Attempting To Explain The UK Official Chart Without Losing My Mind

A well meaning question from fellow editor Tom about how Adele managed to jump from number 38 on the singles chart to the top spot resulted in me attempting to explain the rules of the Official Chart in a few WhatsApp messages. Some confused ‘Why?’s and ‘How does that make any sense’s later and I had decided it was worth inflicting this useless knowledge on our readers too. A set of chart rules that has changed so much over the last few years it basically requires a qualification to understand. If you don’t give a shit about the charts, then just treat this as satire, once I get going attempting to explain some of this it may as well be a joke.

Lets start with the basics of the basics. Physical and download sales. Think back to a pre-Spotify era and even though there were all sorts of small print about how long singles can be, how many tracks can be on a 7’ vinyl and so on, things were definitely more simple. If you buy a copy of the new Billie Eilish album on CD, or on Vinyl, or as a download from the iTunes store, that’s 1 sale. Singles are the same, physical ‘singles’ aren’t too common anymore, but they still exist so work in exactly the same way; 1 purchase=1 sale. Pretty easy to understand and it worked for about 50 years of music charts here in the UK.

Streaming adds another layer of complexity, confusion and silliness to everything. This is a system where a song that is #1 on the Streaming, Sales and Physical charts could be #2 on the actual singles chart, even though it’s a combination of them all. I’m starting with singles because it’s actually the simplest to get your head around of the two.

Everything is compared to that single ‘sale’ mentioned earlier. So the calculations are done based on how many streams it takes to count the same as my one download of the new Joel Corry single. When I say stream as well, that includes video streaming too (newly added a few years ago) so be sure to remember those times you’ve re-watched the ‘WAP’ video just to make sure you remembered it actually happened count too.

Here we have the Standard Chart Ratio (SCR) which is in itself split into two rates. ‘Premium’ paid for streams count 100:1, while Ad Funded free streams count 600:1. So basically if you pay for Spotify you have to stream a song 100 times for it to count the same as 1 digital download. If you use a free account, you need to do it 600 times, and probably listen to an advert for some travel company that same number of times. That’s pretty simple maths to work out in the end, if only that was the end of it.

There’s also a few rules which I like to call the ‘Make sure Ed Sheeran doesn’t ruin the UK Top 40’ rules; the first of which restricts a lead artist to just 3 songs on the chart at once. When streaming first started counting towards the charts, artists like Stormzy and Drake had album release weeks where 8 or so songs would enter the chart at once, listeners just listening to the album in full pushing up album tracks high into the top 40.

Things came to a head when Ed Sheeran’s Divide ended up taking up 16 places in the top 20, with all but one position in the top 10 taken up by Ed. The chart changed the rules pretty quickly and now we get lots of cases where songs are ‘starred out’ despite having more than enough streams to make the top 40. For context Adele’s 30 had 4 songs starred out that would have ended up as Top 10 hits a few weeks ago.

The second major rule is one that only kicks in once a song has been on the chart for 10 weeks. The Official Charts states that ‘After 3 consecutive weeks of decline a stream to sale ratio of 200:1’ with their description of decline being ‘negative week on week variance of combined audio and video streams and which is below the combined streaming market rate of change week on week.’ Those big load of nonsense words aside if a single has a drop in streams that’s more than the average drop in streams for all other singles, then it’s streaming sales are halved to Accelerated Chart Ratio (ACR). That means paid for listeners have to listen 200 times to get a sale, while Free ones need to listen 1200 times. The idea is that this benefits songs that are newer to the chart and keeps ‘evergreen songs’ that get weekly streams no matter what away from the Top 40.

For context on that specifically, ‘Mr Brightside’ by The Killers is currently on its 298th week in the UK Top 100. Without ACR it would never leave the top 40 and would be pushing out genuine current hits by newer acts who rely on chart positions way more for label funding/support in the industry. It’s a sad thought, but there’s probably hundreds of artists waiting for the ‘chart hit’ their label is looking for.

