Downloading music: how will it affect the music charts?

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The Independent Culture

It was once so simple. When the first UK singles chart was published in the New Musical Express in November 1952, one Percy Dickins collated results he'd obtained by telephoning a relatively modest sample of record shops.

By 1994, things had changed radically with the company Millward Brown collecting the data by using electronic point of sale machines to poll over 1000 stores. But these and myriad other reforms were but fine-tuning, though, when compared to a revision made by current chart custodians The Official UK Charts Company (OCC) in spring 2004.

"The rapid growth of legal music download sites has shown the music industry that downloading is the future," said the OCC then. The subtext was that, if the singles chart were to remain the barometer of sales and predilections the industry depended upon, download sales would have to be factored into the equation. Consequently, the OCC announced that a freestanding download chart would launch that September, and that download sales would now also count towards an artist's placing in the "traditional" charts. "The revolution is here," noted the company. But the record industry was caught off-guard, and some independent labels felt that the playing field was now less even.

"Everyone, majors and indies alike, had to learn quickly how to access the digital market," says Simon Wheeler of Beggar's Banquet. "But getting the infrastructure to be able to service your music to a plethora of digital download services is tougher for an indie. It involves the kind of manpower and money that an indie label may not have."

To compound difficulties, when the UK division of Apple's iTunes store launched online in 2004, it initially had no independent music content, even though the UK's independent music sector had fought to win concessions. "And when somebody has 70-80 per cent of the digital market, as iTunes does," notes Wheeler, "any label that isn't represented is at a distinct disadvantage."

In April 2004, when the Association Of Independent Music (AIM) announced that it intended to approach the Office of Fair Trading, the brouhaha increased. AIM hoped the OFT would back their request to suspend the launch of a combined download and "traditional" singles chart until kinks they thought prejudiced in favour of the majors were ironed out.

The case was never referred, but AIM had made its point. As the vast majority of established indie labels were then able to get a foothold at key sites such as iTunes and Napster, most of the heat went out of the debate. Wheeler and Paul Hitchman, from the digital music service provider PlayLouder, are among those who believe the download singles chart is now a much fairer reflection of what people are buying. "Compiling the charts has never been an exact science," says Hitchman, "but I think including downloads stats had certainly helped. There were teething problems, but these have largely been overcome."

A glance at the current download chart certainly supports that view. As I write, the Domino label's Arctic Monkeys are at Number 6, while DIY-duo Nizlopi are at Number 1 with "JCB", a tune they released through their own family run label, FDM Records. Still shifting serious units weeks after its brief tenure at Number 1 in the "traditional" chart, "JCB" exemplifies the prolonged sales-life of singles that the digital market has engendered. More intriguing, perhaps, is the fact that punters are currently downloading two copies of "JCB" for every one copy of Shayne X Factor Ward's "That's My Goal".

"I think folks who download are more media savvy and less influenced by TV campaigns and reality shows", says Nizlopi's Luke Concannon. "They use the Net to find new and interesting music. Personally, I think the download chart is fantastic. It's more democratic."

Concannon praises iTunes for being the first legal download site that consumers felt comfortable with, but says they could still be more indie-friendly. He adds: "Having our own additional download site gives us more control over our music and allows us to make it a bit cheaper. The internet is revolutionising the music business - and about bloody time!"

All current signs point to an exponential, constantly mutating revolution. In the final week of 2005, UK download sales topped one million for the first time. In the US, meanwhile, iTunes online store has been outselling both Tower Records and Borders, carving a tombstone, some say, for the compact disc.

But will this brave new world benefit the indies? Possibly. While one wouldn't want to overstate the chances of the 40-something casually downloading Rumours then piling his virtual trolley with the Extreme Noise Terror's entire repertoire, he will certainly encounter more sonic diversity online than at his local Tesco - or even his local HMV or Virgin. We should note, however, that all three of those retailers have now launched rival online services to the likes of iTunes. But all kinds of factors - from customer loyalty to the compatibility of files with the MP3 player - will influence where the online shopper alights.

The rise of legal peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing sites should also stimulate interest in less mainstream music as the indie-curious peruse the recommendations of friends. PlayLouder has emerged as a pioneer in this field, announcing itself as the world's first music ISP last December.

"What we're trying to do," says PlayLouder's Hitchman, "is provide an environment where people can share music without fear of being sued by rights owners."

With PlayLouder, a proportion of each subscriber's monthly fee will go back to the appropriate rights owner. It sounds like a fair, market-driven approach, but what implications might it have for the download singles chart?

Will legal P2P sharing prevent some from buying chart-eligible single downloads elsewhere? And even if this proves to be the case, isn't that favourably counterbalanced by the fact that legal P2P downloads will help recoup some of the vast amounts of revenue lost to illegal P2P sharing? Either way you could argue that, in currently excluding legal P2P sharing from their number crunching, the OCC are missing important data. The problem, to be fair, is that the crunching has to stop somewhere, and in an ever-changing market, it's hard to decide where.

Returning to the issue of illegal P2P sharing, the latest stats from leading P2P monitoring firm BigChampagne show that illicit downloads hit a record high of 6.98 million in the UK last December.

In spite of this, Simon Wheeler holds that most indies aren't unduly alarmed by illegal P2P sharing. "It's a love/hate thing," he says. "Indie labels don't have trouble releasing good music - we have trouble getting it heard. If low-level illegal file sharing is happening with one of our acts, it can actually prove quite beneficial. On the strength of one track, people might download a legal copy of the album. It's free promotion."

However you look at it, the digital market appears to be a shape-shifting, untameable beast. This will obviously have further ramifications for the download chart, and indie and major record labels alike.

"Ultimately," says Hitchman, "I think the music industry has to accept that it's losing control over distribution. They need to relinquish control in return for the continued market-growth which the digital music outlets will sustain."

"I can see a point in the near future where we might have to tear up the blueprint," adds Wheeler. "We may have to start a completely new chart system, rather than trying to bolt things onto the one which already exists."