We resume the story of the British charts…
…in 1977: in the wake of a revision of history that went largely under the radar at the time.
The year witnessed another, much more visible chart dispute. It was the Silver Jubilee, celebrating 25 years on the throne for Queen Elizabeth II.
The Sex Pistols had the perfect song for the occasion in God Save The Queen.
The official line is that in the week of the jubilee, GSTQ was at #2 behind Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It.”
For some, it’s held as fact that the charts were fixed to prevent the ignominy of youthful anger contradicting the pomp and circumstance.
One assertion is that BMRB changed the chart rules for that week, so that singles sold through the same label and store were invalid.
This would count against the Sex Pistols being signed to the Virgin label by discounting sales from Virgin stores.
Others that the panel of stores sampled that week were loaded in favour of High Street chains, rather than the independents, which buyers of GSTQ would favour. Especially as GSTQ was banned by many of the chains.
Its still disputed as to what actually happened. I’ve read ‘proof’ from both sides, and even found one person asserting that Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille,” which was #3 that week, and would follow Rod at #1 was already the biggest seller.
Chart manipulation was nothing new. It’s just that it normally comes from the record companies trying to game it to their advantage.
The stores on the chart panel were meant to be confidential.
But it wasn’t a well kept secret.
In the 60s and 70s teams of teenagers and housewives were sent out to buy up copies of singles and within stores employees falsified the numbers.
This didn’t impact the big sellers at the top end of the charts, but was intended to give a record a helping hand into the lower reaches of the top 40.
Which would provide increased exposure on radio and TV to further boost its fortunes.
In 1983 responsibility for the charts passed to Gallup.
They finally entered the modern age with a computerised reporting system. Having been extended to 75 places in 1978, it now reached 200 entries. Though: Positions 101 to 200 were only ever available to the industry and serious chart devotees via subscription to a newsletter licensing the data from the OCC.
To the uninitiated the range of numbers can be confusing. Regardless of how many places the full chart extends to, public perception is that being in the top 40 makes it a hit. Music Week (since 1972 the rebranded title of Record Retailer and since 1977 no longer owned by Billboard) publishes the top 75 which is the marker required to get into the British Book of Hit Singles. While these days, the top 100 is available through the OCC website.
The charts experienced many restructures over their first two decades.
But the one change to the physical single came early with the replacement of shellac 78s with vinyl 45s.
Things accelerated from the mid 70s.
12″ singles were introduced in 1976.
Although the format became associated with dance music, the first was from The Who: “Substitute”
The first picture disc to make the top 10:
1978’s The Cars: “My Best Friends Girl”
Cassette singles debuted in 1978. It’s widely reported that the aptly titled “C30 C60 C90 Go” by Bow Wow Wow was first in 1980, but punk band The Tights’ Howard Hughes got there first in ’78 .
It wasn’t ’til 1989 that cassette singles counted towards the charts.
The delay was due to their low retail price. They were finally made eligible as their increasing popularity meant that excluding them was impacting chart positions.
The CD single arrived in 1985 and counted towards the chart from 1987.
All these different formats encouraged sales, as completists needed to buy them all for the various B-sides, remixes, picture discs, etc. In order to offset fans being encouraged to buy numerous formats, the number that could count towards chart position was restricted to four in 1991.
One rule change in 1990 was necessitated by the closest ever battle for #1.
“The Joker” by Steve Miller Band was reissued for the background of a Levis ad…
… going head to head with “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite.
They tied in sales – with “The Joker” named #1: Due to a rule that a tie would be resolved by the song with the biggest week-on-week increase taking the honours. The Joker rose from #6 compared to #4 for “Groove Is In The Heart.”
Rules is rules, despite the furore by disgruntled Deee-Lite fans. It turned out the tie was due to figures being rounded up in the convoluted sales recording process. Once the data was drilled into, “The Joker” had outsold GIITH:
By eight copies.
Right outcome – despite the wrong methodology.
This ruling on how to separate ties was done away with, to avoid a repeat.
Having beaten off competition from print publications a new challenger to the Radio 1 / Music Week chart arrived in 1983.
Known as the Network Chart, this was carried by regional commercial stations and broadcast every Sunday evening.
It adopted the Billboard approach of mixing sales and airplay but with an adaptation: The top 10 was entirely sales based, and 11 to 40 included the airplay element.
It went out on a Sunday evening, prompting Radio 1 to brings theirs forward from Tuesday to the same slot – so they were in direct competition. Over time, the Network Chart won in terms of higher listening figures, but never dislodged the more established version from being seen as the official chart.
