Next Monday sees the launch of the UK's first music-streaming chart, based not on iTunes downloads – let alone HMV purchases – but on listening figures from streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer and Napster. Though some mega-selling acts such as Coldplay and Adele have resisted Spotify's embrace, the streamed Top 10 is destined to contain much the same artists as the physical and download charts: Ed Sheeran is the most streamed artist of 2012, according to the Official Charts Company (OCC), with Lana Del Rey, David Guetta, Gotye, Jessie J and Rihanna close behind. Casual audits of online piracy also suggest an illegal-downloads chart would closely resemble the legal one; distribution methods make little difference to taste.
Legal streaming is seen as the potential saviour of an industry decimated by piracy, and last year it was reported that 26 per cent of consumers now stream music online, more than the 17 per cent who legally download. According to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), however, the legitimate streaming market – which relies on advertising, not consumers' cash – is worth £35m, a mere 4.5 per cent of the music industry's overall revenues.
"Hopefully this chart will bring some public prestige to whoever is being streamed the most," says Tim Ingham, editor of Music Week, "and the public will engage more with streaming services, because they'll feel part of something that has a tangible metric." Is that metric really reliable, though?
YouTube views account for more than half of all online music streaming, but bring no direct revenue to artists or their labels, so are not included in the new chart's statistics. And does anyone care about the charts any more, anyway? Overall UK singles sales may have reached a record high, but the only time the singles chart makes news nowadays is when the latest X Factor single and the latest anti-X Factor single do battle for Christmas No 1. Teenagers used to tape the chart from the radio; now they rip the best new tracks from YouTube or the Pirate Bay weeks before release. The question of who's in the Top 10 each Sunday feels increasingly culturally redundant.
"I honestly don't care about the charts," says Mark Ellen, editor of The Word magazine. "I used to care when I was the editor of Smash Hits 25 years ago... as back then it was a genuine indication of popularity. Now you get huge distortions because a lot of the sales that register in the charts are for the kind of music bought by people who still want physical product – often CDs in jewel cases picked up in motorway service stations, usually with Adele's face on it – whereas there are countless other acts who are just as popular but among people who swap and download digital product, sales that are very often unregistered. And chart positions now are by no means an indication of the strength of feeling towards an act... Popular acts often don't sell magazines; lesser-selling bands with an obsessive following do."
In fact, the top of the new streaming chart is far less interesting than what its lower reaches reveal about listening habits. According to the OCC, 2.6 billion audio streams were delivered in 2011. Between them, the top 1,000 tracks in the chart were streamed approximately 755 million times, accounting for just 29 per cent of all streams.
The top 1,000 downloaded songs, by contrast, represent 48 per cent of all downloads. This means that the "long tail" of the streaming market is considerably longer and more diverse than that of its digital predecessor, the download.