Even Ed Sheeran thinks there’s something wrong with the singles chart.
Until last week, no artist had ever had more than four top 10 hits at the same time – but Sheeran smashed that record to pieces, putting nine songs from his new album, Divide, into the top.
The main reason for his success is streaming. Tracks from his album were played 110 million times last week on Spotify, Apple Music and their competitors, sending all 16 tracks from Divide into the chart.
“I don’t know if there’s some weird thing that Spotify and Apple Music are going to have to change now,” the star told BBC Radio 1. “I never expected to have nine songs in the top 10 in my life. I don’t know if something’s gone wrong but I’m definitely very, very happy about it.”
A look at the midweek chart update suggests Ed will continue to overshadow the competition, with six tracks clinging on to their position in the top 10.
The record industry is delighted – HMV says the album “exceeded expectations”, while Sainsbury’s recorded their biggest week of CD sales since Adele’s 25.
“The sheer voracity with which it’s been devoured is just incredible,” boasted Sheeran’s record label boss, Ben Cook, in an interview with Music Week.
But the star’s unprecedented one-man takeover of the chart has left people wondering whether the venerable countdown has become redundant.
The problem is that, with Ed Sheeran taking up 40% of the available space, other acts are being pushed out.
Last year saw a shockingly low number of new artists making their Top 40 debut. Even this week, the much-anticipated new single from Lorde only managed to score a new entry at 28, even though it was at number 12 in the download chart.
“The charts have changed dramatically in the last five or 10 years,” Official Chart Company boss Martin Talbot told the BBC. “We’re constantly reviewing the way that we count those different ways of consuming, and we will continue to do so.”
Here are some of the ways the charts could be redrawn to fix the Sheeran situation.
Redefine what a single is
This week, we have the ludicrous situation where 14 of the top 20 singles aren’t actually singles. They’re album tracks.
It would be pretty easy to exclude all the other songs and bring back a sense of normality to the countdown. But there’s a problem: if Ed decides to release Galway Girl as a single later down the line, it’s already been bought and streamed 90,000 times. It’s very likely the single would be classified as a “flop”.
Fix the formula
At the minute, every time a song is streamed 150 times, it counts as one real-world “sale”. The Official Charts Company recently upped that ratio from 100:1, but even that couldn’t stop Ed’s chart takeover.
Yet, if you look at the paid-for download chart, Divide doesn’t dominate nearly as much. It only accounts for six songs in the top 20, with hits by Rag ‘N’ Bone Man and Katy Perry holding on to their positions.
The dilemma is that streaming is enjoying exponential rates of growth. Spotify added 10 million customers in the last six months; while Apple Music has attracted 20 million subscribers in less than two years.
One quick fix, suggested by reader Andy Mac, would be to impose a cap on individual users. “Once you hit 150 streams that count as a sale, no more streams from your account count toward the chart,” he says. Others have suggested the limit should be just 20 streams.
Whether or not that’s viable, the Charts Company needs to be much more nimble, tweaking its formula on a monthly basis to stop streams becoming a flood.
Eliminate passive listening
By including streaming data, the modern charts reflect what people are listening to, as well as what they buy.
In theory, this is great. It eliminates the phenomenon of “fan club hits” – where a dedicated group of, say, One Direction fans could send a song to number one on the week of release, only for it to disappear seven days later.
On the flipside, you can argue that lots of Ed Sheeran’s streams came from people who didn’t even choose to listen to him. A “passive” listener, who simply fires up one of Spotify’s curated playlists is likely to hear Ed’s music at least once. Its UK Top 50 playlist is dominated by Divide; while Hot Hits UK has three of Sheeran’s songs in its line-up.
If it’s technically possible (and no-one can quite tell me whether it is or not) passive streams could carry less weight than those generated by a fan typing “Ed Sheeran Divide” into the search bar.
Include airplay in the charts
This is a controversial one. UK radio stations, including BBC Radio 1, have long wanted the charts to reflect what’s being played on air. It already happens in the US, where radio exposure can send a song into the Billboard Hot 100 long before it becomes popular on streaming services. The figures are carefully weighted to reflect that a song played at 4am won’t be heard by as many people as one played at 4pm – and that a station with a large audience has more impact than a smaller rival.
In the UK, including airplay could give a helping hand to new artists – especially given the role that Radio 2 and Radio 1 play in championing new music.
The downside is that commercial radio – with honourable exceptions like Radio X, Kiss and Rinse – is horrifically conservative. A grime artist like Stormzy, who dominated the Top 40 a week before Ed Sheeran, can only struggle to 36th place in this week’s airplay chart.
Ban Ed Sheeran
In fact, Ed’s not even the first person to score multiple new entries off the back of a new album. Beyonce, The Weeknd and Stormzy have all done similar things in the past year – albeit on a smaller scale.
And none of the above solutions would satisfactorily address the way big releases overshadow the competition – which gives an idea of the difficulties faced by the Official Charts Company.
The question is, can any of the fixes be worse than the current situation?