Radio Rewind ’98

My on-air radio career is, let’s be honest now, a vanishingly long time in the past which is why I rarely hark back to it these days. What doesn’t help is that I have vanishingly few good examples of it, most of the tapes I have dating from a period when I was frantic about where my career was going and with a note of panic sounding in my voice.

Hence it was a nice bonus to the other day stumble across a tape from a period when I was sounding happy, confident and above all something approaching good. Havin digitised it, it seemed a shame not to share, not just for the benefit of those friends who begged to hear it but the world in general. If only as an example of how local radio sounded almost 20 years ago.

Here then is 100 minutes or so of an off-air recording of a show I presented on a Saturday afternoon in October 1998. When listening to it the following should be borne in mind:

  1. It was a football results show, so precious little room for many so-called personality links. But this does also date from a period when in my one claim to fame this was the most-listened to show in the area on a Saturday afternoon. I was literally Number One in the ratings.
  2. My style was very much of its time, and a reflection on that of the people I had worked with and learned from. The cheery and sometimes strident tone I’d adopted is far from what would work on air now, when the emphasis is on being slightly calmer and more friendly.
  3. I’ve left in one particular link that makes me cringe to hear it now, but again it was very much a part of the whole notion of “share something of yourself with each broadcast”.

You can hear the show in two versions:

First, a telescoped version featuring just the links. 17 minutes or so of non-stop me, you lucky people.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Or alternatively, here is the full uncut tape. Music, adverts and Masterton all combined. Hope you enjoy. You’re on The Pulse.

The Great 2017 Chart Shake Up

So now it can be revealed. Rumours have swirled, talk has circulated and speculation has mounted. At least if you knew where to look. The Official UK Singles chart is to get a tweak to the rules used in its compilation. It is a change that will send certain purists into a frenzy, and have others nodding in agreement that it all makes sense. And will probably baffle many members of the general public when they need to have it explained to them.

So let me here try to explain how and perhaps most importantly of all why.

The singles chart matters. Far more than many people outside the music industry realise. It is the driver of radio programming, TV production, the promotion of albums and much, much more than I can articulate here. So when it stops working it creates enormous problems for everyone.

Those problems should be fairly obvious to most watching, even if I’ve been one of those stridently insisting that we should wait and see how things shake out. Because those with more influence and less patience than I have called for them to be fixed. They are:

  • The slowing down of the singles market. The charts ‘clogged up’ with long-running popular hits that have entered a slow burn decline as streams. Great for longevity records. Hard work for those trying to break new music.
  • The single artist dominations. Ed Sheeran’s 9 out of 10 in the Top 10 may have been a genuine freak one-off, but with artists such as Drake, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamarr and Stormzy demonstrating that their fans will consume new product en-masse and once again clog up the singles chart, it has now become necessary to mitigate the problem.

So as of next week (for the singles chart published on Friday, July 7th) two crucial new rules will apply:

Three Is Tops

This was the one that everyone seemed to know about in advance. The three-track cap as it will be known. No more than the three most popular tracks (based on sales and streams) by any one lead artist will be permitted to feature in the Top 100. This will raise hackles, the first time in over 10 years that there has been any kind of forced removal rule in effect, disqualifying certain tracks altogether.

The logic here is straightforward. It will prevent album tracks from popular artists taking up multiple positions in the singles chart, and thus barging potential hits from other, less insanely popular acts, out of the way. It will also address a common criticism I’ve seen of the present rules, that a stream of a track will essentially be double-counted – adding both to the singles chart position of the track and contributing to the total streams attributed to an album. The streams of the two most popular tracks on an album will continue to be downplayed by the album chart compilation process and whilst this remains for the moment an imperfect mix, you can be at least reassured that streaming a random album track will only register that track for the album.

There are two important points to note here. This doesn’t restrict artists or labels from releasing more than three singles from an album. Just that they cannot have them charting all at once. And if Hit 1 has burned out and fallen away, then Hit 4 is free to join 2 and 3 in the upper reaches. Plus it does not rule out acts still managing more than 3 hits at a time. If someone does a Justin Bieber and is the featured guest on multiple singles by other people, they will all chart at once. There is still no restriction here.

Downplay The Long Tail

Prior to 2007 the ‘official’ bit of the singles chart only went down to Number 75. Below that point, there was a ‘starring-out’ rule in place. Omitting older hits which were in steep decline from the rankings to thus benefit newer releases and other upwardly mobile arrivals. We aren’t about to go back to those days, but the growing presence of the long tail of streaming, the fact that the singles chart now registers long-term engagement as much as it does discovery means there has to be an elegant way of moving ‘legacy’ hits out of the way.

So this is how it will work. A new streaming ratio will be introduced for hits that are in steep, prolonged decline.

Once a track is at least 10 weeks old, AND has registered 3 consecutive weeks of chart sales decline then its streams switch to a 300:1 ratio as opposed to the 150:1 of others. This will punish long-running hits such as One Dance or even Castle On The Hill, moving them gently out of the way following the peak of their commercial appeal but whilst some die-hards still insist on listening to them over and over again.

I’m told from test charts that this effect will be subtle but significant. We won’t see tracks vanish abruptly from the Top 20 as they did back in the “curate’s egg” days of 2006. Instead older singles should actually behave like they did in the old days when they were reliant on shops continuing to stock them. They will reach a low point and then start to sink fast. And once again clear the path for fresher, newer material. Just to keep everything vibrant.

Irk The Purists

Any rule changes of this nature, particularly ones which change the very fundamentals of singles qualification tend to attract an instantly negative response from a small core of music fans. It is meddling, they say. Messing with what used to be the simple purity of a chart which tracked what people bought without favour or bias.

Yet the UK charts have for decades been beholden to rules, and ones which are revised and updated as circumstances require. It seems to jar now because we spent over seven years from 2007 with precious little change and only minor tweaks to admit songs that might have fallen down the cracks. But behind it all is a strict structure of rules, regulations, strictures and eligibility criteria. Most of which arrived into being with the aim of fixing a problem which was threatening to undermine the credibility of the survey.

Really what has been announced today is no different. And on the face of it the impact will be less radical than it might at first appear. The second half of the year should, however, start to see a singles chart that becomes just that bit more vibrant, just a shade more interesting week in week out and in the process the perfect platform for the next exciting new trend in British music to emerge.

You cannot innovate or contend by standing still. The Billboard Hot 100, the gold standard of music charts and one of the most powerful brands in the world, has since 1958 been an odd hybrid of sales metrics, data sources and ever-changing rules. It adapts, evolves and adjusts according to trends in the market and to embrace new formats and technology. To suggest the Official UK Charts should not follow suit would be to invite Britain to stagnate in comparison.

I see the stats for myself. When major chart news breaks the interest in chart-watch.uk goes through the roof. When little happens only the hardcore come along to take a look. And as a lover of pop music, a passionate fan of the pop charts and as writer who loves a story no matter what the source, I want as many people as possible to come along for the ride.

