I Wanna Move With Ya
It has been over 65 years, and the UK charts have always remained in step with changing formats. Whether it is the transition from 78rpm to 45rpm singles, or new forms such as the 12" single, cassette single and CDs, where the market evolved so too the charts followed. That change also extended into the digital era, with the addition of electronic downloads to the survey in 2005. Then ten years later came the streaming revolution, and it was only right that the charts took this into account as well when measuring the popularity of music, even if that represented a significant paradigm shift as we began to measure repeated consumption rather than discovery and purchase.
However since 2014 and the start of what I always refer to as the "streaming era" there have been voices asking an awkward question: what about YouTube? The survey includes every audio streaming platform, so why not the video one too? Indeed, I'll often explain the compilation to people with only a passing interest in such matters and surprise them with the revelation that up to now YouTube plays do not count for singles chart purposes.
The same question was repeatedly being asked behind the scenes. Should video streams count for the pop charts? And each time there has been pushback from somewhere in the industry. "Not right now," has been the view and one that I had always concurred with. To me, there was an important distinction between consuming music aurally and taking it in visually. OK, visuals have been added to music for decades, and the pop video is considered an art form of itself. But the term "incidental music" also exists for a reason.
Music can even be relegated to the background, there for effect only, and the visuals allowed to dominate. Proof of that comes in the way precious few people would honestly sit down and enjoy an OK Go track (their hit singles are few and far between). But we'll all eagerly tune in to see just what piece of cinematic art the group are going to come up with next.
Time To Move On
It is now clear that this is an outdated view. After all, the personal entertainment devices we all carry around with us have screens as well as headphone sockets. When you play music on your phone, you all too frequently have your eyes upon it also. I may well have a subscription to Google Play Music as my streaming service of choice, yet when I want to call up a particular song for reference or research, time and time again, I'll end up going to YouTube to see if the video is there. We live in 2018, and music is a visual format as much as it is an audio one. Just look at the way acts such as Clean Bandit have built their success, taking control of the production of both sound and vision in the creation of their art.
With the announcement in recent weeks that Google is to fold the Play Music streaming service into its new YouTube Music service, merging the two propositions and indeed taking advantage of their dominant role in the online video space, the time has come for the UK chart to answer the question in the affirmative.
Never Be The Same Again
As of Week 27 - the chart published on Friday, July 6th 2018 - video streams from services such as Tidal, Apple Music and yes indeed YouTube will count towards the weekly singles charts.
I gather it has been quite the challenge to achieve. YouTube is by no means exclusively a music platform, regardless of the creation of the new dedicated premium service. What truly counts as a "music video" in amongst all the other user-generated content it contains. The answer is apparently that a play counts as a "music stream" if a copyright owner has claimed both sound and vision. So this not only includes official music videos uploaded through the Vevo platform and via official artist channels but also where an independent content creator has associated the visuals with an audio soundtrack registered for chart purposes.
This last detail is important because when Billboard began counting video streams for the Hot 100 five years ago, they only enforced ownership of the audio side. As a consequence, any video featuring more than 30 seconds of a copyrighted music track saw its plays count for the charts, resulting in the bizarre sight of Bauuer's Harlem Shake flying to the top because the Hot 100 was logging every single Harlem Shake video watched at the height of the 2013 craze. That won't happen in Britain. It is official video plays only.
Get Your Calculators Out
That's the headline change, but there is another adjustment to the chart compilation process which may have passed people by. In a move which has been desired by some sectors of the industry for a time, a distinction will be made between premium, paid-for audio and video streams, and ad-supported free ones. Instead of the single flat rate 150 streams = 1 sale ratio there will now be two. Paid streams will revert to the 100:1 ratio first introduced in the summer of 2014, while free streams are to count at an extended 600:1 ratio.
That's not a typo. Listen to a track on Spotify's free tier, or on the standard YouTube site, and you will need 600 plays to clock up the equivalent of one purchased sale.
Britain is actually behind the curve on this in many ways. The charts in countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy don't count free streams at all, while Billboard switched to downgrading free plays some time ago. I've never myself seen the need for this adjustment, arguing that a stream is a stream regardless of whether you have paid for the privilege or sat through an advert first. The royalty return to the artist is the same no matter what.
Billboard made the change for tactical reasons. Free streams were heavily used by fans of hip-hop acts and it was skewing the Hot 100 to detriment of the rest of the market. So they felt the need to re-balance. In Britain, that is not so much the case, and this separation of powers as it were is more symbolic than anything else. Rewarding those who pay for music rather than taking it "freemium". Or perhaps more to the point, rewarding the performers who persuade people to pay to listen to them. These are meaningful gestures to make.
There is no need to fear that the charts will now be susceptible to kids and fanbases repeatedly hitting reload or replay on a video to play the game of boosting its view count. Because you'd have to do that a heck of a lot to game the charts. In any event, I have a feeling there's a technical bar to it as well. YouTube may well only be logging a play for a video every time it delivers the data to a client, rather than the number of times the user clicks the play button. When you replay a YouTube video you are playing pre-buffered data from your browser cache, so it doesn't count twice.
The imminent introduction of any change to chart rules immediately conjures up images of drastic changes to the musical landscape and a whole new way for singles to behave. The numerous test charts compiled have revealed no drastic changes to the status quo at all. Indeed at no time has there ever been a Number One single which would not have been there under the existing rules. Like all the adjustments that have taken place since we embarked on this journey, the change will be one of evolution, not revolution.
To recap then: video streams from online services will count as of this Friday (29th June) and register on the singles chart published the following week (6th! July). The ratio of sales : streams will now be adjusted. 100:1 for paid for streams, 600:1 for free tier. How this affects the Accelerated Chart Ratio has not yet been made clear, but I suspect it will remain at 300:1 for paid streams. With freemium plays already at 600:1 they are downgraded almost into insignificance already.
UPDATE: A comment on a Music Week post online has confirmed. A move to Accelerated will double the ratio of a track in the same way it does now. So paid-for will end up on 200:1 and freemium will be a colossal 1200:1.
So strap in for the ride, next week's chart will be the last under the old rules. And we then have to re-learn the market all over again. Here's the future (2018 version)!
* (Video Killed The Radio Star - duh).