Watch out, pop-pickers

The BBC has always prided itself on being the 'official' voice of the UK's Top 40. But in these days of falling sales and digital downloads, Trevor Dann argues that for a chart to be No 1, it's no longer enough to count record receipts
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Every Friday in the early Sixties, Derek Chinnery would stop at a newsagent on his way to work at the BBC's Gramophone Department and buy copies of the four big music papers of the day - the NME, Melody Maker, Record Mirror and Disc and Music Echo. In his office, this nervous, rather bookish producer would spread out the chart pages and copy the numbers into an exercise book, awarding 20 points to each No 1, 19 points to every No 2 and so on.

When he had added them up, Chinnery had the BBC Top 20, the basis for the Light Programme's Pick of the Pops with Alan Freeman. By the time its TV version, Top of the Pops, arrived in 1964, Chinnery's chart had more than 40 million consumers. It was completely unscientific, yet it was trusted by nearly three-quarters of the UK.

Forty years on, it's all very different. The BBC's chart is run by the Official UK Charts Company, which is itself jointly owned by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the trade organisation that represents record companies, and Bard, the association of record retailers, who license it to the BBC. But for all its self-attributed prestige, the Top 40 is in trouble - and something has to be done to re-engage pop fans.

Its audience on Radio 1 is below three million, neck and neck with the commercial-radio syndication, Hit 40 UK. The new kid on the block, Emap's Smash Hits Chart, is probably reaching just as many consumers via its radio and TV network. And big retail chains, such as HMV, Woolworths and Asda, run their own charts, too. To add to the confusion, Hit 40 UK uses the same Top 3 as the BBC chart, under a bizarre licensing deal promoted by the record companies to prevent rival No 1s.

Now, the BPI has launched an internal review of the BBC chart; the report will be discussed by council members this week. They are expected to consider a number of radical new options, including moving the chart "reveal" back to a weekday, putting singles on sale on Saturdays instead of Mondays, and even allowing TV viewers to vote for their favourites.

Oddly, the rot set in when the BBC chart became more accurate. Johnny Beerling, Chinnery's successor as Radio 1 controller, became obsessed with beating off the challenge of the new independent stations by owning an accurate "official chart". In came sophisticated technology designed to record the exact number of records passing over record-shop counters. Today, it is claimed to be the most accurate chart in the world, with 96 per cent of all CD-singles sales recorded. But, as the chart guru Paul Gambaccini puts it: "The charts have never been more accurate in what they measure but never more meaningless in what they represent."

When I was managing director of pop at Emap Performance, sitting on the Pepsi Chart committee (Hit 40 UK's predecessor), I was struck by commercial radio's lack of confidence. If a sales/airplay mix is right for any part of the chart, surely it's right for all of it. In fact, why not include other ways in which pop fans can indicate their enjoyment of a particular single? So I invented the Smash Hits Chart, whose results were compiled from sales, radio airplay and votes made to Emap's two music-request channels, Smash Hits TV and The Box. What we got was a much better reflection of the sort of music that pop fans were consuming without necessarily buying.

The BBC "official" chart seeks to rise above such fripperies and become a matter of public record. And in doing so, it has become no more representative of public taste than this week's lottery numbers.

Many BBC music-producers would be only too happy to carry a chart that reflects all the ways today's multimedia fans consume music - including internet downloads. Furthermore, they argue that, for most people, the BBC chart is almost by definition the "official chart" - and that if the corporation did its own, it would become the industry standard. But standing in their way is the director of BBC radio and music, Jenny Abramsky. When I was head of BBC music entertainment in 1999, the BPI came to us with an ultimatum: accept a sponsor, which you'll have to name on all BBC chart broadcasts, or we'll take the Top 40 to ITV and commercial radio. I argued that we should tough it out and launch our own chart. Abramsky was having none of it. Waving a graph of the latest audience figures, she demanded: "Are you asking me to give away all these people to commercial radio?" So the BBC caved in, broadcast the sponsor's name ( persevered with a chart that reflects the marketing budgets of the big record companies but little else.

Meanwhile, back to today. Singles sales continue to slide. From a peak of nearly two million sales a week in the late 1970s, they're now down to fewer than 600,000. It's not uncommon for a record to make No 1 with 20,000 sales or fewer. More people than that watch West Bromwich Albion every week.

Trevor Dann is former head of production at Radio 1