Is the top 40 dying? Has the decision, two years ago, to allow downloads to chart without an accompanying physical release broken the back of a British institution? Well, it depends who you ask. Recently, the passionate and perceptive pop blog Freaky Trigger posted a graph demonstrating that the number of new entries is in freefall. Last year, only 202 songs entered the top 40, the lowest number since 1988. At the same time, a single's average chart run passed 10 weeks for the first time ever. The result, argued Freaky Trigger in a piece headlined The Strange Death of the UK Charts, is less drama and less fun.
If you agree that the vitality of the charts depends on the number of singles heading in and out of the top 40 every week, then the future indeed looks bleak. Prior to downloads, record companies could control supply and thus manipulate demand: a single's life began on its release date and ended when it was either deleted to make way for the follow-up, or removed from the shelves to allow new stock in. But, by permitting limitless supply, downloads have given rise to a new phenomenon: the stubbornly tenacious chart hog.
Take Beyoncé's new release, Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It), which isn't officially out until 9 February but has already been in the top 40 for seven weeks. Or Kings of Leon's last two, Sex On Fire and Use Somebody, which have been pinballing around the top 75 since September. Or Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars, which clocked up a phenomenal 91 weeks in the top 75. Contrary to Chris Anderson's influential book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, pop is actually selling more of less.
Should a large number of new entries necessarily be considered healthy, anyway? Between 1992 and 2005, the charts experienced a freak period, which stockmarket analysts would term "irrational exuberance". In 1987, there were 159 new entries; 10 years later, there were 729, a record-breaking figure that transformed the whole dynamic of the charts. From the charts' birth in 1952 up to 1994, only 38 singles went straight in at No 1, an average of just less than one a year. Yet in 2000 alone, there were 41 - most of which then promptly vanished. So the "climber", the song that enters low and worms its way into the nation's affections, was all but dead.
The main reason for this bubble was marketing. In the early 1990s, Radio 1 began playing singles way in advance of their release, stoking demand to unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, labels offered retailers a first-week discount of up to 50% (customers might pay £1.99 for the single, rather than £3.99). Some singles were released on two CDs, each with different bonus tracks or remixes, and also on vinyl. Music fans therefore had a clear financial incentive to buy singles early, often on more than one format. But when the discount was lifted demand tailed off and retailers, faced with more releases vying for the same limited display space, quickly pulled singles that were more than three weeks old off the shelves. A month after its release, the average single was out of sight and out of mind.
For avid chart-watchers, the bubble was exciting, especially as it coincided with a boom in such single-friendly genres as dance, hip-hop and R&B. But for the average pop fan, it devalued the top 40. You no longer needed to know what was No 1, because, with a few exceptions, it would soon be forgotten. Who now remembers such 2000 chart-toppers as Billie Piper's Day & Night or A1's Same Old Brand New You? By contrast, recent No 1s such as Estelle's American Boy, the Ting Tings' That's Not My Name or Katy Perry's I Kissed a Girl have, by virtue of the fact that they've remained in the charts for so long, had the time to gain real cultural traction.
So the charts we have now are closer to those of the 1970s and 80s, when hits were genuinely, enduringly, unifyingly popular, rather than transient blips. Downloads not only pushed total single sales to an all-time high in 2008, but have enabled a return to pop songs that stay around long enough to define their times, albeit at the cost of the busy variety of the past two decades.
A truly populist, democratic chart would be fertile ground for the rumoured return of Top of the Pops, which in turn could make the top 40 a teatime talking point once more. Far from killing the charts, downloads have put the popular back into pop.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017