Next time any ill-informed friends posit that there is very little value in following the singles chart given that "nobody ever buys singles anymore", try throwing a few salient facts their way.
The singles market in the UK is in fact in its healthiest state for many a long year. 2008 will undoubtedly go down as the year that the transition from CD to download was all but completed, the declining numbers of physical CD singles being reduced to a niche collectors market, just like the old-fashioned 7-inch single did ten years ago and which now only exists in a novelty nostalgic format. Sure, the occasional physical release will do some numbers, particularly one-off charity releases or TV promoted singles which are worth the retailers racking, but by and large, we are now a totally digital society.
The growing number of people with the means and the motivation to download digital tracks means that the market for them is ever expanding, more so now that by and large the major labels have grown up regarding piracy fears and stores such as 7Digital and Amazon are now selling tracks unencumbered by DRM.
It all adds up to some spectacular numbers. Take the sales two weeks ago that went to make up the Christmas chart. Yes, they were boosted by the Alexandra Burke single, but that is still not to take away from what Music Week last week reported as the industry's first ever 3 million unit week. That's a grand total of over 3 million singles being sold over the course of the seven-day survey period, figures that were unheard of a few short years ago and which would have been more or less impossible to reach in the old physical days when there simply weren't enough copies of records in the market to get near that kind of total. Note that this was for the week before last. With the sales for the new year chart making up not only the last few days of the pre-Christmas rush, but also Christmas Day itself (when online tokens are cashed and people rush to stock up their newly gifted mp3 players) which traditionally sees the online stores do near record levels of business, the chances are that this record-breaking total could well be smashed once the final tally is in.
"Ah," the naysayers will point out, "you still only have to sell about 40-50,000 copies of a track to make Number One". Granted that is true, the days of the biggest selling single of the week routinely shifting six-figure sums as they did at the end of the last decade seem a long way off. What you have to bear in mind, of course, is that those figures date from an era when sales were front-loaded and the first week sales of a track were the most important and effectively their make or break point. Number One singles in 2000 did indeed sell upwards of 80,000 copies each, but back then there was practically a new chart-topper every week as discs simply could not sustain their initial impact.
Instead, take a look at overall sales for tracks in 2008. Every single one of the 32 biggest selling hits of the year sold over 250,000 copies. That's not a misprint. 32 different tracks all sold over a quarter of a million copies each. Granted that is still some way short of the halcyon days of 1999 when 72 different singles edged past the quarter of a million mark, but compared to 2004 when just 9 different records reached that level it is clear we are moving in a very positive direction indeed.
All of this is noticeably to the detriment of the albums market which, the occasional big seller aside, continues to flounder - Christmas week sales this year were over a million down on those 12 months ago. Part of this is down to what the Americans have termed "album unbundling", the cherry-picking of favourite tracks by online purchasers rather than buying the hits and a handful of fillers as a combined package. You can also point to the increasing struggles of the high street. Woolworths may have gone out of business as they no longer made a profit, but their music section still commanded a sizeable share of the album market. If Zavvi survives the month it is likely to be in a radically different form and even my local HMV (admittedly a small boutique outlet) has reduced its music section to a single chart wall and a rack of clearance bargains in favour of more profitable DVD and game stock. Well connected friends of mine in the industry are confidently predicting that it is the CD album that is next to vanish, with artists instead just adding in stages to the collections of their tracks available and maybe compiling the best of the year into a special package that will be released for Christmas. There are interesting times ahead.
Enough pontificating, let us at least pay lip service to the charts released this week which, as mentioned cover Christmas week and the all-important gift tokens rush. At the top, there is no change, with Alexandra Burke selling a further 310,000 copies of Hallelujah to retain her chart crown. It is enough to ensure that she can claim the biggest selling single of the year, even with two days to go as I write this. Oddly enough the second biggest seller is Hero by the X Factor finalists, of which she is one. Burke is thus in the somewhat unique position (in modern times at least) of singing on both the first and second biggest sellers of the year. The last act to even come close to this were Robson and Jerome who ended 1995 with the first and third biggest sellers.
Elsewhere, the battle of the competing 'Hallelujah' versions appears to have been a one-week wonder as Jeff Buckley tumbles to Number 7 and Leonard Cohen exits the Top 75 altogether. Indeed they aren't the only surprise hits from last week to take a tumble, the unexpected return of Beyonce's Listen lasting but a short while as the old hit crashes to Number 30. She can at least console herself with the continuing presence of If I Were A Boy (up to Number 3) and Single Ladies (which edges up 2 places to Number 18). Finally, the impact of gift token sales on older product is more keenly felt at the bottom end rather than in the Top 40 itself, but honourable mention must be made of the 51-22 leap made by I Kissed A Girl and the 69-34 jump of The Man Who Can't Be Moved.
So that was 2008. Heck, according to the date of the chart it is 2009 already. I'm late for my party, have a good week.