When You Touch Me Like This

Bat Out Of Hell - The MusicalTo the always magnificent surroundings of the London Coliseum to see what has (with good reason) been hailed as one of the theatrical events of the summer. The traditional home of the English National Opera, it presently plays host to the ultimate in rock operas – the West End premiere of Bat Out Of Hell – The Musical.

Now I stress I’m no theatre critic, and I have friends who run their own theatre blogs who are far better at this than I, so I cannot sit here and offer an expert critique of the staging, plotting or set design. And what I’m about to write will show that I’m far from impartial where the subject matter is concerned. So I cannot offer an expert review.

Every music fan has their core act. The one whose work you know backwards. The one whose work you will collect obsessively, knowing that life will be incomplete without the complete set. And you’ve probably purchased it several times over on multiple formats. Well for me that act is the writer/producer and sometime reluctant performer Jim Steinman. I can recite lyrics, know the release dates of the songs and even to a certain extent name the musicians playing on the records he produces and just who is singing backing vocals where. I can get lost for hours in the poetry of his lyrics and like no other songwriter he speaks to the depths of my soul and peels back emotions I never knew I had buried. These are songs, productions, performances that are guaranteed to make my heart fly and to transport me in an instant into the near-mythical world they inhabit.

So I struggle to begin to explain how it felt to sit in a theatre to watch a musical production of all of his most famous songs bundled together for the very first time. Finally telling a coherent tale of everlasting teenage passion in a dystopian future. These were songs I fell in love with at the age of 16 and then spent the rest of my life falling in love to. In my head they had always played out on a grand stage, one filled with performers and chorus lines. And now it was all happening for real. I was transfixed from the very first bars. Because this was something that was at once very special to me.

By the end of Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire) I realised I was crying. I’ve never sat in a theatre with tears of joy running down my face before. But that is what happened to me.  I was in the middle of what was surely a deep and everlasting emotional experience.

In countless interviews, Jim Steinman had long spoken of how songs from Bat Out Of Hell and associated projects were always parts of a musical story he was never able to stage. So they became mini-concept albums instead. Peter Pan on motorcycles, all set in an age where you are 18 forever and love and lust never grow old. And finally, this has happened. A large part of the joy was hearing songs that had always seemed like fragments of a story you never heard the start of, suddenly slot into place and become a core part of the plot. Never before had it been explained who the protagonist in the song Bat Out Of Hell was with and just who they were running from. And we finally get to find out.

The Peter Pan references are writ large across the plot. The Lost (boys), we are told, never grow up. Lacking a mother to look after them. There’s even a jealous and ultimately tragic character called Tink.

There were other lovely subtle touches too. The constant tease as the lead character Strat is constantly frustrated that nobody knows the correct response to “on a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses”, the fun thrill when Raven finally does so, only for the pair to be interrupted, leading the audience on the night I was there to erupt into laughter. But when You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth is finally delivered it is inevitably a treat. The casting of Andrew Polec as Strat is also an inspired choice, the singer and actor has perfected the exact New York drawl that Jim Steinman himself uses. So he gets to deliver the famous Love And Death And An American Guitar monologue which opens the show in the exact same voice as used on the records, and throughout the show, you find yourself almost believing the writer and composer is there on the stage himself.

In a summer where my life seems to be filled with emotionally transformative and moving experiences, this was up there with the greatest one of them all. And of course, modern technology means that on the train home you can connect with the cast directly and tell them just what it meant to you.

 

The musical is on for a strictly limited run before it moves abroad. But if you happen to be in London before July, trade a body part for a ticket. I truly can offer it no greater praise.

 

Everything Stops At Four O’Clock

knobs radio clockThe last time I wrote about radio and the art of performing it in any kind of detail, it turned out to be one of the more popular pieces on this site for some time. I was quoted in newsletters, contacted by some big names and even invited onto Radio 4 to discuss it (an invitation I had to decline due to half term holidays getting in the way, alas). All because I saw nothing wrong with presenters on a quasi-national network being given a style guide.

Radio you see is actually quite hard. To do it well at least. It is all too easy to imagine that any idiot can sit down in front of a microphone with a few records and introduce them. But if you haven’t prepared properly or even learned the best way to do it, that is precisely how you sound. An idiot.

In an age when developing a career from the ground up is old hat, or when being a celebrity name in other walks of life is the best qualification for a high-profile radio slot you can always tell the ones who have been thrown in with little or no advanced guidance. They are the ones who commit the cardinal sin of ceasing to speak like human beings but instead say the kinds of things they imagine radio presenters are supposed to say. Telling the time seems a particular challenge for nascent broadcasters. Because to hand someone a microphone and an audience and is apparently to make it impossible for them to stop themselves from descending into cheery cheese mode and start saying dated rubbish like “twelve minutes to the hour of one o’clock”.

The first man ever to give me any kind of coaching in the art of radio was a man called Kenni James who was particularly keen on the correct way to tell the time. Even once people had moved past the urge to be Noel Edmonds circa 1976, the temptation to read the time straight off the studio clock was also to be resisted. “Three fourty-eight?” he mocked, “Who actually speaks like that in real life? You look at the clock and go ‘ooh, almost ten to four’. Just speak like a normal person”.

Time (as in the passing of years) has moved on since but the lesson still holds true. And there is one other strange verbal crutch which for some reason always raises my hackles when I hear radio presenters doing it. Now I’m about to call attention to it, you will notice it as well:

“This is me, Tommy Trebleknob, with you through ’til six”.

I’ve genuinely heard presenters do that as their opening link of a four-hour show. Telling people how long it is before they knock off.

So why is this bad? Well for a start, it introduces a stop point for the audience. Creating for them a reason to cease listening and go off and do something else. In radio, commercial radio, in particular, that is a huge no-no. Forget the ego for a moment, no matter how good you think you are or how much of an appointment to listen you dream of being, precious few people are tuning in specifically for you. Your “show” as it were is merely one part of a large and lovingly constructed schedule. Your only thought should be persuading people to consume as much of it as possible, to appreciate not only your hard work but those of your colleagues. Plus you are also there to give value for money to the advertisers whose money is paying your daily fee and who want as many people as possible to hear their message. So don’t tell people when they should be turning off. Tell them why they should be sticking around all day long and into the night if possible.

Why do presenters do it? Well, once again it is one of those things they imagine radio presenters are supposed to say without ever considering why. It is a sign of someone who in their head is “on the radio” rather than “communicating with the audience”. At the end of the day, it comes down to one simple point. Nobody cares what time you finish work for the day. So why beat them around the head with it?

Sheeran, Drake et al – How They Rescued The Album

The argument appears to have been raging for close to two months now and shows little sign of dying down any time soon. The ability of entire albums to sweep en-masse into the singles chart was thrust to the fore of the news by the near-total domination of the Top 10 achieved by Ed Sheran’s Divide album back in March. It has prompted an extended debate as to whether things are now “broken” regarding the way charts are compiled, and the popularity of songs is measured. From my point of view it has resulted in the most-read Chart Watch piece since I migrated the column to its own site almost a year ago, and this previous posting where I refuted suggestions made by the BBC as to how things might be “fixed”.

