It was possibly the worst kept secret in music. Months of speculation, rumours and leaks finally culminated last night in the announcement that the music charts as we know them are about to change forever:
You will note the emphasis there on "supported by the industry" to hammer home the point that this is a move everyone is on board with, for the change will be met with furrowed brows from some quarters. There is little argument that this represents a major and historic shift in the way the popularity of music is measured, for the first time breaking the link between chart positions and actual monetary transactions.
Nonetheless this is a shift which absolutely had to happen. Having been caught on the hop a decade ago by the rise of digital sales and the botched way in which they were integrated with the measurement of physical product, the music industry cannot afford to make the same mistake twice. All indications are that the market for digital downloads (at least for catalogue product if not necessarily new releases) has peaked and the true growth market is in music that is delivered directly to the home from an online library. Music is no longer something you have to physically own, merely something to consume and to remain relevant the music charts have to reflect that.
The announcement does answer some of the burning questions that fans of the charts have had ever since the move was mooted earlier this year. The ratio of streams to sales will be 1:100, it will take 100 streams of a track to be the equivalent of one actual sale when it comes to calculating the rankings (performers will note with a grumble that they receive much less than 1/100th of the royalties but that is an altogether different argument). Note that for now this will actually make for minimal impact on the singles chart as it stands. The most-streamed tracks ever to this date have only managed at most 1.5 million in a single week. On a 1:100 ratio this equates to just 15,000 "sales" - less than half of what a Top 10 record might be expected to sell.
As to what constitutes a "stream" it will apparently be a listen of at least 30 seconds which to my mind is slightly short and open to abuse. Only registering a hit when 80% of a track has been heard seems perhaps slightly more logical. However, later interviews by staff of the Official Charts Company have answered that particular question. Streams will be limited to ten of any one track per person (or I guess IP address) per day. So it should be impossible for one person to register any more than 70 'hits' on a track in a single chart week, not even the equivalent of one sale. Given that the rules still allow for up to three digital copies per store to be bought by the same person, a situation which everyone is comfortable with, it is hopefully clear that it will be harder to manipulate the charts through streaming than it is through mass purchases. We'll see how robust that is come the Christmas chart(!)
What makes some people uncomfortable though is the fact that the singles chart may now reflect a fascination with a song rather than its actual popular appeal. The fact is that if I buy a piece of music I am (unless a member of an enthusiastic Facebook group) doing so because I like it and wish to own a copy to keep and play. I will however stream and listen to a far wider set of product simply to sample it and decide if I like it or not. Yet all I have to do is listen to more than 30 seconds to any one track and I'll be pushing it up the charts, even if I decide its musical or production qualities are lacking and I have no desire ever to hear it again. We are all used to songs becoming a hit because they are "so bad it is good", but this does raise the spectre of singles climbing the charts thanks to people clamouring to find out how terrible they are. Rebecca Black's Friday was shared by millions a couple of years ago thanks to its status as the worst pop record ever, but precious few actually bought it and it failed to make the Top 40. In this bold new streaming world that would almost certainly change.
But I repeat, this has to happen. One friend of mine, an enthusiastic technologist and lover of gadgets expressed his genuine bemusement recently that anyone in this day and age would actually buy music given that he has access to a vast library of recordings at the click of a button and one that he can play anywhere in his house. Whilst I may take the opposite view, proud of my physical music collection that I've curated over a lifetime and which represents the accumulated memories of my feelings and tastes over 25 years, I'm very much part of a dying generation and an ever-growing minority. It is right that the singles chart reflects the patterns and habits of everyone, not just old farts like me.
I'm reminded of the words I wrote in April 2005 on the occasion of downloaded sales being folded into the singles chart for the first time, a text I recycled close to two years later when the full-blown digital era was ushered in at the start of 2007:
This week genuinely marks the end of an era. The big day has been put off once already but despite some continued grumbles from independent labels next week will see one of the biggest changes in the singles chart for a generation as online downloads will be factored in to the main chart listing for the first time ever. Sure, different formats have come and gone in the past - we have gone from tracking the sales of 78rpm shellac records through 45rpm 7-inch singles, the 12-inch extended mix, the cassingle and the varied forms of the CD single - but all of those were a simple widening of the scope of the survey. Never before has a new means of music distribution been invented, popularised, belatedly regulated and compiled into its own rundown prior to finally being acknowledged by the "official" singles chart.
Most of the most significant changes in the 50 year history of the singles chart have been technical, from the launch of the "official" chart in the 1960s, the creation of the Top 75 in 1978, Gallup's introduction of electronic barcode scanning to replace manual diaries in 1983 through to Millward Brown plugging themselves into the EPOS terminals of the major retailers in 1994 and thus expanding the charts from a selective survey into a near 100% mirror of record sales in the UK. This time a chunk of the market that has grown up invisible to the OCC's flagship listing is about to arrive en masse - a change that could well be as significant as Billboard magazine in the US allowing airplay-only singles onto the Hot 100 in 1998.
It could well be I'll be repeating them in a fortnight. Online streams will count towards the singles chart as of midnight Sunday June 29th and the historic new countdown will be unveiled on Sunday, July 6th.