It has been ten years since David Bowie last made a record. Ten years which has seen music change from something we touch and own, to something which exists solely as files on a disc, to be piped to wherever we choose, and a decade in which the industry which he has been a part of for so long has changed irrevocably and forever.
As one of the first acts to actively explore the possibility of embracing the new digital age with his music it seemed somewhat appropriate that his new single Where Are We Now was not only greeted with widespread acclaim when it was unveiled last week but also lodged itself firmly at the top of most daily sales charts, becoming at a stroke one of the most popular singles of the moment. Joy amongst fans at this sight turned however to bemusement when the midweek sales flashes appeared 24 hours later. Bowie's single was not amongst them.
The sticking point was his use of a smart promotional wheeze to not only stimulate sales of this new single but also to whet the appetite properly for its parent album The Next Day, due for full release on March 12th. In what is commonly known as an 'instant gratification' giveaway, keen purchasers could pledge their cash for the full work and in the meantime be charged just the cost of the immediately downloadable single, the balance to be paid next month when the remainder of the tracks were released. Plenty of acts had pulled this stunt before, and indeed the rules governing the singles and album charts make explicit provision for it.
Rule 7.0 of the album chart rules notes the following:
"One digital track is permitted as instant gratification for an album pre order. A retailer offering this pre order incentive must report the instant gratification track to OCC as a promotional download."
Herein lay the problem. Downloads of the single obtained through an album purchase are classed as "promotional downloads" and are not entitled to qualify for the singles chart. Direct purchases of the single were fine, except that a long-standing technical limitation meant that it was impossible to separate out the two types of sale from the data submitted by Apple from the iTunes store. All sales of the track, therefore, had to be discounted, disqualifying Bowie from the charts and preventing him from scoring what would surely have been his biggest hit in decades.
As I mentioned, over the last five and a half years a number of tracks have fallen foul of this rule. Viva La Vida and Paradise by Coldplay were both offered as sweeteners for pre-release purchasers of their respective albums and only arrived on the charts when the promotion had ended. The final Oasis hit Falling Down was a hit in March 2009 but had actually first been available for download six months earlier as part of an instant gratification promotion. More recently in 2012, Madonna's single Gimmie All Your Luvin was 'released' on a Friday but did not see its sales count towards the chart until the Tuesday of the following week due to the 'instant grat' rules.
Such was the comment provoked by the Bowie single's absence from midweek reports that the Official Chart Company was prompted into the unusual position of commenting on a single they weren't listing, noting on their website that:
"Owing to chart rules which are agreed in partnership with UK record companies and retailers, data relating to the David Bowie single Where Are We Now? cannot currently be counted towards the official singles charts, as the release is linked to an album pre-order promotion and it is not possible to distinguish album sales from track sales from the retail data received. Should it become possible in the future for regular track sales to be distinguished from album pre-order incentive purchases, then these sales can be counted towards the chart."
That final sentence contained the one note of hope and a major clue that work was going on behind the scenes. Prior to this week, the inability to discriminate between the two types of sales had been a minor irritation, something it would be nice to fix at some stage but which for the moment everyone was happy to work with - including the artists and labels who were comfortable to play the instant gratification game knowing full well it would temporarily debar them from the singles chart. This time however things were different. The Bowie single was the first major new work of 2013, a superstar release in a sales period normally devoid of major star power. To have it make such a cultural impact, to be one of the most talked-about musical moments of the week and to be visibly and prominently one of the most purchased (by whatever means) track of the moment and for it not to register on the Official Singles Chart - held up by the industry as the definitive and most accurate list of what was selling where - well, to say the least, it would cause awkward questions to be asked from a PR point of view.
Hence it is my understanding that even as late as Friday afternoon high-level talks were underway to resolve the problem. Fixing the bug, separating out the sales and restoring a little more integrity to the sales countdown was suddenly at the top of the agenda. Fruits of those labours were there for all to see on Sunday evening when the brand new singles chart was unveiled. Sitting proudly at Number 6 (a position reached, remember, by explicit sales of the single alone and with the album pre-orders ignored) was David Bowie with Where Are We Now, his first Top 10 single since Jump They Say nearly 20 years previously and his highest-charting single since the theme to Absolute Beginners occupied the runners-up slot way back in 1986.
Inevitable questions will be asked as to whether counting ALL sales of the single would have given him a Number One hit. According to Music Week it would not, and given that Where Are We Now spent just a day near the top of the iTunes tables before sinking gradually, we should perhaps be impressed that it even managed to chart as high as Number 6.
The list of David Bowie's achievements is as vast and varied as his near 50-year career in music, yet who would have guessed that one of the biggest of his senior years would be to provide the motivation for the resolution of a singles chart technicality.