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Can music streaming save the UK singles charts?

Audio streaming will be counted in the official single sales chart for the first time from July. But will it win artists over to Spotify? And can it give the charts back their credibility?

Original article courtesy of Channel 4.

Keeping on top of the UK’s music charts used to be a matter of pride and credibility: like politicians knowing the shifting price of a pint of milk. But dwindling sales, and the massive growth of audio and video streaming online, have caused the once glimmering top 10 to lose its sheen.

Now, in a bid to get back its cool, the Official Charts Company (OCC) has moved the goalposts and will begin to include audio streams in its official data from 6 July.

It is one of the biggest changes in the history of the charts, which started taking digital downloads into account in 2004. But it was a decision they couldn’t hold off for much longer. The last few years have seen an explosion of streaming from a rate of 100 million streams a week in January 2013, to 200 million a week in January 2014.

From shellac to streaming

“Just as it has evolved through the years to reflect the most popular music in the UK, from 12″ to 7″, vinyl to cassettes, CD singles to downloads, this is the latest stage of that progression – and will align the official singles chart with the consumption habits of the future,” said OCC Chief Executive Martin Talbot.

“We have been looking at this possibility for some time and now feel comfortable that our methodology is correct and that summer 2014 is the time that we should take this step.”

To try and keep things fair, the official charts will give 100 streams the same weight as one download. Streaming services Spotify, Deezer, O2 Tracks and Napster, among others, have agreed to collate their data for the charts.

In an attempt to get around any uber-fans or hack-happy artists, the number of streams recorded will also be capped daily at 10 plays per user, or 70 streams a week, meaning that buying one download will still carry more weight per weekly round-up. A song will also need to be streamed for at least 30 seconds for it to count.

2014 streaming chart so far:
1. Happy – Pharrell Williams
2. Rather Be – Clean Bandit (featuring Jess Glynne)
3. Timber – Pitbull (featuring Kesha)
4. Hey Brother – Avicii
5. Drunk in Love – Beyoncé (featuring Jay Z)
6. Trumpets – Jason Derulo
7. Counting Stars – OneRepublic
8. Dark Horse – Katy Perry (featuring Juicy J)
9. Royals – Lorde
10. Pompeii – Bastille

But will streaming give the charts back their bite? The current figures seem to suggest we’ll see a change: for example the current number 1 is Ella Henderson’s Ghost, but in the streaming charts, it has only reached number 22.

In contrast, the UK’s most streamed track of all time was on Monday revealed to be Bastille’s Pompeii, which has had a staggering 26 million streams. (To put that in context, the UK’s biggest selling single of all time – Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, in 1997 – has sold 4.91 million copies). And yet in the official single sales charts, the single only ever reached number 2 in the official charts.

The OCC have also pointed to Alt-J: their best chart position is 75 but the band are the 28th most-streamed band ever in the UK.

Bastille frontman Dan Smith said the new charts would be a fairer reflection of how people listen to music, and that he was well aware that sales aren’t a true reflection of appeal.

“If you look at the live shows we do versus how many albums we’ve sold, it’s clear that at least double, if not more people, have heard or own the album than have actually paid for it,” he added.

Industry insiders are staying cautious about predictions. Kay Bayley, head of the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), told Channel 4 News, it was “impossible” to predict, but added: “What we can definitely say is that streaming, to a degree, helps to neutralise the marketing of certain tracks.

“If someone’s given access to millions of tracks, they might try music that they otherwise might not have tried. Long term, it may change the make-up of the charts.”

While some mainstream artists have railed against Spotify, with Radiohead’s Tom Yorke famously calling it the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse” and Foals frontman telling Channel 4 News that fans are paid an “insulting pittance” from streaming, this try-before-you-buy attitude that streaming allows is getting emerging artists excited.

‘It opens the charts up to more genres’

In theory, if bands can generate grass-roots interest online, they have a direct route to industry recognition without having to spend cash on endless gigging and marketing, or holding out for a label signing.

“We think it’s a totally amazing thing,” Sam James from Bristol band The Ramona Flowers told Channel 4 News. “It opens the charts up to more genres, without being pigeonholed by what Radio 1 wants to play.

“In the UK, in order to get any sort of play, you already have to have built yourself up to a big level, with a big fan-base.”

His band have had the support of their label. But James hopes this landmark change in the charts will mean unsigned bands get a foot up: “Online stuff has been amazing… listening to a band that you like, listening to all these bands that sound similar – there’s a flow through with streaming, where people can find you (more easily) that’s never been possible before.”

There are some caveats: video streaming won’t be included to start with – purely because the Offical Charts Company haven’t figured out a way to filter out DIY videos. But optimists hope that giving streaming some industry recognition will help boost lesser known bands – and maybe even help to force a better system of monetising the way we listen to music.