Interesting reading.

I recall being sent to record shops to re-arrange the shelved CD cases, bringing certain boxes to the front and burying others at the back of the 'Z' section.

It's 2 years into downloads counting towards the official chart(s) and it's interesting that the chart-rigging is now more likely to be done by the record buying public than record companies.

Keep up to date on my new blog