Changes kept on coming:
In 1994: compiling the chart transferred from Gallup to Milward Brown. At this stage the sampling panel was at 1,000 retailers.
The mid 90s saw it become commonplace for singles to enter the chart at their highest position and gradually fall down the chart. Songs were released to radio weeks in advance of being physically available to create demand and a rush to purchase in the first week. Having been a rarity to enter at #1, it became the norm.
The digital age arrived in 2005 with downloads counting towards the single chart.
At first this was only for the week before physical release. But in 2007 this restriction was removed.
2014 saw streaming added to the mix with contortions needed to equate streams to sales and keep this new world in check.
100 streams on a premium account or 600 streams on an ad funded service equates to one sale.
Streaming saw all 16 tracks from Ed Sheeran’s “÷” appear in the top 20 of the singles chart.
Cue a new rule: restricting artists to a maximum of three singles in the top 100 at the same time.
2018 saw the introduction of Accelerated Chart Ratios to solve another streaming related issue of tracks sticking around longer.
ACR means that once a track has spent 10 weeks on the chart, if its streams decline for three successive weeks the number required to equal one sale doubles. Thereby accelerating their fall down the chart and making room for fresh blood.
It was also intended to keep the Christmas chart in check:
allowing for new music when streaming made it easier for the same golden oldies to dominate the chart every December.
ACR applies to any song over three years old. So those classics need to double the number of streams to compete with new tracks.
Which meant the Stranger Things inspired success of “Running Up That Hill” was caught by the rule.
Despite RUTH being streamed around 300,000 times a day more than Harry Styles’ “As It Was,” ACR pushed it down to #2.
This provoked mass calls through new and old media alike for Kate to get her due. It is in the small print that record labels can request ACR be suspended, which Kate’s label subsequently did- and RUTH ascended to the top spot for three weeks. The small print was conveniently overlooked as the media proclaimed victory in their crusade.
So where are we now?
There’s a trend for comment pieces, stating the charts have lost their relevance, and asking whether there is now any point to them.
Actual single sales are generally just a few thousand per week for even the most popular songs, and are mostly via iTunes or Amazon.
As such the contortions are necessary to find a balance so that new music isn’t washed away in the stream.
It might have been a whole lot simpler when the equation was just, “how many copies of a 7″ had been sold per week.”
As we’ve seen though, the multiple competing charts and paucity of data means that the reality was nowhere near as simple as the airbrushed history now makes out.
Ironically: the digital revolution in the 00s coincided with chart sampling finally reaching a point where sales from all retailers would be taken into account making the chart more accurate than it had ever been.
Counting against the charts is the fact that having regularly gotten 15 million viewers at its 1970s peak (albeit when there were only three TV channels) Top Of The Pops was canned in 2006.
(Other than for a once a year Christmas special, with viewing figures a fraction of what they had been.)
With no outlet on mainstream TV the visibility of the charts decreased.
On radio, listenership peaked in the 80s at around 4 million. By 2020 with the chart now broadcast in the Friday drivetime slot, reflecting a move to being compiled from Friday to Thursday, it was down to 1.4m listeners.
Meanwhile on Radio 2, “Pick Of The Pops” now delivering a weekly blast of nostalgia providing chart rundowns for the corresponding week from years past was pulling in 2.5m.
A fact some commentators take as proof that the charts have had their day and it was so much better in the past.
Or to look at it a different way: older generations are more likely to tune in to the actual show, whereas a younger generation are as likely to listen in after the fact. Evidenced by the chart show being one of the most popular downloads on the BBC Sounds app.
In the last year a study was carried out into their relevance:
The Official Chart – The ‘People’s Algorithm’
This found that 76% are still aware of the Official Charts while 69% said the charts are their favourite means of discovering new music. Putting them ahead of the likes of TikTok and YouTube.
And in case you’re thinking that it may skew lower for younger people: the new music percentage rises to 72% for under 25s. As ever, the devil is in the detail for these things, and I don’t know their methods for getting to these results… so who knows?
Link Crawford made a comment on the piece I wrote for the Rolling Stone Song Poll which also acts as a perfect summation of why the charts still matter:
There are so many competing forces taking attention away from the charts, and so many opportunities to delve into niche genres. But the charts still do a service in tracking and reflecting popularity.
As we age, many people will switch off from modern culture and lose track of the charts.
But there is still an audience out there – and fans and acts, for whom the validation of a big hit still means something.
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