Pop is dead—long live pop!

Alex Waygood on how Ed Sheeran represents the decline and fall of the charts

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

All hail the great and glorious Ed Sheeran! The singer’s latest album, ÷ (pronounced Divide), is continuing to smash chart records across the board since its release on 3rd March 2017. In its first week of release, Sheeran claimed nine out of the top ten spots in the UK Charts simultaneously. (The previous record had been held by The Beatles, who in 1964 occupied four out of the top ten spots at the same time.) Even more incredibly, all 16 of ÷’s tracks entered the UK Top 20 on the album’s release—and Sheeran’s success has by no means been limited to the UK, as ÷ continues to break records in the US and Australia as well. Who would have guessed that the 21st Century’s King of Pop would turn out to be a scruffy, ginger-haired guy in a hoody? The album is now the third-highest-selling album of all time for first week of sales—only Adele’s 25 and Oasis’s Be Here Now sold more in their first seven days of release.

Sheeran should obviously be congratulated: his success is significant, and down to a winning combination of easy pop melodies, slick production, and, crucially, clever branding. His sweeping domination of the charts is all the more impressive when you consider that the previous record-holders, The Beatles, dominated the Top 10 in 1964 because their previous singles were still selling as they released new ones. Sheeran, by contrast, dominates the charts through songs that are all from the same album.

Yet Sheeran would be the first to admit that his record-breaking success is not all that it seems. Since 2014, the charts have changed to include streaming in their figures—and the result has been a steadily increasing stasis and homogeneity in the top spots. While 2014 had 42 songs reach no. 1, 2015 had only 26, and 2016 only 11. The first six months of 2006 saw 230 new entries to the UK Top 100, whilst the first six months of 2016 saw only 86. In a recent interview with BBC Radio 1, Sheeran claimed: “I don’t know if there’s some weird thing that Spotify and Apple Music are going to have to change now. 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.”

Others are less happy. Justin Hawkins, frontman of rock band The Darkness, was blunt in an interview with News Corps Australia, saying: ‘That just means the system’s broken… Everyone knows Ed Sheeran is great and is selling loads of records, but imagine listening to the Top 40 rundown on the radio on a Sunday like you used to as a kid and you have to listen to the whole Ed Sheeran album. It’s totally ridiculous. The system is broken and they have to mend it’. The problem continues to intensify despite repeated adjustments to the formula used to calculate the charts—whereas previously 100 streams had counted as a single ‘sale’ for the calculation of the UK Charts, the formula was upped to 150:1 in January 2017 (apparently to little effect). Australia, which has an even higher ratio of 175:1, has also seen records smashed and chart positions hoarded by the Unstoppable Ed.

So—what’s up with streaming? The Official Charts Company (OCC) was clearly right to start including streaming figures in their calculations in 2014. As physical and digital music sales both continue to decline, streaming is now the single source of hope for the music industry. Due to the rise of streaming, the industry has enjoyed two consecutive years of growth since 2015, arresting a long period of declining profits triggered by Napster’s demolition of the existing model in 1999 and the advent of online piracy. As Spotify, Apple Music and others continue to attract new users, the importance of streaming as a means of music consumption will only continue to grow.

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The issue is that consumers stream music very differently to the way in which they buy (or in any case, used to buy) music. In the past, a Queen fan (for example) might have bought a single and listened to it several times in the few weeks after buying it. A hardcore fan might have listened to it many more times, but, regardless, the two purchases were counted equally from the point of view of the OCC. With streaming, however, the picture changes. Your modern-day Ed Sheeran fanatic might have listened to ÷ non-stop for the past two weeks without making a single purchase, instead listening to his music through Spotify’s free service or through YouTube. Crucially, though, their continued listening means that Sheeran’s album is still making an impact on the charts weeks after the album’s release, even if no additional people are in fact listening to the album. The streaming of music is a far more trivial decision than the purchasing of music—since streaming costs so much less, and can cost nothing at all, a consumer need not be particularly enthusiastic to stream a track. Paradoxically, however, since the inclusion of streaming the charts have only appeared to indicate new heights of enthusiasm among consumers, since artists remain at no. 1 for much longer than they used to.

In many ways, the new-look music charts actually reflect people’s listening habits far better than they used to. Drake’s One Dance spent 15 weeks at No. 1 in the 2016 Album Charts, despite only ‘outselling’ (physically and digitally) the competition for the first three weeks of that period. Far from being meaningless, that tells us that people were still listening to the album (for some reason) well after it was released.

