CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: The future of the charts

By | Published on Friday 16 March 2012

Andy Malt

“The charts aren’t relevant any more” is a thing that people say quite often. At a time when record sales are falling and other forms of music consumption are booming, is a chart based entirely on such sales the best measurer of success?

Actually, single track sales are on the up and have been for some time, meaning the official Top 40 is currently a reasonable yardstick for what’s popular. And if you look at other charts for what tracks are being downloaded illegally or streamed via legitimate sites, the artists and tracks that lead are usually pretty similar to those dominating on Radio 1’s chart show each Sunday, which takes only physical product and download sales into account.

So, factoring in other stats wouldn’t radically change which artists were getting the most chart exposure. But would bringing other factors into the mix (maybe not illegal sources, I’m not sure the record industry would go for that) make it more interesting and engaging to those who no longer give the main chart any credence?

In the US, Billboard’s Hot 100 chart – which is the main singles chart in America – has long included radio play as well as sales as a measure of what’s popular, while the album charts are sales-based alone. This is how The Wanted can gloat about their superior success over One Direction in the Billboard Hot 100 one week, only for the 1D boys to find themselves on track to break a record in the album chart the next.

But there are new changes coming too. Billboard has announced that the Hot 100 will now also take into account listening data from streaming services Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio, Slacker, Muve and MOG. This is unlikely to affect the chart positions most people would reach anyway for the most part, but it’s thought that dance music may fair better than it has done previously. Never really a mainstream concern Stateside, artists like Skrillex are leading a big rise in the popularity of electronic music which isn’t really represented on US radio, thus meaning it’s not currently very well represented in the Hot 100 chart either.

What would be more interesting, however, would be the addition of listening data from YouTube, something Billboard is currently talking to Google about. Your Spotifys and Rhapsodys are all well and good, but YouTube is really the internet’s biggest streaming service and, being totally free to use, it is embraced by some fanbases who aren’t buying downloads, subscribing to the audio streaming platforms, or listening to much radio. So it would be very interesting to see what YouTube data would do to the overall Hot 100. Certainly in the UK, if you look at the plays UKF’s various dance channels get, it’s clear that there are pockets of artists who are very popular online but not necessarily represented in the chart.

Which begs the question, should and would the UK follow suit and include other data in its main singles chart? Well, there has always been a second singles chart over here that does factor in airplay on commercial radio, which is what said commercial pop stations play out in the customary Sunday teatime chart slot in competition with the sales-only Top 40 that Radio 1 reveals. These days that chart, now called ‘The Big Top 40 Show’, has iTunes data at its heart, but positions 40 to 11 are still influenced by what participating stations have played the previous week. And at one point the pop stations owned by Bauer had their own chart that even included listener voting. So, it’s not like the UK record industry isn’t used to charts that include different kinds of data.

But what about the Official Chart Company’s main singles chart – the one Radio 1 airs – and which has always been considered the real chart, even when the commercial radio network’s chart show has commanded higher ratings?

Of course the OCC is jointly owned by the BPI, which represents the record labels, and the Entertainment Retailers Association, which represents physical and online retail firms. Both parties obviously have an interest in the main charts focusing mainly on the sale of recorded music, though ERA does count some streaming platforms amongst its membership, all of which are licensed by the BPI’s membership, so it seems unlikely either side would block the inclusion of streaming data into the Top 40 on principle if a clever way of including such stats could be found. And to be fair, when downloading first took off, the UK charts included that digital data faster than I think many of us expected, albeit initially with some restrictions to placate the luddites.

The OCC has previously indicated it would consider adding more data sources into its singles chart in the future, so is now the time to consider it, given Billboard’s decision on the matter? After all, wouldn’t a broader measure of success actually do more to promote artists, better engage fans, and ultimately drive up sales, even if it didn’t have a radical impact on what artists dominate at the top? I think so. A chart where people could see their favourite artists’ overall success across a variety of media would help to make more people feel a part of the process.

In particular, younger music fans who don’t have access to much cash (or a credit card with which to buy digital music) are actually the most vociferous consumers of pop music. If they felt their Spotify plays actually had some bearing on their favourite artists’ chart positions, it would be a simple way to make them feel a part of the process. And it would also be a reason for them to choose Spotify, We7 et al over illegal online services which wouldn’t chart return, and might educate consumers as to which digital platforms are legit. Plus, given high chart positions seem to often result in more mainstream sales, including streaming data in the chart might help convince those concerned that a presence on Spotify hinders download revenue that actually the opposite could be true.

And, ultimately, a bigger overview of artists’ popularity would simply make for a more interesting chart. Sales are fine, but music consumption has changed hugely over the last decade, and continues to do so at a rapid pace. As streaming services break further and further into the mainstream, it’s going to become harder and harder to ignore them. Increasingly the singles chart as it stands will look more and more blinkered if it doesn’t change, even if it does, actually, have the right artists at the top.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

This week’s podcast will have more discussion of the changes to the Hot 100 chart and what it means for the music world. As well as that, Chris and I chatted about Sony Music’s proposed settlement with its heritage artists over download royalties, the pending sale of HMV’s live division, and why Jessie J’s hair is going to be all over bottles of Vitamin Water in the run up to the Olympics.

You’ll be able to stream and download the podcast from here later this weekend, and you can subscribe to it in iTunes or via RSS now.

