We've all heard the expression "setting a cat amongst the pigeons" haven't we?
Well, this week there is a new twist on the old favourite as this week on the Official UK charts we had a chance to find out just what happens when you set a Drake...
....amongst the Ed Sheerans:
Things didn't quite go the way many had hoped or feared, though, but we'll come to that in due course. At the very start of the sales week, things seemed to be proceeding as planned. Ed Sheeran was still a big deal, naturally, but there was an exciting new single released from the very act he replaced at the top of the charts when we were all of us so very much younger.
The true Official UK Singles chart battle was once more between Ed Sheeran and himself, the incumbent hit Shape Of You starting to sag in terms of both sales and streams, theoretically leaving the way clear for what Sheeran himself in the week told us is his "next" single release - Galway Girl.
In the event, the Irish rap just didn't quite have the legs for now to overtake its predecessor. It means Shape Of You now further closes in on the longest running Number One hits in chart history with an eleventh straight week at the summit. That's now more than the 10 weeks clocked up by Umbrella by Rihanna in 2007; I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston in 1992; and Cara Mia by David Whitfield and Mantovani in 1954. He instead draws level with the record which for many decades was the all-time consecutive record holder, Rose Marie by Slim Whitman from 1955. No single in chart history has ever spent 12, 13 or 14 weeks at Number One, the next benchmark being the 15 weeks shared by two records - one of which was One Dance last year. Based on the level of competition Shape Of You is now experiencing the chances of the single stepping up to that level seem slim - but then again we were saying precisely the same thing about the Drake single when it reached 11 weeks a little under a year ago.
Sheeran continues his residency at the top of the charts thanks to what continue to be some quite astounding figures. At the end of last year, based on what was by then a year and a half of useful data, I put forward the theory that there was now a streaming "sweet spot". A figure of some 3 million streams a week at which point you could assume you were heading for the top of the charts and indeed a total to which a single should be aspiring if it stood any chance of doing so. The change in the methodology used by the charts at the start of this year had the potential to render that point irrelevant, but even assuming that the sweet spot jumped 50% in accordance, which still meant a total of 4.5m streams would be enough to guarantee a Number One.
It is just that Sheeran has stood all of these stats on their head. Ever since the release of Shape Of You, the single has achieved anywhere between 8 and 11 million streams each week. Far more than any other track available at the moment. The single has had an extended run at Number One because it is more popular than any other, well duh, but its popularity has been such that it has just been impossible for anyone else to compete.
It seems almost incidental to note that the continuing presence of Castle On The Hill at Number 3 means we have an all-Sheeran Top 3 for the third week in succession. Elsewhere, however, the Sheeran surge does indeed seem to be dying away, tracks from ÷ now accounting for "only" four of the Top 10, 6 of the Top 20, 11 of the Top 30 and 14 of the Top 40.
Quack Quack Oops
The eerie calm of a singles market swamped by Ed Sheeran singles shattered at the apparently random time of late Saturday when Canadian R&B superstar Drake chose that moment to drop his new.... well there's a debate in itself. The new collection More Life, coming less than a year after the release of his last album Views is, we are told, not an album but a "playlist". A 22 song (count 'em) collection of mostly brand new recordings, featuring a range of acts such as Kanye West and Giggs but with all of them led by the vocal talents of one Aubrey Drake Graham of Toronto.
Now if there is one thing we know for certain about Drake, it is that he is one of those elite acts who is huge on streaming services. The core artist for the post-purchase generation if you will. And so it came to pass that the Drake 22 entered into battle with the already established Sheeran 16. The merest glance at the daily Spotify charts during the week caused more than a few people online to suffer palpitations for it looked for all the world that things were about to double down on the barmy. For example, here's a snapshot of the way things looked on Wednesday:
With a few honourable exceptions, it seemed we were living in a duotone world. Chips or mash, fried or poached, a kick or a punch. Drake or Sheeran. Nobody else could get a look in.
Come the weekend and the publication the main singles chart and things aren't quite so bad. The crucial difference between this week and a fortnight ago is that the level of interest in Drake on the sales market is far more muted. Needless to say, he managed superlative numbers of streams for just about all of the brand new tracks on his - thingy -. However, a lack of large amounts of people willing to pay for the music, plus the fact that he could only benefit from just over five days of listens, meant that a second fully loaded chart invasion in the space of three weeks never quite came to pass.
That's not to say the singles chart doesn't look more than a little barmy, though, because it does. 11 Drake tracks land inside the Top 40, including two in the Top 10. The way is lead by Passionfruit which charts at Number 4 (Sales: 17, Streams: 3) to become what is technically his highest charting track since the Rihanna duet Too Good peaked at Number 3 last summer, albeit contemporaneously with the extended run of One Dance at the top of the charts. It is followed nearby by KMT at Number 9 (Sales: 30, Streams: 6) the two singles combining to give him ninth and tenth Top 10 hit singles respectively.
