Has Ed Sheeran killed the charts?
Three years after acknowledging the age of streaming, the Official Charts are again in dire straits – all thanks to Ed Sheeran.
Let’s pretend, for the sake of the argument, that music charts are still our main source of knowledge into what’s new, what’s hot and what’s not.
The noughties never came, Napster never happened and we’re all still desperate to know all the young artists registering their songs in the UK’s Official Singles Chart.
If that were the case, this week, the whole country would be listening to Ed Sheeran’s new album on repeat – and virtually nothing else.
All of Divide’s 16 tracks are featured, in an unprecedented way, in the Official Top 20 of the singles chart. The entire top 10 (except, randomly, number 7) are from the album.
It is not just singles either. All three of Sheeran’s albums feature in the Top 5 of the album chart.
“Wow, what a phenomenal week,” young Ed told Official Charts when confronted with the news.
“To every person who’s bought the album – thank you,” he added.
But while the album sales are definitely something to be thankful for – 672,000 records sold in the opening week, the third fastest ever – they are hardly an explanation for this total chart dominance.
Ed should, in fact, be thanking every person who listened to each individual track, all of which have been entered in the charts due to a little thing called streaming.
Remember how, in the old days, labels used to release singles and EPs to promote individual songs instead of whole albums?
Then, retailers nationwide would send their sales data to a chart contractor, who would then compile the singles chart.
The same would happen with albums.
But as music sales turned digital, the practice became creaky.
In 2014, the Official Charts Company (OCC) finally acknowledged the importance of streaming, including it in its rankings for the first time.
Back then, it had a conversion rate of 100 streams equalling one sale or download.
This, they thought, would fairly represent the success of a track, balancing consumption (number of times a song is streamed) with purchase (number of times a song is sold).
But it still valued repetition, leaving many wondering if this could become a barrier to new artist trying to break in.
Looking at the Sheeran-filled charts this week, it obviously did.
In December last year, after Drake’s One Dance managed 15 weeks at number one, the conversion rate changed from 100 to 150 streams to a sale.
This happened because streaming now accounted for 80% of the singles market in the UK – Drizzy’s combined 1.95m sales at that point included 142m streams.
As the OCC slowly tries to adapt to a rapidly changing market, we can expect more weeks with one album ruling over all.
The solutions are far from obvious – either the OCC continues to increase the stream ratio (maybe 200, 250?), or it takes more extreme measures, changing the rules of how many singles can be eligible from one album.
The safer option would be to ignore streaming altogether, recognising it as a platform of repeated listening and not of music purchase – but that would signal a step back and is unlikely to happen.
While the good folks at the Charts Company try to figure that one out, we’re left wondering: should we disregard charts as a faux representation of success?
In Ed Sheeran’s case, we shouldn’t.
Even after getting bashed by the critics, Divide’s 16 tracks have been listened to – if not bought – repeatedly by the millions.
But what else is out there that we’re not listening to?