The paid-for singles market is slowly dying. Week by week in the singles chart analysis in Music Week I note the slow and steady death spiral of this particular segment of the market. For the past two weeks (at the time of writing) the weekly tally of purchased tracks has been hovering at just over 400,000 a week. I remind myself that just over two years ago I was speculating about just when this would fall below a million. Now it seems they will never rise beyond even half of that total again. We've seen singles sales drop to levels they haven't reached since early 2005, just prior to the introduction of download sales to chart tallies which would give the entire market a badly needed shot in the arm.
But that set me wondering. Just what were the weeks when the records were set - be they all-time highs or all-time lows? For my own reference, and because it tells a fascinating story in itself, I did some wrestling of the numbers and came up with these notable watersheds.
These statistics in fairness have to be divided into two. Those of the pre-downloads era, when physical sales were the only thing that mattered, and those of the download era when digital tracks took over, sending the market spiralling to unheard of numbers until technology overtook it and streaming became the norm.
Pre-Download Era (1994-2005)
The Record Highs
The Kantar Millward Brown era of the charts began in February 1994, this then the point at which accurate sales numbers began being tracked and which now form part of the vast charts database. For most of 1994 the size of the market ranged between 750,000 and 850,000 units a week.
1.22m units. The first-ever million units week came in Week 49 of 1994 (Week Ending December 17th 1994). East 17 spent their second week at the top of the charts with Stay Another Day and the highest new entry was from the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. So it was essentially Simon Cowell's fault. And not an uncommon theme as we shall see.
1.5m units. The record was further broken a fortnight later in Christmas Week itself. Week 51 of 1994 (Week Ending December 31st 1994). East 17 and Mariah Carey duked it out to be Christmas Number One and Oasis attempted their smash and grab raid with Whatever landing as the highest new entry at No.3.
1.59m units. Week 44 of 1995 (Week Ending November 11th 1995). 19 singles debuted on the Top 40. At the top were Robson and Jerome with I Believe/Up On The Roof and just behind them Oasis with Wonderwall.
2.07m units. Week 51 of 1995 (Week Ending December 30th 1995). Earth Song was the Christmas Number One. Mike Flowers Pops just failed to make the grade behind it.
2.13m units. The record would stand for exactly one year. Week 51 of 1996 (Week Ending December 28th 1996). The Spice Girls round off their perfect year with 2 Become 1 debuting at the top for Christmas, selling almost half a million copies alone and so accounting for almost a quarter of all singles sold that week.
2.6m units. The all-time record for physical singles sold was set later the following year, although this was naturally due to extraordinary circumstances. It was Week 38 1997 (Week Ending September 27th 1997). The first full week on sale for Elton John's Diana tribute single Candle In The Wind 97. Over 1 million of the 2.6 million singles sold that week were accounted for by the Elton record. So whilst this represents the highest-ever weekly sales volume of singles recorded in this country, we should really see it as an outlier. One that needs a footnote to explain it.
If we disregard the Elton week because reasons, the next two "true" records set were:
2.19m units. Week 51, 1997 (Week Ending December 27th 1997). Too Much by The Spice Girls tops the charts for Christmas.
2.52m units. Week 51, 1998 (Week Ending December 26th 1998). Goodbye by er, The Spice Girls tops the charts for Christmas.
From there it was all downhill, although we should take time out to note the last time the market topped 2 million. This was Week 9 of 2002 (Week Ending March 9th 2002). The week Pop Idol winner Will Young also sold over a million singles in his own right to debut at the top with Evergreen/Anything Is Possible and thus accounted for fully half of the 2.017m singles sold that week.
The Record Lows
Then there are the market nadirs. Our base reference point is the very first week of the Kantar Millward Brown era, Week 5 of 1994 (Week Ending February 12th 1994). 729,000 singles were sold this week.
701,000 units. Week 28 of 1994 (Week Ending 23rd July 1994). Just a quiet week overall for singles sales it seems. Warren G's Regulate was the week's highest new entry at No.9.
The charts database suggests that the next low came just over a year later in Week 29 of 1995, when just 676,000 singles were logged. But this appears to be a weird outlier, the market in the weeks either side was a healthy 900,000 or so. There's no noticeable drop in the sales of the tracks at the top of the market, and I've a feeling there's data from a store missing altogether here, making this hard to account for. I note it here for reference only.
585,000 units. Week 1 of 2000 (Week Ending January 15th 2000). Post millennium fever had taken hold and the music industry had effectively taken the month off, unsure if the fabled Millennium Bug was set to disrupt stores and distributors.
440,000 units. Week 1 of 2002 (Week Ending January 12th 2002). The week a forgotten Backstreet Boys hit was the most notable new entry of the week.