But the shifting nature of the charts presents multiple problems for new and up-and-coming artists. The first is that the inclusion of streaming figures in the charts acts as a ‘multiplier effect’ to the prominence of superstars such as Sheeran in the charts, meaning they occupy the top spots for weeks on end. The second is that the inclusion of album tracks as well as songs selected as ‘singles’ means that an extremely successful album such as ÷ leaves little space for new artists to enter the charts. The issue is compounded by the way in which consumers often access music on Spotify and the like—those listening to Spotify’s ‘Top 50’ playlist will only cement the positions current Top 50 even more.

If new artists are crowded out from entering the charts, they will find it even more difficult to make a name for themselves—and the new dynamics of the music industry have meant life is already much more difficult for new and unfamiliar acts. The advent of streaming has been wonderful for new artists in some ways, as their music can quickly spread to a large audience without that audience paying for it. Yet unless a small artist gets big quick à la Sheeran, the new model can make life very difficult for new performers: the pittance paid per stream adds up to a sizeable amount for artists with a large, secure audience and hefty back catalogue, yet provides insignificant revenue for acts still making a name for themselves. (The formula determining how much an artist is paid per individual stream is hugely complicated, meaning that it can vary wildly from artist to artist and from month to month—but for a ballpark figure, a January 2017 study by rights-awareness group The Trichordist reckoned on an average payment of $0.00437 per Spotify stream. Apple Music and other pay more, but make up far smaller proportions of the market.)

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The new-look charts contain other distortions, as well. Although Spotify have managed to gain access to most back catalogues by now, artists such as Taylor Swift and Radiohead still resist putting their music on streaming services. Taylor Swift has argued that “music is art, and art is important and rare”, that “important, rare things are valuable” and that “valuable things should be paid for’” thus concluding that music should never be free. Thom Yorke of Radiohead was characteristically blunter in his description of Spotify as “the last fart of a dying corpse.” Yet while both artists may well have sincere objections to the ethics of the new model, the reality is that they also know that they can gain more revenue by withholding (at least initially) their music from streaming services. Both Taylor Swift and Radiohead have fan bases committed enough that fans will buy their music through more lucrative, more traditional channels if they cannot stream. Thus, Taylor Swift is nowhere to be found on Spotify, Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Adele’s 25 were both sales-only for a time, and of the streaming platforms, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is exclusively on Tidal. This makes financial sense—yet means that these artists end up underrepresented on the charts, since the limited streaming of their music over the initial period after release means they cannot enjoy an equivalent to the ‘Sheeran surge’ of 2017.

The charts, then, are seriously dysfunctional in their current form—and the problem cannot be fixed by simply continuing to adjust arbitrarily the formula by which streams are registered as ‘sales’. Various, more radical, solutions have been proposed—one is a cap on individual users, so that only the first ten streams of a song (for example) by any one user count towards that song’s chart placement. Another—favoured by Justin Hawkins—would be to say that each artist could only feature a certain number of songs from each album in the singles chart (but the disadvantage of this is that it would conceal the extent to which ‘album tracks’ are listened to). Spotify et al. can help, too, by finding ways to improve their financial model for smaller artists, and by actively working to improve the representation of new artists in their increasingly popular curated playlists. (The situation is complicated to an extent by the fact that Spotify, despite rising revenues, has its hands tied somewhat since it has yet to make a profit.)

Yet the fading relevance of the charts predates streaming—the BBC’s Top of the Pops was cancelled in 2006, 42 years after its first showing yet well before Spotify became a major player in the music industry. The cultural importance of the charts is not what it used to be: in the Internet Era, the charts are no longer the primary way by which consumers access new music or keep up to date with new music trends. And albums themselves will continue to become scarcer in the future, as artists continue to focus more on live performances as an effective money-earner in the digital era. It may be that alternative metrics such as ticket sales will become a more effective barometer of an artist’s success in the future.

Streaming may yet save the music industry, but in many ways the advent of streaming creates as many problems as it answers. The ways in which pop music is manufactured and delivered will be forced to change if pop is to survive. The stasis at the top of the charts is merely symptomatic of the far bigger problem, and of the massive changes that are afoot in the industry. Pop is dead—long live pop.