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Pasty Our Best
Last weekend my social media feeds were full of people convinced the result of the 2018 Strictly Come Dancing final was going to result in an upset. The presence of a person in the competition with a colossal social media following (Joe Sugg) would surely mean they commanded a vast army of support, enough to obliterate anyone else in the voting irrespective of the quality of their performance. In the event, this turned out to be untrue. Stacey Dooley won instead.
"Stars" of YouTube and Instagram are considered by some marketers to be valuable "influencers", able to command large fees for featuring products and services on their channels and exposing them to audiences which are becoming ever harder to reach through traditional advertising platforms. Yet this isn't a seam the music industry has properly mined to date. The problem is that music isn't all that easy to demonstrate. You can't wear it, or teach people how to apply it or go on a travel excursion to it. The only true service YouTube creators have provided to the industry is being a proven way of unearthing otherwise undiscovered new talent.
But this week a YouTube performer did try to leverage their following to attack the pop charts. Nottinghamshire vlogger Mark Hoyle has over the past couple of years built up a following of close to half a million subscribers with his regular accounts of his life as a put-upon dad. His latest wheeze was to record a charity song for Christmas and also as a kind of present to his long-suffering wife. All but ignored in the pre-Christmas chatter about the various charity releases which wanted a tilt at the Christmas chart, LadBaby quietly went about creating his own buzz, even making a point of filming himself visiting bookmakers and discovering just how few actually had odds available on him - at least at first.
Yet they quickly caught on that they needed to. His single is a reworking of a 1980s soft-rock classic. We Built This City was originally a Top 20 hit for Starship at the end of 1985. Hoyle has rewritten the lyrics to turn the song into a tribute to sausage rolls (work with me here) and released the song with all proceeds going to the Trussell Trust.
Where the likes of the Firetones and Flakefleet Primary fell short (the former not on the Top 100, the latter Number 64), LadBaby hit the ground running, and by the time of the first midweek updates was a surprise Number 2 contender. Even so, nobody really believed he stood any chance of still being in contention by the end of the week. After all, this was a one-off self-released single which was almost entirely reliant on paid sales. Faced with the twin assault of proper pop records with sales AND streams to their name, he was surely going to wither and die.
No Room At The Premier Inn
Yet for this engaging guy to come from nowhere to gate-crash the Top 3 in Christmas week was too good a story to resist. And suddenly LadBaby was all over the media, calling renewed attention to his charity single. All of which translated into extra sales. What all we experts overlooked is that if there is an opportunity to do so, people like the idea of buying a song to help a charity, even if they have no plans to listen to it. And so all the usual market models were stood on their head.
After building up a head of steam during literally the last two days of the survey, We Built This City by Ladbaby becomes Christmas Number One for 2018. It does so with a sales:streams split that we haven't seen since the last charity Number One, the Artists For Grenfell single in the summer of 2017. The song ends up topping the charts with a suitably colossal chart sale of 75,000 copies, the vast majority of these (over 70,000 to be precise) "old fashioned" paid-for downloads. Faced with that kind of onslaught, there was no way one of the existing chart hits was ever going to compete. One amusing footnote relates to the writing credits on the original song. Six weeks ago people were abuzz with the idea that Elton John's Your Song might be in the charts for Christmas following its appearance on the annual John Lewis Christmas TV commercial. In the event, it wasn't, but Elton's songwriting partner Bernie Taupin gets to be Christmas Number One anyway thanks to his role in writing the Starship hit. Even if Hoyle's dismantling of the song means that only five words of the original are left.
After two straight years of "proper" pop hits topping the charts for Christmas, the British public have sent a charity record there once again. For the fourth time this decade in fact, following the Military Wives Choir in 2011, The Justice Collective in 2012 and the Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir in 2015. Yet there's something fresher, brighter about this one in particular. The record and campaign itself aren't a heavy-handed means to make a statement or made to fetishise a cause. It's a fun novelty hit which just happens to be handing all its proceeds over to a charity. And it almost seems unnecessary to add that We Built This City joins a proud parade of not to be taken seriously novelty records making Number One for Christmas, LadBaby now a contemporary of Benny Hill, Mr Blobby, Bob The Builder, The St Winifred's School Choir and I guess even Renee and Renato. What is different though is that past charity hits have been made specifically for a particular cause. LadBaby has simply made this record under his own steam, and the cynic in me can't help but note that the extra eyeballs he will now enjoy for his video creations will invariably make him just as much money as he'll hand over to his chosen charity in the wake of this hit single.
Sweet But Second
So, the other question I guess is just who was the nearest rival who ended up being obliterated? To much surprise, it wasn't Ariana Grande's thank u, next. Instead, the single which for most of the week seemed to be marching smartly to an unexpected Number One triumph of its own was Sweet But Psycho by Ava Max. She enjoyed what under any ordinary circumstances would be seen as a colossal sale - 56,866 copies is a total bettered by just 8 other Number 2 hit singles in 2018 and would have seen her reach Number One on 23 of the 50 other charts published this year. But in the end, her Max just wasn't enough and the bright pop record instead spends a third week at Number 2. It is worth noting that every Christmas Number One so far this decade has come from a British act, Ava unable to snap that particular streak.
Ariana Grande instead sees her six-week run at Number One come to crashing halt as thank u, next slides to Number 3. It is entirely possible she undermined her own chances, this week releasing another random new single imagine to prove that she does indeed appear to be set to release a second collection of new songs just a few months after her last. But this did mean that loyalties and attentions were divided. imagine doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, even if it is still the second highest new entry of the week at Number 7. But let's face it, if you are going to stream an Ariana song you might, just might, decide you prefer to listen to a brand new one rather than the one you've being blasting out non-stop since the start of November. With one move she made her current hit look old and tired. And ultimately that's what has cost it the chance to top the charts for Christmas.
Kiss The Bearded Lady
Because it is Christmas, and in the absence of any other superstar power, the Number One album on the Official UK Albums chart is *drumroll* the soundtrack of The Greatest Showman. The collection of songs from a Hollywood musical, which lest we forget, first hit cinema screens a year ago next week, ends the year in pretty much the way it began. At the very top of the charts, and for the second week running with the highest weekly sale it has managed to date, shifting a full 69,000 units. Of the 51 charts published so far in 2018, The Greatest Showman has now been at Number One for 23 of them. Or if you like, for 45% of the entire year to date. The last album to enjoy as many as 23 weeks at the top of the charts was 21 by Adele, but its chart runs were spread over two different calendar years. No, this is a chart domination not seen since Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles spent a total of 26 weeks at Number One in 1967 - exactly 50% of the total.
What is most fascinating is the fact that just like its counterpart at the top of the singles chart, The Greatest Showman is Number One overwhelmingly thanks to paid-for sales, CDs, vinyl special editions and downloads accounting for 85% of its total. The reason that's notable? Back in the spring, the album was just as notable for the way it was lodged at the top with a more or less even split of sales, downloads and streams.
Boughs Of Holly
Mention has to be made here of the parade of Christmas singles, all hamstrung by being stuck on ACR but which inevitably have swamped almost everything else on the Christmas chart. A full rant on the problem with this can wait until next week, which is traditionally both the peak and final week for all these hits. For now, it is enough to note that there are just two with the legs to penetrate the Top 10 - Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You is champion once more for Christmas week, but stranded at Number 4 whilst Wham's Last Christmas ends up at Number 7. Despite some bet-hedging neither were ever in contention to reach the top of the charts at the expense of proper, current, contemporary hits. Which was always the intent behind the rule change. Lower down the singles chart there are, needless to say, shedloads. 15 of this week's Top 40 singles are festive hits. Only two - One More Sleep by Leona Lewis (19) and Santa Tell Me by Ariana Grande (23) date from this decade, let alone the 21st century.
Off Down The Pub
So that's how it all stands for Christmas 2018. Next week is the final chart of the year, one which in days gone by would be a "nothing much happens" kind of week. Yet this time around what transpires should be absorbing. Streaming of the festive songs is set to reach a crescendo in the next few days, before vanishing into nothing almost immediately afterwards. All I Want For Christmas Is You and it's festive friends have five days of being streamed non-stop in every house across the country. ACR be damned, are they going to swamp everything else regardless?
See you back here in seven days time. For now, to supporters, donors, voters (hint hint), regular and casual readers alike, have a very enjoyable and musical Christmas...