2004 saw the singles market hit ever-smaller record lows as people migrated to digital tracks, leaving the singles chart slow to react to this rapid shift in consumer behaviour.
401,000 units. Week 4 of 2004 (Week Ending January 31st 2004). All This Time by Pop Idol 2 winner Michelle tops the charts selling just 35,000 copies, and The Scissor Sisters make their chart debut.
401,000 units. Week 43 of 2004 (Week Ending October 30th 2004). Call On Me by Eric Prydz is No.1, selling a mere 22,000 copies.
282,000 units. Week 53 of 2004 (Week Ending January 8th 2005). The week just after Christmas which saw debut X Factor winner Steve Brookstein move to the top of the charts with Against All Odds. He sold 26,000 copies of his single that week.
265,000 units. Early 2005 would see the paid singles market hit what is (for now) its all-time nadir. Week 1 of 2005 (Week Ending January 15th 2005) was as low as it got in a week when Elvis Presley's reissued Jailhouse Rock made No.1 with a sale of 21,262 copies.
Three months later salvation was at hand. Digital downloads were finally added to the survey, rescuing the singles market and ushering in an exciting new era of steadily expanding sales.
The Download Era (2005-2014)
All of these numbers are record highs, as the market simply grew and grew until it reached an all-time peak. The downward slope only began when the streaming era overlapped it, resulting in the slow death of paid sales we are still witnessing today. The record weeks though all have one thing in common - the Christmas and New Year period. Oh, and X Factor winners singles, naturally.
2.166m units. Week 51 of 2005 (Week Ending December 31st 2005). The Christmas chart. Shayne Ward sells three-quarters of a million copies of That's My Goal. The singles market is back to 1997 levels.
Then two years later something weird happens:
2.174m units. Week 51 of 2007 (Week Ending December 29th 2007) is Christmas week again. Leon Jackson is the X Factor winner.
2.986m units. But then in Week 52 (Week Ending January 5th 2008) the total is higher still. More singles are sold than were in Diana week. To understand why you have to look at the different formats:
Week 51: 424,000 physical singles, 1.75m downloads
Week 52: 174,000 physical singles, 2.72m downloads
For the first time ever New Year week stops being the smallest sales week of the year and instead becomes the biggest. Newly gifted iPods and other digital players are filled with newly purchased songs as gift cards are cashed in too. It is a phenomenon which repeats for the next five years.
3m units. Week 51 of 2008 (Week Ending December 27th 2008). Christmas week. Alexandra Burke wins X Factor, Hallelujah races to No.1, two other versions follow it into the Top 40. The record industry's first-ever 3 million sales week.
4.028m units. Week 52 of 2008 (Week Ending January 3rd 2009). Fully 3.76m of these record sales are digital downloads.
Oddly enough the famous Joe McElderry/Rage Against The Machine battle in 2009 failed to break a record. Christmas week that year saw 3.678m singles sold as the two tracks went head to head but that extraordinary race meant that the total actually dropped back to 2.95m for the new year sales 'surge'.
4.757m units. So it wasn't until Week 52 of 2010 (Week Ending January 1st 2011) that the record moved again. Matt Cardle was the X Factor winner.
5.45m units. Week 52 of 2011 (Week Ending January 7th 2012) and Little Mix are the champions, and just when you thought new year sales couldn't grow higher, they did again in some style.
5.696m units. The final record high comes a year later. Week 52 of 2012 (Week Ending January 5th 2013). Every sales week of 2012 saw the singles market top 3 million units, the ultimate peak of the digital download market. And for that final week of the year when James Arthur was the reigning X Factor champion just short of 6 million single tracks were purchased (CD singles now having all but been phased out).
This was a record which would never again be broken by paid sales. Believe it or not, you can pinpoint the precise moment the market began to turn. Week 37 of 2013 (Week Ending September 21st 2013). This was the week singles sales overall dipped below 2 million for the first time in two years, starting a downward trend line on the graph which continues to this day.
The Streaming Era (2014 to date)
Ever since then we have been in a period of transition and steady market growth, meaning records for the overall size of the singles market are broken on a regular basis.
In addition, the methodology for calculating sales-equivalent streams has changed over the years and the addition of video streams muddied the waters some more. So we are essentially still witnessing leaps in market growth, even if like-for-like comparison with the past is trickier.
1 billion streams were logged for the first time ever in Week 4, 2017. The 1.5 billion mark topped in Week 11, 2018. Week 52, 2019 (Ellie Goulding's River making a famous smash and grab raid on the No.1 position) is for now the current record holder. 2 billion streams were reported overall, the singles market topping 22m units for the first time ever. And it is my guess that this Christmas we will see things surge forward once again.