For nearly 60 years the albums chart has been the barometer of Britain’s popular music tastes. But now an upheaval in the weekly sales countdown means that fans no longer have to buy an album – or even listen to a whole LP – for a release to count in the chart.
An equation of mathematical complexity has been devised to allow audio streams, from services including Spotify, Deezer and Google Play, to be included in the UK’s Official Albums Chart for the first time, from the end of this month.
The move, announced by the Official Charts Company, is designed to “future-proof” the album, once the industry’s “gold standard” and the supreme test of an artist’s creative capabilities, against plummeting sales figures.
The days when fans would peruse gatefold sleeves and listen religiously to the latest Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin releases have long gone. The albums market has contracted by more than 50 per cent over the previous decade, a process kickstarted by illegal downloading and now exacerbated by a dramatic increase in the use of streaming services.
Last year, the value of UK album sales fell 7.8 per cent to £713m, with digital album sales slumping by nine per cent. However the number of tracks streamed soared to 14.8 billion, contributing 12.6 per cent of music sales, according to BPI figures. Ed Sheeran’s X album has generated more than 140 million track streams, and Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour over 80 million track streams since their release last summer.
Musicians against Spotify
Musicians against Spotify
1/10 Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift does not what her work to be used as an 'experiment' by Spotify and believes that artists are treated unfairly. She withdrew her entire catalogue in November 2014.
2/10 Thom Yorke
The Radiohead frontman famously described Spotify as 'the last desperate fart of a dying corpse' in October 2013.
3/10 David Byrne
David Byrne of Talking Heads wrote about not understanding Spotify's claim of discovery in a Guardian op-ed. 'The inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left,' he said.
Beck dismissed the Spotify model as 'not working' because of how little it pays musicians. He added that the 'saddest thing' about streaming is the poor sound quality - 'It's like watching Citizen Kane on your phone'.
5/10 The Black Keys
Dan Auerbach has described Spotify's payment to artists as 'so minuscule it's laughable'. 'If you are a bigger band that's already known and you rely on record sales for a living then it's really no place to be,' he said.
6/10 Atoms for Peace
Thom Yorke's other band refused to let Spotify stream their songs. Nigel Godrich from the group described the service as 'an equation that just doesn't work'. 'Small labels and new artists can't even keep their lights on. It's just not right,' he said.
7/10 Yannis Philippakis
The Foals singer said he would rather that somebody stole his record on vinyl than bought it or streamed it on Spotify. He described using Spotify as like going to a top class restaurant and leaving only coppers without paying the bill.
8/10 Aimee Mann
The US singer-songwriter has not put her music on Spotify because she does not think artists make a fair amount of money from the streaming service.
9/10 Grizzly Bear
The band tweeted in 2012 that Spotify provides a great service for people but does as much to help bands as 'downloading from Limewire'.
10/10 Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell of Drive-By Truckers has used the single word 'evil' to describe Spotify.
Streams have already been successfully incorporated into the singles chart. Now after a year of discussion with record labels, a fiendishly complex methodology has been devised to add streams to the albums chart, ahead of the rundown’s 60th anniversary next year, without compromising the chart’s integrity.
The methodology is designed to ensure that the rundown continues to reflect the popularity of the albums themselves, rather than just the performance of one or two smash hit singles.
An album stream does not have to be listened to in its entirety, or in sequence, to count. All tracks played, on a playlist for example, will be counted towards an album’s chart position but the two most streamed tracks will be down-weighted to prevent them from skewing the album’s overall performance.
That is designed to prevent a huge hit, such as Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, which has been racking up two million streams a weeks since its release in December, from artificially boosting the position of its parent album, Uptown Special.
The total streams will then be added together and divided by 1,000. The 1,000 ratio is used to reflect the “broad difference in value between a track stream and the price paid for an album.”
This “stream factor” will then be added to the physical/digital sales of the album. A stream is defined is listening to a mere 30 seconds of a track, the point at which a royalties payment is generated.
Martin Talbot, Official Charts Company chief executive, said: “Our mission is to compile the most accurate, reliable and up-to-date charts around, and in 2015 that means reflecting the popularity of streaming, alongside downloads, vinyl and – still the most popular album format – the CD. Initial indications are that the impact on actual chart positions will be modest to begin with, but we expect this to grow as streaming becomes increasingly popular.”
“The album is one of the most important art-forms of the past 50 years and this change will ensure that the Official Albums Chart maintains its position as the preeminent showcase of the album as a body of work.”
The inclusion of streaming in the chart, set to launch in the week of the televised Brit Awards, could prove bad news for Taylor Swift who took her back catalogue off Spotify in protest at the platform’s royalty rates.
The “down-weighting” formula was devised after the UK music industry learned from the experience of the US Billboard charts where it was felt that the addition of streaming allowed hugely popular singles to skew the album rundown.
Mr Talbot said many people were using streaming services to listen to whole albums. As the technology advances, it could be possible for the chart to “upweight” the stream of an album in its entirety. But given that the chart company is already tracking 360 million lines of data a week, “that would be a very difficult file to open”.
Geoff Taylor, BPI chief executive, said: “The Official Charts are the definitive measure of an artist's popularity in the UK, so it's crucial they keep pace with the different ways that fans enjoy music. The album is the ultimate expression of an artist's creativity, so we're delighted that fans listening to albums on streaming services will now be contributing to the Official Albums Chart.”
If the ratio of streaming-to-sales increases it may harm the chances of Bob Dylan, whose album of Frank Sinatra interpretations, Shadows In The Night, topped this week’s chart, from repeating that feat. Hardcore Dylan fans bought the album in sufficient numbers to top the chart but the number 2, Ed Sheeran’s X, contains a number of songs which have been more widely streamed.
The new chart methodology
To make sure that big hit singles do not distort an album’s position in the Official Albums Chart, we are employing a method which involves taking the two most streamed tracks from every album and down-weighting their contribution towards the total album’s streams to the average of the rest.
Once the streams across the 12 tracks we are counting are added up, they will then be divided by 1,000 to create an “album stream factor” – this is then added to sales of the album to make the total by which each album will be ranked. This 1,000 ratio has been used as it broadly reflects the difference in value between a stream and an album.