So, you know that big digital royalties dispute? Yeah you do. The one that has the potential to put the major labels out of pocket by millions of dollars both now and in the future. The one where artists who have pre-internet contracts that don’t mention download sales claim that they’re due the higher-rate ‘licensing royalty’ on those sales, rather than the standard record sale share. And the one I mentioned in the podcast section above. Well, having been the last major to be dragged into the current round of lawsuits launched by artists with pre-internet contracts, Sony Music looks like it might also be the first to settle.

Sony did have a headstart though, having been the first to be drawn into a legal battle with some of its veteran artists – specifically The Allman Brothers and Cheap Trick – back in 2006. Although we thought Sony had settled with them and pushed it all under the carpet long ago, it turns out secret negotiations have been under way for the last few years. Now Sony is seeking court approval for a settlement that would see all artists with contracts signed in the US between 1976 and 2001 due a cut of $7.95 million, plus an extra 3% royalty on their download income. Though The Allman Brothers and Cheap Trick themselves might have a seperate still secret deal on the side as well for their own digital monies.

Elsewhere in the digital royalty dispute, The Temptations have become the latest artist to sue, taking on Universal – the company which kicked off this latest round of lawsuits when it lost a similar case to early Eminem producers FBT Productions.

Elsewhere in legacy artist contract disputes, Gloria Gaynor was on a panel at SxSW to discuss whether an old rule in the US that’s only just about to take effect – which says songwriters can reclaim any copyrights they previously signed away after 35 years – should apply to recording artists too. The labels so no, but some artists say yes. At South By two lawyers representing each side discussed the legal technicalities, while Gloria suggested that, if the labels screw the artists over on this one too, that America’s slaves got a better deal than today’s aging pop stars (well, she sort of said that).

Back in the UK, the courts were looking at music retail. Well, in part. When the government announced last year that it would close the tax loophole which allows mail-order companies on the Channel Islands to sell items with a value of less than £15 to customers on the UK mainland without paying VAT, some Channel Islanders vowed to launch legal action. They claimed that closing the loophole for the islands but not other non-EU countries was discriminatory. The case went to the High Court this week but was dismissed by Judge John Mitting. So, that’s that. Well, unless the Islanders appeal.

There were also rumours this week that the second round of bidding for HMV’s live division, the MAMA Group, had begun. AEG Live and a consortium lead by MAMA co-founder Dean James are reportedly amongst the bidders. HMV later confirmed that it was still conducting its ‘strategic review’ (or ‘sale’ as everyone else is calling it) in a statement which said very little else.

In digital news, most of the announcements made this week were done so in Texas at SxSW. However, one wasn’t – Spotify announced its long delayed launch in Germany, after being refused a licensing deal by publishing trade body GEMA for many years. While over in Texas, Spotify board member Sean Parker admitted that the company could do with more transparency in its royalty payments system.

Other than that, amongst the more interesting announcements at SxSW, MTV announced a new partnership with Topspin to allow artists to sell music and merch to the TV network’s online audience, announced it now has deals with all four majors, and and Musicmetric revealed that they’re teaming up to provide analytic data to artists and labels. Though the thing that actually caused most discussion at SxSW this year was an ad agency turning homeless people into wireless internet hotspots.

As well as all that, the Mercury Prize announced this week that it is moving its award presentation to November, Rihanna said that her recent collaborations with Chris Brown were entirely innocent, Tom and Dougie from McFly revealed plans to publish a book about a dinosaur that eats and then excretes Christmas, and Coca-cola announced that bottles of its Vitamin Water will come topped with effigies of Jessie J’s hair for the Olympics. Why we still don’t know.

We published the second in our series of articles giving tips for getting ahead in the music industry, this time looking at how to put together and present promotional photographs of your band so that photo editors don’t swear loudly when they’re trying to find a usable shot of you at five minutes notice. You may now swear loudly about the length of that sentence.

As well as that, we published our second playlist looking at the Great Escape festival line-up so far, with ten great bands to soundtrack an hour of your life while you wait for things to kick off in Brighton in May. I interviewed co-founder of A Greener Festival Ben Challis ahead of this week’s Green Events & Innovations Conference in London. And sticking with festivals, Eddy Temple-Morris unveiled the line-up for his stage at the Secret Garden party, while the usual array of announcements filled our Festival Line-Up Update column.

Not festival-related, but still green, in the Beef Of The Week column Courtney Love lashed out at The Muppets (green because of Kermit The Frog, you see), saying they’d “raped” her late husband Kurt Cobain’s memory. Not, I’d imagine, an accusation The Muppets have to deal with often, and one that would be difficult to explain on ‘Sesame Street’.

In the Approved column we had music from Fair Ohs frontman Eddy Frankel’s francophone solo project Les Pharaons, Scottish rock types PAWS and Clean George IV, and chillwave outfit Teen Daze remixed by Brothertiger.

But that’s not all the new music we had this week. Nope. We also had Plan B‘s protest song and the title track from his new film, ‘ill Manors’, Paul Weller‘s new album, plus assorted bits and pieces from Simian Ghost, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Karima Francis, Stay+, Keep Shelly In Athens, Alt-J, PEACE, and a track from the first release on Dalston venue Café Oto’s new label by German jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann.