1) The pop charts? They don't matter any more, do they?
Ever since I first began writing about the UK charts back in the early 90s, I've had people telling me that they "really don't matter any more" and "nobody pays attention to them anyway".
Do they matter to the individual? Well, if you are a fan of pop music in general or just particular chart artists and have an active interest in what the biggest songs of the moment are. Or seeing your idol reach the very top of the business and justify your faith in them, then I'd say they matter a great deal. If you moved on from such things some time ago and your own musical tastes have diverged from those of the younger generation (the "wasn't like this in my day, this is just noise" stage of growing up) then no, they don't matter at all and you can disregard them.
For the music industry, they still matter a great deal, a painstakingly accurately compiled weekly snapshot of the market. They allow them to discern trends, measure the success of their acts relative to those of rival companies, inform promotional strategies, and above all act as a showcase for the newest hits and emerging artists. Want your song to feature extensively on the radio, or be included on the latest Now That's What I Call Music compilation? Then get it into and, most crucially of all, up the charts.
From my point of view, each weekly snapshot writes a new page in the history of popular music, one that can be browsed at leisure and used to generate memories and measure your life by its constantly changing soundtrack. What I write each week not only matters in terms of explaining what people are enjoying this week, but it also serves as a valuable snapshot of public tastes, one we can look back on in five, ten or fifteen years' time when we seek to remind ourselves of what life was like back then.
So yes, they matter.
2) How is the singles chart compiled?
Essentially just like it always has been, by counting the consumption of individual tracks over the course of a seven-day period (Friday-Thursday) and ranking them in order. Only these days that consumption can take one of two different forms.
Sales: how many times people buy a copy, these days an action generally confined to a digital download from a store such as iTunes or Amazon, However CD singles, when available, still count. A 'sale' remains the base unit of measurement for chart compilation.
Online Streams: plays from an audio streaming service such as Spotify, Deezer or Apple Music and as of July 2018 video plays from a service such as YouTube. These are treated differently to purchases. Streams are counted in a ratio of 100:1 for premium accounts (eg paid Spotify subscriptions or YouTube music) and 600:1 for ad-funded streams (eg Spotify's free tier, or standard YouTube accounts).
Each track's weekly total is referred to in terms of "chart sales" when both purchases and converted qualifying streams are added together.
3) What is ACR?
Introduced in 2017, this is a means of ushering older hits out of the way to make room for newer singles, owing to the British public's habit of continuing to love their favourite songs long after they would normally be expected to have vanished from the charts. Once a track is ten weeks old, if its weekly chart sale has declined by three weeks in a row, it is moved onto the Accelerated Chart Ratio where its digital streams now count for half of what they did before. A track on ACR thus has streams counted in a ratio of 200:1 (premium) and a massive 1200:1 (free). Even if I don't call attention to this in the commentary, it is normally quite obvious when this has happened, a track will make a sharp plunge downward out of nowhere from one week to the next.
It is possible for a track to un-relegate itself. If it enjoys a sales boost of more than 25% of the weekly market variance then as of the next week it is restored to the Standard Chart Ratio. And as of July 2018, it only applies to tracks released within the last three years, although the Official Charts Company can (and do) override this at their discretion or if requested to by a label. The complete set of eligibility rules can be downloaded here.
4) This is too confusing, can't they just track sales like they did when the charts mattered (see above)?
Actually "they" still do. Amongst the many lists published by the Official Charts Company is the old-fashioned sales-only chart. You can see this week's table here. Be aware though, that the market for digital downloads is now in terminal decline and is almost entirely reliant on the continuing existence of Apple's iTunes store and Amazon's mp3 download service. It has been abandoned by all but the most die-hard of music fans, most of them from an older generation who are clinging to old habits of purchasing tracks. The newest generation of pop music fans simply don't do this and so a pure sales table is no longer fully representative of the popularity of individual songs. Even the Number One track of the week is selling in quantities numbering in the low thousands. Sometimes far less.
5) Top 10? Top 40? Top 75? Top 100? What matters most?
The Top 10 is self-explanatory, the easiest shorthand for the point at which a hit track becomes a smash. We measure the overall success of acts by how many Top 10 singles they land, and the high-level longevity of one by how many weeks it can spend there.
The Top 40 is the traditional benchmark for visible hits. It is the portion of the chart broadcast by Radio One on their Friday evening chart show since the late 1970s and was for years the yardstick for a single being eligible to feature on Top Of The Pops. The weekly Chart Watch articles generally only pay attention to tracks when they have penetrated the traditional Top 40, singles outside only notable either for their potential to climb further in future weeks or due to the fact they have missed out completely.
The Top 75 was between 1978 and 2005 the point at which the UK singles chart was "official". It is the fullest extent of the listing published by Music Week which remains the printed journal of record and which will theoretically remain the ultimate point of reference should the Official Chart Company's own archive ever vanish from the internet. For this reason, the old Guinness British Hit Singles books also used Top 75 hits as their own core benchmark. To this day, Music Week's own chart analyses stick doggedly to the principle that it is only Top 75 positions which count. For ease of comparing historical records, you'll note that the artist pages on the OCC website also take time to report the tally of Top 75 hits each one has achieved.
The Top 100 is, for all that, the full official listing although publication of it remains the exclusive property of Official Charts and their website is the only place it can be viewed in full. The "weeks on chart" tally of each hit track concerns itself with weeks spent on the Top 100 and it is this total which is taken into account when judging when a track can be moved to ACR. Where the data is available, the OCC publish full Top 100 charts in their archive from 1983 onwards, although even they acknowledge there is a bit of retconning taking place. Until April 2005, singles below Number 75 were subject to rules which would remove older hits in favour of newer and upcoming releases and these positions were never seen as "official" in any sense. Between April 1991 and February 1994 the only charts available are Top 75 listings as the full countdown had no published outlet following the closure of Record Mirror.
6) How many copies do you have to "sell" to reach Number One?
As many copies as the Number 2 single, plus one.
Seriously, it's an impossible question to answer with any authority, as the total is entirely dependent on the size and health of the market at any one moment. On the stats page, reached from the menu above, I try to maintain a weekly graph of Number One sales for the current year. That should give you some idea of the present market trends. And indeed the wide variances that can occur from week to week.
7) You're just a mouthpiece for the music industry/charts compilers, aren't you?
I hope not. As a commentator, I'm as independent as they come, although when reviewing something as subjective as musical art true impartiality is impossible to achieve. If I'm speaking from a viewpoint coloured by my own tastes, I'll try to make that as transparent as possible. My day job and indeed most of my career has been in broadcast radio, both on air and behind the scenes. Despite spending my adult life talking about their product, I've never worked in the music industry or close to it any capacity. Heck, nobody's ever let me program the music for any radio station I've worked at. Depending on your point of view this either allows me a refreshingly distant perspective or is indicative of a fatal lack of full professional insight.
8) Who is this Drake person anyway?
A Canadian songwriter and musician, real name Aubrey Graham. An apparent workaholic, he outputs a prodigious amount of music every year and from time to time releases tracks which are so absurdly popular they enjoy literally millions of Spotify plays and will invariably clog up the top end of the charts for weeks on end. Your ability to appreciate his style of mournfully half-singing and half-rapping songs appears at present to mark the dividing line between younger and older generations. Although his time seems now to have largely passed and his releases have only transient market appeal.
9) What's the greatest record of the century so far?
Lola's Theme by The Shapeshifters. A single so good that even the piece written the week it topped the charts spends its entire time calling back to how joyful it makes you.