However, for a few weeks now I’ve become convinced that there is one thing that is indeed broken. What Ed Sheeran (and other streaming Kings such as Drake and The Weeknd) have actually done is rescued the album from near-oblivion. And that was actually the last thing that anyone expected to happen.

The idea of the album as a complete body of work, as opposed to a random collection of songs assembled for convenience, only truly dates back from the late-1960s with the invention by the likes of The Moody Blues and The Beatles of the ‘concept album’ with all tracks being bound by a single theme or narrative. By the 1970s the LP was seen by some acts as an artform in itself, elevated above the level of the mere pop record and the mark which distinguished the average performers from the truly great. Rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd released famous bodies of work and by and large declined to lower themselves by promoting them with single cuts. You didn’t cut pieces from your masterpiece, the argument went, you sat back and appreciated it as a whole. And people cheerfully bought into that idea. If nothing else, the technology of the time meant that the only ‘proper’ way to listen to a long playing record was to put the needle at the start and let it run until the end. Anything else was too much of a faff and involved getting out of your seat to move the needle along. So why bother?

The slow death of this concept actually came far earlier than anyone realised, with the invention and subsequent adoption by the mass market of the Compact Disc player. For the first time music was available by random access. As much as the marketing of the early players focused on the crystal-clear sound of the reproduction (so good you could hear the singer breathing), the system was also sold on the idea you could program or even randomise the available tracks. I remember as a teenager visiting friends whose parents had indulged them with hi-fi systems that played the wondrous silver discs in order to hear the latest album by our favourite groups. This would normally consist of programming in tracks 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 on the basis that “you don’t need to hear the rest, they are a bit rubbish”. People had started to enthusiastically cherrypick the killer cuts from a long playing record. It was just that nobody really noticed – you still had to buy the complete disc regardless of how much of it you wanted to hear.

Hence when the digital era arrived, the iTunes store and the concept that every individual track was effectively a ‘single’ you could buy was less of a revolution than it might have first appeared. In 2007 when the gloves finally came off, and any track was free to chart, I and many other chart-watchers were anticipating mass invasions of the singles chart by the complete set of tracks from the biggest names in pop. Except it never really happened that way. What we saw instead was a savvy music buying audience homing in on the most popular tracks from an album and cherry-picking those ones alone. Two or three, or at the most four, tracks from a hot new long playing collection would make brief chart appearances before fading away to perhaps await the day they were properly elevated to ‘singles’.

It was this break-up of albums into their constituent parts which not only frustrated the veterans (Pink Floyd albums were notoriously slow in appearing online, Roger Waters refusing to countenance Apple’s wish that tracks could be purchased individually and insisted that his masterpieces were designed to be appreciated as a whole) but also the music industry as a whole. While singles buyers enthusiastically embraced this new musical form, album purchases remained stubbornly locked to their physical past – a market that was slowly but steadily dying. Many attempts were made to fix this problem and migrate people to the idea of purchasing full albums digitally, whether it was the iTunes “complete this album” button which allowed you to snap up the rest of a collection you had partially bought for a discount, or the “instant grat” tactic whereby a pre-release purchase of a big name album allowed you immediate access to one or more of its tracks.

None were particularly effective, and the near-calamitous collapse of the album market over the past few years can be directly attributed to the decline of the physical-buying audience who simply were not replaced in sufficient numbers by those who wanted complete digital sets.

It seemed safe to assume that this trend would continue, that (freaks of nature like Adele aside) the album was largely dead and the future lay in the cumulative sales and streams of particular tracks. When the Official Charts Company made the move to fold streaming data into the albums chart they rejected counting plays of entire albums, or certain percentages thereof, in favour of counting the total listens for individual tracks from a set, weighting down the biggest singles and adding them in on a 1:1000 ratio. It was a way of continuing to measure the overall popularity of artist collections in an age when all the evidence was that nobody actually listened to albums any more. This is why there was no need to put in place any kind of rule to stop entire albums swamping the singles chart – because let’s face it how likely was it that this would ever happen?

Except that of late, we’ve seen a significant social change. For far too long, appreciation of recorded music has been a solitary activity. We’ve all become used to vanishing into our own musical world via a pair of earphones and a portable player. Your musical choice was nobody’s business – unless perhaps you were 13 years old and riding on the back seat of a bus. Yet slowly but surely music has become a collective activity again. All thanks to social media. Twitter and Facebook mean we can band together with like-minded individuals, congregate on a hashtag and enjoy the shared experience of the appreciation of a work of art. “Second screening” started with television fans and has now spread enthusiastically to music lovers.

Gathering for an online listening party is now the done thing in the wake of a big name release. Fans will co-ordinate their efforts to listen to the work of their idols track by track, commenting and interacting along the way. Radio has picked up on this too. Once upon a time, a major album release by a priority act might be marked by Radio 1 making it a weekly feature and sprinkling tracks from it across dayparts. Now they will devote entire programmes to their own listening parties, playing a release in full, one song at a time. For the first time since the 1970s people aren’t skipping, randomising or programming. They are listening. Albums have become an important part of the narrative again.

That then is why Ed Sheeran, and to a lesser extent acts such as The Weeknd and Drake managed to “break” the singles chart. Because their fans played the new music in full, en masse, and repeatedly over a short period of time. There was little discrimination. Every track was effectively just as popular as the next, and in they shot to the singles chart side by side with each other. It isn’t the charts that are broken, just that the public have started to behave in ways that were never anticipated.

Don’t panic. I’ve not quite come over to the dark side and believe in making rule changes to stop this. This tendency for new releases to create floods is also a consequence of what is still an immature streaming market, one which is still effectively dominated by the early adopters – and in particular those newly-minded music fans who have never bought a record in their lives and probably never will.  Those who have embraced this new means of consumption are overwhelmingly young and their tastes lean almost entirely towards acts of a more urban nature. Because nobody else is doing this in such numbers, they have the ability to swamp the market when they put their minds to it. Or when there is an exciting new release to hashtag listening party. As the market grows and matures and listeners with more diverse tastes arrive online and start to bend the charts to their will, the ability of one act or sound to completely dominate will be greatly diminished, simply because the weight of numbers are against them.

For now, however, we are in what should be a brief period where things do indeed appear to be broken. At least I assume it will be brief. As reports of the premature death of the album have proved, even the smallest of assumptions can be a very dangerous thing.

Sheeran: Fixing What Isn’t Broken

If you are reading this post around the same time it is published, in the middle of March 2017, you will scarcely require the topic of this post explaining. Ever since Ed Sheeran released his album Divide and duly planted all 16 of its tracks inside the Top 20 (9 of them in the Top 10) the media coverage has been enormous. Although not always on the positive side. To read some of the articles which have been printed in the press, or to hear features on some radio stations, you would think that an artist landing a large amount of very big hits all at once was akin to the end of days, a civilisation-cracking event. Or at the very least proving that the pop charts in this country are broken.