All 22 of the tracks from the collection land inside the Top 75 - 21 of them as new entries along with a rebound for previous single Fake Love which was the only track from the set previously made available - it reached Number 10 back in November. That's a new record for a living act, although still trailing the late Michael Jackson whose immediate posthumous week saw him command 27 of the Top 75 chart placings both as a solo artist and as a member of the Jackson 5.
Proof of the rather pronounced sales/streams disparity is contained in the respective chart tables, whilst Drake tracks account for 15 of the Top 40 streams, they register just 3 of the Top 40 sales. A stronger than usual sales market (aided not a little by some heavy discounting of current chart hits - the labels finally taking proactive steps to counter the Sheeran domination) also helped balance matters up a little. Whilst it is hard not to marvel and in some cases be a little frustrated by the way 24 of this week's Top 40 singles can be attributed to just two artists, this is also proof that what Ed Sheeran did a fortnight ago is something of a one-off, unique for now to him and the way his market profile sits. I'll stick my neck out and say that by and large chart invasions of complete sets of tracks from other artists are destined to be one-week wonders. Any invasion going forward is going to be limited in scope. At least that is the hope.
At the very least Drake has helped to highlight the futility of arguments over "restricting the charts to singles only and not album tracks" given that all it takes is for an act to unleash mutliple new recordings and argue that this isn't an "album" (although the limited digital sales of More Life and its calculated streams help it reach Number 2 on the album chart anyway) but just a "collection of single tracks". Oh yes, and you'll note that despite the album having 22 tracks, chart rules state that only streams of the most popular 12 count for album sales. Thus rendering complaints of "double counting" also irrelevant - as any streams of the least popular 10 truly did only count for the singles chart.
Grace, It's Cool
A small degree of sympathy should go to Clean Bandit who, until the shock Drake release, were merrily set to be the most interesting chart story of the week. Mind you they still are. The first release from the British group since Christmas Number One Rockabye was always set to be a big deal and their new single Symphony wastes little time in becoming a huge smash hit, flying straight to Number 6 (Sales: 3, Streams: 31) to become Clean Bandit's seventh Top 10 hit single. Guest singer of choice this time around is no less a figure than Zara Larsson who in turn makes the Top 10 for the fifth time in her career. Although primarily the latest release from the forthcoming second Clean Bandit album, Symphony also makes an appearance on Larsson's own debut collection So Good which after some delay was finally released this week and which hits Number 7 on the album chart.
Like most Clean Bandit tracks, this new single needs time to grow on you and whilst managing the neat trick of sounding lavish yet elegantly minimalistic in its production still succumbs to the same issues as most of their self-produced works - a reliance on Jack Patterson's favourite plinky-plonk noises. Rockabye worked so well because it had the input of a number of different producers, most notably pop genius Steve Mac (who instead just has a writing credit this time around). That took their sound forward. Symphony sees them take a step to the side, not that any of their dedicated fans seem to care.
Return To Me
As the pressure from the Sheeran tap is finally relaxed, the rest of the market has started to trickle back into place - unimpeded by and large by the Drake influx too. That means an arrival in the Top 10 for Martin Jensen's Solo Dance which moves 12-8 (Sales: 6, Streams: 33). There is also a welcome arrival for previous Clean Bandit collaborator Anne-Marie whose Ciao Adios skips 20-10 (Sales: 5, Streams: 40). Hopes of a Top 10 return for Katy Perry and Chained To The Rhythm are dashed as that single slides 11-13. Better news though for Stay by Zedd and Alessia Cara which surges 23-12 (Sales: 7, Streams: 34) and which seems to have more than enough momentum behind it to mount a proper chart challenge next week. On the face of it some of these movements appear bizarre, with many of the tracks actually sliding down the streaming table - all thanks to the flood of Drake tracks which have skewed things somewhat.
We Must Stop Meeting Like This
So the story of the album chart you kind of know already, Ed Sheeran immovable at the top, Drake slotting in at Number 2. More surprising though is the album at Number 3. 100 is a brand new album from the orignal "forces sweetheart" Dame Vera Lynn, recorded to mark her 100th birthday. Already the holder of the record as the oldest woman ever to have a Number One album (at the age of 92 back in 2009) she this week becomes the first centenarian to have her very own Top 10 record. Which when you think about it is more remarkable than anything Ed or Drake may have achived between them this week. She was very much a late starter when it came to chart albums as well, not registering her first long player on the listings until 1981 when 20 Family Favourites reached Number 25. It should be noted that once more none of the tracks on 100 are actually new performances by the Dame, just re-orchestrated versions of older recordings repurposed as duets. Music Week notes that the oldest female performer of an entirely new album remains Petula Clark who was 83 when her album From Now On crept into the charts last year.