We can finally touch on how Adele managed that jump up to #1 now, it’s only taken me nearly a thousand words to do so. Songs that are placed on ACR and are less than 3 years old, can be reset back to the standard streaming ratio.

This is huge for songs that take a few months to properly take off, Sam Fender’s current breakthrough hit single ‘Seventeen Going Under’ a great example of this after it took until his albums release for it to properly become a radio hit. These resets can be requested by the label themselves, or they are automatically activated by increasing streams more than the average of everything else on the chart. Basically the opposite of what sends the song onto ACR in the first place.

In Adele’s case, ‘Easy On Me’ was one of many songs that benefited greatly from the post Christmas bump anything that isn’t about the holiday season has. So it was lucky to have a reset and just so happened to be getting more streams than anything else on SCR. Funnily enough that specific week, another song, ‘Shivers’ by our chart favourite Ed Sheeran was actually the most heard/bought song of the week, but he didn’t get a reset. It’s all over the place. In the end, these songs were having just as many streams as they were before the chart decided to cut them in half, it’s the chart rules themselves that resulted in some strange up and down in the actual positions.

‘But what about albums’ I can hear all 2 of you that have lasted this long screaming out. How can you possibly count the stream of an album if you have to count individual tracks? You basically don’t and while the album chart methodology doesn’t have the whole ACR/SCR/10 week madness to contend with, it is a minefield for confusion and messiness.

The ratio for an album stream in 1000:1. So that’s 1000 streams of a single track counting as a listen to an album. It doesn’t matter if you listened to ‘Thank U, Next’ by Ariana Grande 1000 times or the whole album front to back 100 times, it counts the same. The trick here is that for ‘fairness’ the top 2 songs have their streaming numbers reduced to the average of the next 14 most streamed songs. Of course this means that anything with more than 2 massive hit singles is affected less than that album that has just one song that became huge on Tik-Tok, but you can see why it’s done like this. In the UK only the top 16 songs even count towards the album chart too, which is why often you’ll see artists tag previous singles or collaborations on at the end to bump up the average.

So we’ve already got a pretty messy system for counting an album ‘sale’. Me buying a vinyl of the new Bon Iver album counts the same as someone listening to it 100 times, even I can’t manage that many listens in a week. But it’s Greatest Hits compilatons that really cause a fuss. Of course, the whole point of a Greatest Hits is to compile songs from other albums together, so streaming a song actually counts towards the album streams of 2 ‘albums’; the studio album itself and one Greatest Hits album.

Like I mentioned on the site last year, Greatest Hits albums are all over the UK chart and it’s because of these inflated streaming numbers. Elton John’s Diamonds isn’t one of the biggest selling albums of the week and yet just because lots of people have ‘Rocketman’ and ‘I’m Still Standing’ on their daily playlist it gets ‘sales’. These aren’t even people specifically listening to that Hits collection, which begs the massive question of why do that in the first place.

Inflating the sales of legacy greatest hits albums helps absolutely no one. It’s not like these artists are earning any more money thanks to this, not that Fleetwood Mac really need more money from their songs in 2022. What it does do is make it even harder to break into the chart for independent and newer artists where a chart position could be a big deal. Being able to say ‘top 10 album’ could lead to a better resigning of a deal, or be a measure of success for labels and marketing teams alike. For an indie artist, it could lead to their records appearing in more stores, or higher in the automated playlists on streaming services. Instead we have an albums chart full of hits collections from artists who don’t need the exposure and aren’t earning a penny more anyway. Take a look at the Album sales chart vs the actual Top 100 for a clear indicator of this.

I’ve been an avid follower of the chart for years and even I struggle with some of the acrobatics that are needed to explain exactly how the charts work these days. It’s very difficult to quantify success in the way that we used to. We have more ‘metrics’ than ever and yet a system that tracks music consumption can never be directly equated to pure sales. If you’ve read all of that and genuinely want to know more, there’s a detailed breakdown of it here, if you’ve read any of this and never want to think about the chart again though, here’s a video of the current number 71 by lesser known band The Killers to enjoy instead.

Words By Sam Atkins

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