Last night I posted a new podcast dealing with this issue and put forward a theory I developed whilst talking to friends over the past few days. I’ve been studying and writing about the British charts for virtually the whole of my adult life, but I do so for the benefit of what is inevitably a transient audience. Everyone has a certain period in their life when pop music matters a great deal, when the study of the charts week by week is what defines your life and gives your memories the accompanying musical snapshot. But for most that lasts just 2-3 years and you move on, the charts now something to glance at occasionally and marvel at the “rubbish the kids are listening to” whilst safe in the knowledge it was better in your day.

The consequence of that is that virtually all of us have connected to them in some way and have an internal view on the way things should look and how they should behave, regardless of which particular era this happens to be in. This week we have a situation where an artist has done something so totally without precedent that it violates everyone’s internalised view. Hence the large numbers of people expressing unhappiness and hence my amused reaction of noting the number of people with only a passing interest in pop music who nonetheless have very strident views on the singles chart and how it should be constructed.

Some opinion pieces have taken the argument further and explored ways things can be “fixed” to stop evil bastards like Ed Sheeran in their tracks. One such piece which caught my eye this week was on the BBC’s own entertainment news website, penned by their main entertainment guru Mark Savage. BBC news items don’t allow for direct comment, but it seemed appropriate to present here my own rebuttal of all the main points in Mark Savage’s Five Ways The Singles Chart Can Be Fixed.

Redefine What A Single Is

The problem, so the argument goes, is that there is no dividing line any more, no restriction on what counts as a ‘single’. So any old album track can invade the charts. Therefore there should be some rule in place to ensure only specific tracks by an artist which qualify can register on the singles chart.

But that would be pretty much unworkable. How do you do this? I’ve seen it suggested that chart places are reserved for only the most popular 4 or 5 tracks from an album. Which is fine, until the 5th and 6th most popular tracks are more or less neck and neck and swap places each week. Why would you exclude the track which was just outside the Top 50 one week just because it has sold 5 fewer copies this week than the track it sold 5 copies more of last week. Chaos would ensue.

If you simply insist that labels designate specific tracks from an album as the chartable “singles” you also run into complications when the public decides otherwise and starts buying or streaming ‘unauthorised’ album cuts in large numbers. We are seeing this happen this week with Ed Sheeran. Far and away the most popular of all the Divide tracks is Galway Girl and all indications are that if it continues in the manner in which it has been doing it stands the best chance of any current hit of removing Shape Of You from the top of the charts. So an album track will be the Number One single. And you cannot argue that it would not make a joke of the singles chart if the best selling or most streamed track of the moment was not at the top or even on the charts at all, just because the record label didn’t make it one of the nominated few.

Fix The Formula

‘Fix’ is once more a very leading word, presuming by definition that there is something broken. This refers to the current ratio of 150 streams : 1 purchased sale, adjusted down from 100:1 at the start of this year. It has been changed once and almost certainly will be changed again as the streaming market continues to grow and evolve. Nobody is suggesting changing it just because of Ed Sheeran, and indeed you could have a 200:1 streaming ratio and Ed Sheeran would still have dominated this week. But if he is the thing which causes a jump in the market, causing custom to Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer et al to notch up dramatically then I wouldn’t be too shocked to see us move to a 200: 1 ratio by the end of the year. But by no means before then.

Eliminate Passive Listening

This is the notion that much of the perceived stagnation of the market is down to people blindly listening to the various “today’s hot hits” playlists, to the extent that it swamps the true investigators, those who go on journeys of discovery and actively choose which tracks to listen to, or build their own playlists based on personal tastes. So the argument goes that the charts should not be tracking passive playlisted streams, those that follow on automatically from a user selection. The downside here is that strange though it may sound it will actually just play into people’s conservatism. The number of users who take time to explore the catalogues under their own steam is tiny compared to those who immediately go to the songs of their favourite acts time and time again. Not all playlists are bad, and Spotify’s heaviest users are unanimous in their praise for the famed “discover weekly” playlist – your own customised batch of both songs the system knows you like and other stuff (old and new) which it thinks you will like. Playlists are actually how labels get new music in front of ears and potentially into the charts. Take that away and you will find new music has more of an uphill struggle than ever before.

Include Airplay In The Charts

Radio One would love this, as the BBC article notes. But it also notes that relying on the programmers of commercial radio to positively influence the pop charts is a hiding to nothing, given the way their own research constantly insists that they should play the songs that people know and love to increase audiences. And right now the stuff that people know and love is indeed Ed Sheeran. Calls for the UK charts to incorporate airplay have been made for as long as I’ve been a music fan, and it has always been rejected by those with the power to make these choices. The Billboard chart for all its historical worth is seen as constantly in hock to the small handful of radio programmers. Say what you like about the UK charts, but it has always been the public who has shaped them. And long should that continue.

Ban Ed Sheeran

The final, tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Mark Savage isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Back in the spring of 1976, a mass re-issue programme of old Beatles singles resulted in a phenomenal chart invasion, the like of which had genuinely never been seen before. The Top 50 singles chart of April 10th saw no less than six of the places occupied by tracks by the famous Liverpudlians and there were genuine calls from those whose releases were now stuck outside the published chart for Beatles tracks to be relegated to a listing of their own, almost as if there was the assumption they would hang around forever. Which of course they didn’t.

Fifteen years later it was the album chart which was causing headaches for some. Just before Christmas 1991 a plethora of TV-advertised hits collections had made the chart rather collection-heavy. As the following clipping from Music Week shows, there were rumblings in some quarters that the album chart should be the preserve of new studio recordings. Hits compilations should be binned off to their own table, much as compilations had a year or two earlier.

We won’t see a Sheeran-only chart, any more than we saw a Beatles-only or Hits-only chart. Because the issue is this week’s issue alone. By the end of April we’ll all be wondering just what the fuss was all about, you wait and see.

Once upon a time it was thought Hits albums should be excluded.

Gentleman’s Quarterly

Like a great many other men of the modern age, I have a list of personal goals. Events and life achievements it would be nice to think can be ticked off one by one at leisure.

This week I have achieved one of these goals by appearing in the pages of GQ Magazine, quoted extensively in a piece of work by a proper writer in the shape of Dorian Lynskey – this piece on the Top 40 charts and the strange way streaming works which was in the last print issue that went on sale and has now appeared online too:

Why The UK Top 40 has Changed For The Worse

I’ll admit, though, my GQ ambition involved being featured as one of the tastemakers of the age, posing dressed in an Armani suit in the immaculately furnished front room of my multi-million dollar New York penthouse. So, partial unlock.

