Streaming hits the Top 40, but is this the end of the chart itself?

Streaming opens the charts up to new directions. awaywiththepixies, CC BY-SA

Music streaming is soon to be counted within the charts, a reflection of a major shift in the music industry. Spotify and other sites like it make access to their vaults of recordings free – if you don’t mind advertising. This shifts the focus of music consumption from ownership to always available rental-like streaming. Because of this, terms that were once significant, such as “single”, “album” and indeed “chart”, are slowly being deconstructed.

The album as a term was invented because a classical symphony would not fit onto one side of a 78rpm record. As a result, such works were presented much like a photo album, with a number of connected sleeves: think of double CD or vinyl album, but with perhaps five discs. This name has stuck despite the fact that our current albums aren’t too reminiscent of photo albums anymore.

The single reflected what could be played on the radio, a singular successful track, but even that had a B-side. Billboard magazine in the USA and NME in the UK are mostly responsible for the establishment of the idea of singles charts: they were made “official” in the UK in 1969.

The singles chart was of more significance in the UK, where singles sales have often been higher than, for example, the US. The dominance of national BBC radio broadcasting, and the focus of daytime playlisting made the singles chart of vital significance for marketing music in the UK. Top of the Pops, the TV-focus of the UK charts, also made them a significant institution whereas in the US the numerous local radio stations made such dominance less possible. So albums have been of far greater importance in the US than in the UK.

All this means the UK singles chart has had an oddly exaggerated sense of its own worth, and has applied a lasting bias to music sales in the UK. The chart created a space where the large marketing budgets of major record labels could hype records into the top ten, pretty much guaranteeing saturated national radio play. This allowed a select group of record labels to dominate the music industry from the 1960s until the millennium. And it also meant that the average listener had access to far less music.

This system started to come unstuck with the growth of downloads, and now streaming. Just as Apple’s iTunes has dominated the downloads market for music, so Spotify is trying to dominate the streaming market. The future of computer storage seems to be in the cloud, not on CD or memory stick. Downloads are a part-time solution until we have Wi-Fi speed connectivity everywhere we travel, and no longer have to cart around our files, whether films, book, documents or music. So it’s entirely appropriate that the UK singles chart should reflect this, but the effects of this on the idea of the chart itself is something worth considering.

Streams are of course very different to downloads. You don’t buy the recording. It’s more like a library: you just listen to it whenever you want. You never need to own it, as it’s always available. Streaming services are like a personal radio station, one that only plays the recordings you are interested in, rewarding artists per stream.

This could entirely change how music is listened to. A “traditional” single release will get played on the radio for perhaps two months, and in that time it will sell a certain number of copies, perhaps as few as 10,000, even for a top single. After that period, the single would be removed from sale. The costs of marketing such a product would in the past have meant that this would be unlikely to be a profitable activity, and that the artist would make money from greater sales of the album that accompanied the single. During this period of sale a restricted number of people would buy the product, and play it as many times as they liked afterwards.

With streaming, one sale is just one play, by a single person. But now this single can continue to have life for months, years or even decades. And so the boundary between the single (short lifetime) and album (longer lifetime) begins to dissolve. An artist could continue to have streaming income on a recording for years from one fan, whereas that fan would in the past have only paid once.

So the new digitised system should benefit those with long-term careers, and should be good for recordings that have merit that will continue to be valued in the future, rather than those that are simply a flash in the pan success of today.

It’s hard to know exactly what this change to the charts will bring. Old recordings may reappear, adverts may lead to mass streaming of particular music, X Factor appearances may revive tunes. Streaming services also suggest what to play next, based on its algorithmic analysis of what others like, and so the charts may be manipulated by these computer generated taste makers.

This is a change that had to be made to reflect current listening trends, but its impact cannot be easily predicted, except perhaps to imply an increasingly volatile chart. This volatility could very possibly make the idea of the singles chart that reflects the musical mores of today an increasingly outmoded concept.

But mostly, it means that Top of the Pops, BBC Radio and those record industries no longer have as much control over what we listen to. The individual streamer now has the potential to control their own musical path, and this can take many routes, rather than favouring only one direction.