Never Go Out Of Style

Gone For A Leak

For a couple of days at the start of this week, it appeared to be all anyone with even the remotest connection to the radio industry could talk about. The “leaked” (ie, a single photograph posted on Twitter) excerpt from a new presenter style guide issued by Bauer to the presenters on its Big City stations in the wake of some brand new positioning. It prompted a great deal of brow-clutching and reaching for the smelling salts of those who determined it to be the final proof that radio had lost its spirit and soul.

The document also inspired some creative responses, such as the quickly knocked together parody by Jack FM, emphasising their own differences, and a near 15-minute rant by talkRADIO’s Iain Lee, himself a believer and a master at the art of more freewheeling uninhibited radio, who had hammered together his own version.

Bauer themselves felt compelled to issue their own statement shortly afterwards, musing on the “hyperbole” their presenter guidance appeared to have stirred up. And the funny thing is I’m inclined to agree with them. Because nothing that was in this document was particularly startling, surprising, unusual or even for the most part wrong. It was simply good common sense radio coaching.

Note that I don’t work for Bauer, never have, nor am I likely to any time soon it seems. What follows is simply my own damn opinion based on what I’ve learned over the course of my own 25-year radio career.

Let’s take the leaked snippet line by line.

Designated speed links are the way to keep the music flowing in daytime radio shows, playing songs more or less back to back without resorting to segueing songs with or without a station sweeper or ident. Instead, the presenter plays the role of link man, identifying the station and its slogan and bringing in the next track. They are used sparingly – once or maybe even twice an hour – but they have to be regimented. All too often a presenter’s idea of a “quick link” is to be diverted into reading out a tweet or commenting that it is raining. So the instructions make it clear. You sell the positioning, you remind people what they are listening to (important for anyone with a RAJAR diary) and you introduce the next song. Keep it simple, make it slick and far from sounding mechanical or forced, it makes you and the radio station sound bright and dynamic.

The final bullet point here is also true. Streaming technology has shown to the world what radio programmers and music researchers have known for years: the general public (ie non-music fans) takes time to grow to love a song and even longer to tire of it. That’s why these days the biggest hits hang around the charts for weeks on end and maintain their streaming numbers long after sales have died away. They are just following the way the ordinary Joe – the commercial radio listener – engages with the songs. Even if you have played the same song once a show for the past 10 weeks, there are still plenty amongst your audience who shout with joy the moment you cue it up. So nothing on your music log should ever be undersold.

What a radio presenter does into a commercial break is vitally important. It is the one moment when there is a genuine risk of tune-out from the dial-surfing listener. You can be as creative with your content as you like, take as much care over the programming of the music as you can, but if people really hate listening to adverts and would rather press a button to avoid them then they will do just that. All you can do to mitigate this is to give people a reason not to move. To stay right here because there is something they don’t want to miss. That’s basic stuff – Radio Presenter 101. The first line here is also perfectly sensible. It makes utterly no sense to tell people you play the biggest hits right before you play something that is neither hit nor music. Given you have to say it every time you open your mouth say it after the record.

This line is the only one I’d disagree with. Yes OK, this is a brand new format, the stations having been repositioned recently and the need to keep everyone on message is strong. Yet making all presenters script their “teases” beforehand and having someone senior authorise them just on the off chance they might be “wrong” smacks slightly of excessive micromanagement. If you have no confidence in the people you employ to do their jobs properly, then why are you employing them in the first place? Your presenters are trained professionals, so let them work and present to the best of their ability. And if they get it wrong, tell them so afterwards and watch to see if they do it again tomorrow.

Back to the sensible stuff again, and once more this isn’t outrageous or insulting. Just basic common sense for making good radio. All presenters know now they should throw forward into the break and encourage people to keep listening, but the bad ones can be very lazy at this. It is not enough just to list the next song on the log or lean on the “Rihanna plays next” presentation crutch. So this document reminds them that the ‘tease’ can be creative and fun. Far from being corralled into a closet of blandness as some critics would have it, this encourages and frees them to make the links into a break work hard.

All radio is about selling. Selling the radio station you are hosting. Selling the breakfast show to make people tune in tomorrow. Selling the Italian leather furniture that you have an S&P read for ready for a competition running next week. And here you are selling the reason to stay listening through three minutes of ads for motor dealers and double glazing. So to make it good, don’t just list the next songs, why not say “and on the way shortly on Viaduct FM, one of those songs which if you are in the car will make you want to nudge the volume up a little, just so you can appreciate it properly”. Because that’s the perfect tease. You’ve sold the listener on staying tuned. Because they now want to know just what the song is that is so good you will turn the volume up.

I remember once covering the afternoon show for an absent presenter. Our music database was cleverly structured so that just once in a while a random oldie from out of nowhere would appear to spice things up. So it was that at 3.15 on a Wednesday afternoon I was able to tell people “next on The Pulse I’ll play you one of the greatest songs ever recorded. I won’t cut it short either, you’ll hear all 7 minutes and 11 seconds of it, just to make today even better”. What was the song? I’ll tell you at the end. Call it a tease.

Another anecdote from personal experience. Many years ago at the start of my career, I’d routinely follow the late night phone in with an overnight show. At the suggestion of the Programme Director, I’d go sit with Alex Hall ten minutes from the end of her programme and have a conversation with her about what people could hear next. One night she asked me “What songs are you playing after 2am James?”. I confessed:”I don’t know, I’ve not looked at my printout yet”.

During the news, she admonished me for that line. The listeners neither knew nor cared to know that the songs I was playing were as ordered by a printed piece of paper. I needed to take ownership of the music I was playing and make each one my personal choice, I was told. I didn’t make the same mistake again. The next night I confidently listed three sample songs from the first half hour of the show and told West Yorkshire I couldn’t wait to share one song with them because I knew it was one of everyone’s favourites of the moment.

That’s a basic radio lesson. And the teaching hasn’t changed in 20 years because it remains correct.

Setting Them Up To Fail

Some of the rantings I read in the aftermath of the leaked document suggested this was evidence of how big corporations were “killing radio”, turning stations into jukeboxes filled with bland automatons. Some of it doubtless from people who were convinced their own careers could have flown further if only they had been set free and not confined to “style guides”. Yes, there is much to be said for hearing a true radio talent at work, someone able to work freely with the medium and for whom any kind of barriers or constraints would be too much of a burden to bear. I do that every time I get paid to listen to Iain Lee. But these people are rare and it is often a talent that has to be carefully coached, just as footballers have to be trained and managed to bring them up to the level of the once in a generation prodigy. A good manager should hopefully be always able to spot that potential and direct it accordingly.

The problem is if you give everyone space to spread their wings then many will fall short. They won’t just make poor radio, they will make bad radio. I should know, I’ve done enough of that in my time. Just as bad as hearing a creative talent stifled by a narrow format is hearing someone with little talent dying on their arse on air because someone believes telling them what to do is a bad thing. There are multitudes of bedroom stations on the internet demonstrating that in spades.

So the managers of these Big City stations don’t want their presenters to all sound equally bland and dull. Far from it. They want them all sounding as drilled, confident and enthusiastic as each other. Which is why they have a style guide, which is why they are shown what to do, and which is why crucially they are all successful in their markets.

Only Natural

I was in one sense lucky to spend much of my on-air career at a radio station which wasn’t too tightly formatted. For sure there were rules we had to follow, clocks to stick to and were carefully coached and trained by a man who was a master of the radio art. But it was more about how we said things rather than what we had to say. Nonetheless, all of us on air actually found ourselves opening most links with the radio strapline anyway. To say “West Yorkshire’s Radio – You’re On The Pulse” was easy to do, told everyone what we were about in a second and cleared the way for whatever else we had to impart. Even when free we all instinctively knew the correct way to go.

A few years later I worked briefly for a temporary radio station run by a major group as a test for a licence they wished to bid for. On the wall of the studio was a strict notice: “106.6 The Edge must be the FIRST and LAST thing you say in each link. 30 seconds max”. That might sound intimidating but it was actually a fun challenge. Because it meant every time I prepared to open my mouth on air I had to prepare mentally exactly what I was going to say, how I was going to say it and then get out of the way of the music as quickly as possible. Far from being stifled I found that liberating, exciting and dare I say it inspired to better links than I’d broadcast for years.

So hand me a style guide any time you like. Because it gives me the tools to be a better broadcaster and to make a better radio station. Every single time.

Oh yes, the “7 minutes 11 seconds greatest song of all time”? Hey Jude by The Beatles.

Always Will

The final weekend before Christmas always reminds me of a song. It isn’t even a Christmas song, although it was released at that time and was in the charts for the holiday.

I’m reminded every time I hear it of one particular occasion when I played it on the radio. Saturday December 19th 1998, just after the start of the regular sports updates show I presented on local radio at that time. Not long after it had finished the studio phone rang. On the end was a lady who informed me she had just parked up to do her last Christmas shopping and wanted to thank me for the song I’d played because it had made her feel so happy.

It made me happy to hear that too. And so every time I hear the song (far less often than I should) I think back to the day it just happened to catch someone in the moment, made them feel their life was worthwhile and inspired them to share that with the local radio disc jockey who helped. Even if all he did was line up the CD that his computer printout had told him to.

So when I hear this song I always think of the final weekend before Christmas. Always have, always will.

 

Christmas Number One – Liveblog

Friday December 23rd – 7pm: What are you still doing here? The race is over. Read all about it on Chart Watch UK – it is worth it.


Thursday December 22nd – 1pm: I had in my head today to write a long and detailed account of the way the numbers are working and in the absence of any solid information how we can infer that the gap between the Number 1 and Number 2 in the singles chart race this week is not narrowing in any way at all.

But truly there is no need. There’s another sales flash circulating behind the scenes, Music Week will publish the details later. But all you need to know is this: Clean Bandit lead Rag’N’Bone Man by 7,000 sales as of the close of play Wednesday. And that’s without certain streaming data to take into account as well.

Bookmakers, grab some headlines and settle the markets now. Clean Bandit will land the Christmas Number One 2016 with their seventh week at the top of the charts – something that is totally without precedent in the modern era. If any media outlet is tempted to write a story of how this has been “disappointing” and something of a damp squib of a festive battle, send them to me and I’ll put them straight with a few home truths.

I’ll tell you the full story of a truly great triumph for a truly great British band and the outright victory for “real music” we’ve been told has been urgently needed for years, this Friday night on the Chart Watch UK site. Link at the top of the page.


Wednesday December 21st – 2pm: We here’s me half expecting no further progress updates as the week draws on when one lands in my lap mid-morning. It features the state of the singles market as of the end of Tuesday with the caveat that it is (as you might expect for that time of day) missing streaming data for Apple and Spotify for Tuesday.

Despite all appearances to the contrary, we do actually have something of a race, even if the prospect of the lead changing hands before the end of the week remains slim. According to the latest numbers Rockabye and Human are separated by the small matter of 6,000 sales and it is a gap which it seems will remain just as tight for the rest of this week. What stymies the prospects of Rag’N’Bone Man taking over at the top of the charts at least for this week are his still sluggish streams. Tuesday’s Spotify numbers bear this out – 362,000 for Rockabye versus 184,000 for Human. That’s approximately 3,600 chart sales compared to 1,840 just from Spotify alone. To wipe out that deficit, Rag’N’Bone Man would have to be similarly besting Clean Bandit by more than 1,800 sales a day at downloads. Which he may well be, but that information is something only the Official Charts Company themselves are privy to for now.

Note that if we add this Spotify data to the streaming-free sales flash the gap between first and second increases to 7,800 – and that’s without knowing what the Apple Music numbers were.

They are naturally well out of the Christmas Number One race, but for the record none of the other ante-post contenders are in the Top 20 flash I was handed. The Dave Clark Five track suddenly bounced into the sales race by Glasgow Rangers fans ends up at Number 64 as of the end of Tuesday. Don’t be fooled by any talk that it will be anywhere near the top of the charts this weekend. It is a total red (blue?) herring. The fact that it is trading at 47-1 on Betfair at the time of writing should be enough to clue you in on how the armchair gamblers view it too.


Tuesday December 20th – 5pm: Today began pretty much as expected, Rag’N’Bone man edging ahead of Clean Bandit on iTunes, enough to suggest that his destiny to top the full singles chart will indeed be fulfilled early in the new year. The time could thus be passed browsing the increasingly disgruntled Facebook groups backing certain other Christmas Number One contenders. One managed to anger me sufficiently to tweet it out: Now let’s leave aside the fact that a “real band with real musicians [bearing] the fruits of hard work and persistence” is an exact description of Clean Bandit who have been working towards their success since the very start of the decade and whose creative and musical talents are utterly beyond doubt. This is merely proof that some people are battling musical or chart demons that are entirely of their own invention and are content to display an almost wilful ignorance of modern popular culture in pursuit of their own imaginary point.

No, this is another example of “the new shit will never be anywhere near as good as the old shit I’m into and you youngsters are blind to this” thinking of which you stumble across far too often in musical conversations online. This chap is presumably old enough to remember when the “old shit” was itself the “new shit” and was indeed being sneered at and dismissed by the ignorant from the previous generation who were sure that their “old shit” was actually far superior to the whining noise merchants of the 1990s. But he still falls into the same trap of becoming the kind of old fart he would have rejected back in his teenage years. Isn’t it funny how every generation imagines their era of music to be the greatest one ever with nothing else standing a chance of comparing?

Then something weird happened, and a golden oldie started rocketing up the live sales tables out of nowhere. The single in question is Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five, a Number One hit from the 1960s and, I was actually rather surprised to learn, absent from the UK singles chart since May 1993 when a re-release saw it poke its nose into the Top 40. The foot stomping track has retained a place in popular culture ever since thanks to its adoption from time to time as anthems for football teams, be it as pre-match crowd rousing or with suitably modified lyrics to celebrate a new hero. Well, this time around it is Glasgow Rangers supporters who have taken to using it as a terrace anthem. And out of nowhere, they have hit on the wheeze of buying it for Christmas just to see what happens.

Well fair play, if any group of people can be motivated to behave in an identical manner in a short time it is football supporters. They achieved enough volume to give the track a startling presence at the top of the iTunes table by mid afternoon. Few expect it to stay there, let alone represent any kind of chart challenge. For a start there are just over two days left in the survey period, nowhere near enough time for any single, no matter how intensively bought, to recover from a standing start and catch up to those who have been selling all week long. 70,000 copies (which is what it will take to overhaul Clean Bandit now) in two days just isn’t possible in this day and age. Even if you do have 50% of Glasgow’s largest city buying into the idea. Oh, and it isn’t on Spotify either which makes getting any kind of streaming momentum kind of tricky.

Still, it is a fun distraction and at least provides material for me to muse over for a couple of days. Late week sales updates tend to come via Music Week’s website and they have pretty much all knocked off for the holidays. We’ve got an interesting 48 hours of watching and waiting ahead of us.


Monday December 19th – 9pm: Well, the secret (such as it was for people reading these pages) is out. The official midweek chart update was unveiled earlier this evening and naturally enough caused a shock for anyone expecting a mass festive invasion. Instead, the general public learned that Clean Bandit were out in front in the race to be Christmas Number One, hotly followed by Rag’n’Bone Man with Human and surprise bronze medal contenders Little Mix with new single Touch. All the songs the press and social media expected to be in contention were nowhere. Or to be precise: Inspiral Carpets at 20, London Hospices Choir at 33, one time favourite Friends Of Jo Cox at 59 and the Everly Pregnant Brothers at 73. To name but a few. It is almost as if the general public have become bored of buying music that they have no intention of listening to. At long last. Needless to say, this has caused convulsions on some of the Facebook groups, with some folks becoming frustrated because their assumptions about the way something works turn out not to be true: There are those who have literally no idea who the current leading contenders are: Along with those who are already falling into the trap of presuming that because their attempt to “fix” the charts and propel a track to an artificially high position bearing no relation to its true level of popularity is failing it must be because of some kind of well, fix: The only final point I’d note is that the infamous “Bieber Tweet” of 2015 which stood that year’s race on its head when he urged his sheep-like followers not to purchase his single but go buy a charity record instead was issued on the Tuesday of the chart week. But the NHS Choir single he directed people towards was at that point a struggling but still close second in the sales flashes. History won’t repeat itself this year.


Sunday December 18th – 7pm: Updates? No, I got nothing, at least officially. Which is kind of understandable as right now there is no story to tell, at least not in the way everyone was expecting. Literally none of the “special” releases for the Christmas market are anywhere near contending in the real market as it stands. Whilst the story of the most consistent British music act of the moment making a herculean effort to be Christmas Number One with a single which was never released on that basis is actually one which will go down as a famous pop moment, a mass media weaned on a decade of X Factor-inspired mega sales or feel-good stories of charitable causes really has nothing to bite on. Meanwhile the singles market rumbles on. Matt Terry surrendered his iTunes lead mid-morning on Sunday, replace naturally enough by Clean Bandit. Their return to the top was however to be brief, the ding-dong battle between them and Rag’N’Bone Man resuming, the hotly tipped new star making his first appearance in the lead of the live sales tables shortly after lunchtime. This does however change nothing, Saturday’s Spotify numbers confirmed Rockabye as the most streamed track of the day. Only All I Want For Christmas Is You is showing any sign of deposing it from that particular pile. It all means the late November 66-1 shot is now almost an unbackable cert to be Christmas Number One 2016. Unless an earthquake happens on Monday morning. But with both London Hospices and Friends Of Jo Cox so far back in the running there is little point attempting even the kind of PR coup the NHS Choir achieved in 2015. All that is left for us to do is amuse ourselves with the shrill belief of people on Facebook that Saturn 5 is still in “we can totally do this people” contention. More on that tomorrow, along with the official midweek update. The reaction to which will be enormous fun to watch.


Saturday December 17th – 7pm: Bang on cue Spotify’s listening data for Friday has arrived online, and whilst it contains nothing revolutionary it is as expected revelatory. Clean Bandit remain the most streamed track on the platform. Now whilst the following makes a large number of presumptions, their total of 391,941 Spotify  streams extrapolates to a seven day total of 2.74m which itself scales up to an expected universal (i.e. all services added together) total of just over 4.1m. So still enormous, still enough to pretty much guarantee Number One under any normal circumstances and even if these are not normal circumstances giving any other single hoping to nick a win on purchases alone a huge mountain to climb. But as I’m fond of repeating, that is what happened last year. Of the other potential contenders, the Steve Aoki single, flagging at download is at least making streaming progress, doing 235K on Friday, up from 200K the day before. Sales leader Matt Terry continues to have lacklustre streams – less than 200K once more. Even by the most generous of guesstimates he can only be presumed to do 2 million by Thursday. That’s essentially 20,000 chart sales to Clean Bandit’s expected 41,000 chart sales. And trust me, he isn’t on track to be 20,000 purchases ahead of them by next Thursday. Meanwhile Rag’N’Bone Man – still ahead of Clean Bandit on iTunes – languishes way down the streaming rankings with just 170K plays on Friday. The London Hospices Choir single isn’t on Spotify, whilst the Friends Of Jo Cox track is reported by the app to have been streamed just over 1,000 times since being added to the database. That’s worth 10 chart sales if anyone is counting. The Inspiral Carpets oldie, in third place according to the lunchtime flash, does not appear in the reported Top 200. That means it has been streamed less than 41,000 times so far. The next update should come via the OCC tomorrow lunchtime, featuring more realistic sales data plus the Friday streaming tables just mentioned. That will give the wider world a clearer picture, particularly as it will feature any extreme skews from retailers we cannot easily track ourselves, but right at this moment the Christmas Number One race is still Clean Bandit’s to lose.


Saturday December 17th – 2pm: “The first glimpse of how the race is shaping up will be issued to the media around lunchtime this Sunday” announced the Official Charts Company on Friday afternoon. Well just like a child on Christmas Eve it turns out they could not wait and unwrapped the presents early, presenting a unique Saturday lunchtime sales flash. This is risky, and the OCC themselves admit that it contains no streaming data at present and is based solely on pre-orders and purchased sales. Even then the update it still startling, suggesting that the London Hospices Choir is in the lead, followed by Rag’N’Bone Man at 2 and Inspiral Carpets at 3. But that has to be a nonsense, bearing no relation at all to even the live iTunes data we can see via their published live charts which presently list the LHC as the 36th most popular download of the moment. So I suspect this update doesn’t include iTunes information at all, which would not be unusual. What it appears to reflect is early purchasing on Amazon, which tends to be the destination of choice for people who have jumped on board a social media promotion and entered the music market for the only time this year. Because in their minds, you buy everything else online from Amazon so why not a digital track? Yes, you can do that. But nobody else normally does and so Amazon’s market share is insignificant compared to other players for whom music is their core product. Except when it happens to be the only major retailer which has reported data by Saturday lunchtime. At which point it becomes the basis for wild speculation. So I’m reading nothing into this absurdity, and indeed significantly neither are the betting markets. At the time of updating Betfair remain unmoved and have Clean Bandit locked in place as a now strong favourite with the Jo Cox tribute single in second place (based it must be said little more than gut instinct than anything else). Of far more interest will be tonight’s expected data dump from Spotify which will allow us to see just how the race between Clean Bandit and Rag’n’bone Man is developing – and whether Matt Terry’s narrow iTunes lead is being bolstered at all by an improvement in his streams.


Friday December 16th – 9pm: So Clean Bandit are Number One for the final week before Christmas. Which in itself means nothing – being top of the charts for one seven day period has utterly no bearing on whether another record will sell more than you in the next seven day period after all. What is significant is that the Clean Bandit single did so in the teeth of some strong competition, both from new releases and a current chart rival, resulting in its slipping 1-4 in the sales table. Details are in the Chart Watch UK column which is linked at the right hand side of this page. No, Rockabye is Number One still because its streams were far in excess of any sales rivals. And that matters when it comes to deposing it. Any chart-invading single which wants to reach the top has no choice but to ratchet up such a commanding sales lead that the effectively 40,000 copies head start Clean Bandit has becomes irrelevant. Not that this cannot happen – remember Justin Bieber and his 5.5m streams last year which were ultimately irrelevant? But at least for now, not one of the ‘other’ Xmas No.1 rivals. Be they charity hits or Facebook campaigns have anything approaching a strong sales momentum. And every hour they do not have one, the existing hits build up a lead which becomes ever harder to overcome. Right now we still have a race. But it is between Clean Bandit, Rag’N’Bone Man and theoretically Matt Terry (at least until we see Spotify data). Which is not what anyone expected. On Betfair, Clean Bandit are trading at 3’s, making them favourites above the Jo Cox record. Mind you the Betfair market here is all kinds of wacky. If I’ve read this correctly, just about every other non-runner is showing over £1000 waiting to be matched by backing them at minimal (1.1) odds. This suggests some chancer has laid every record he could name at the same price and is waiting to clean up when none of them top the charts. But that’s what happens when you run a market with a large number of contenders and it is quickly becoming apparent that only one or two can actually win.


Friday December 16th – 1pm: I now know who is Number One this week, and although I can’t tell you until later this evening this does put an interesting spin on the first part of this particular sales and streams race – particularly as the early shape of the overall market indicates that the incumbent hits are those with the early advantage. But all will become clear later. For now we’ve no streaming information to go on, Spotify data doesn’t hit the public domain until late the following day meaning it won’t be until 6pm Saturday until we know what is being streamed right now. But that’s largely irrelevant anyway given that the incoming contenders, the singles released specifically with the aim of being Xmas Number One, won’t be in a position to grab many streams anyway. If anything comes from nowhere to top the charts it will be on sales alone – just as the NHS Choir did last year. And in truth they have all started slowly at sales. Charity single The Living Years is languishing at 14 on iTunes, the Friends Of Jo Cox single (which isn’t actually in aid of a registered charity) down at 16 with a handful of other novelties lower down. As we’d half suspected, the sheer number of “causes” lobbying for your 59p or 99p have only served to dilute focus. Campaign tracks are thin on the ground. Attempts to fire Saturn 5 by The Inspiral Carpets to the top have propelled it to 13 on iTunes thus far. With a following wind it may well end up Top 40 for Christmas which will be nice to see (it’s a great song after all) but in no circumstances Christmas Number One. Meanwhile the Betfair market comes alive at this point in proceedings and shows where the clever money is going. The Jo Cox single is a bizarre favourite at just over 2.1 (or even money in old-fashioned terms). So that’s an easy lay for me. As far as that market is concerned it is between that single and Clean Bandit with nobody else in with a chance.


Friday December 16th – 9am: Yes, it is that time of the year again. However much we hardened chart watchers or music fans may lament the circus which has grown over the years to become a frenzy, it is hard to escape the fact that the annual “race” to become the Christmas Number One has become one of the most high profile popular music events of the year. There comes a point when you can do little more than embrace that. So here then is my contribution, a week-long blog of the events that take place to shape the market and just how the runners and riders (and indeed whichever of your favourites you have backed) are doing. There’s a strange irony that this comes hard on the heels of a ‘regular’ chart week which actually played host to one of the tensest and most intriguing chart races of the year, but all we can do is sit and wait to see how this one plays out. As I have noted on Chart Watch UK over the past few weeks, you can divide the contenders into one of four categories:

  • ‘Normal’ hit singles from mainstream acts. Including the incumbent Number One record (the identity of even that we won’t know until this evening) and other current hit singles. In a sense, this is the ideal scenario. The Christmas Number One being a “proper” hit single for the first time in decades.
  • A charity single as has been the case on a number of occasions over the past few years. I have a low opinion of these, the quality of the music now secondary to the need to virtue signal and buy a record just to show how much you are pretending to care about cause x (or even cause y). Culturally they are an irrelevance and indeed undermine any remaining argument as to why it is “important” to be Christmas Number One. Last year’s winners The Lewisham And Greenwich NHS Choir set a record the week after Christmas – for the greatest fall from the top of the charts ever. Because one week later everyone stopped caring so much it seems, and they weren’t all that bothered about the music.
  • An online campaign, from those taking inspiration from past efforts and using the power of social media to encourage mass buy-ins of random old singles. Whereas once the motivation appeared to be to “stop X Factor from getting to the top” this has taken on rather less urgency. Few if any can manage the kind of momentum needed to obliterate the competition.
  • A festive classic. This was a possibility floated by friends a few weeks ago and for a time it appeared the concept had legs. Seasonal perennials may have reached a saturation point as downloads, but as streaming hits they remain as potent as ever, perhaps more so as the market for streaming services grows. Already Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You has landed its highest chart placing for a decade. However for all the talk of streaming accounting for 86% of chart ‘sales’ these days, at the top end of the market things are closer to a 50/50 split. One day circumstances may mean than an oldie becomes the most played track in the week up to Christmas and thus the Christmas Number One. But that won’t happen this year.

Me? I’m truly ruling nothing out and nothing in. All I will do is note that this is a week when normal expectations and the normal rules of consumer engagement do not apply. Last Christmas Justin Bieber enjoyed 5.5 million streams of Love Yourself but still finished as runner-up. The sell-through market may have contracted still further in 2016, but Christmas week and indeed the chance to contribute to the Christmas Number One race will inspire people to dust off their iTunes logins and buy some music for the first and only time this year. And we have no idea how these people will behave. Keep checking back later in the week. Let’s just hope this turns into a fun and indeed close race rather than one which is all over bar the shouting by Tuesday.