The singles charts have always been a bit of a shambles, but recently they have been upgraded to “hot mess” status. Take Ellie Goulding scoring the post-Christmas No 1 with her cover of Joni Mitchell’s River, despite it being an Amazon exclusive, through a combination of playlist carpet-bombing and the season’s perennial heavy hitters from Wham! and Mariah Carey having their eligible streaming numbers effectively halved to stop tracks more than three years old clogging the chart arteries.
It is not only the UK facing a chart crisis. In the US, French Montana’s Writing on the Wall has become a surprise hit amid accusations of industrialised fake streaming, where stream “farms” have thousands of devices hammering the first 31 seconds of a track on Spotify or YouTube so they get registered as a play.
Then there is Billboard having to tighten its chart rules around “album-bundling”, where acts sell CDs or downloads rolled in with tickets or merchandise to juice their first-week sales. The practice went public in a 2018 beef between Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott, where the former accused the latter of beating her to the US No 1 by gaming the charts – even though Minaj was also playing the bundle game.
It is a long way from the straightforward chart-rigging of the past, when unscrupulous sorts sent teams around the UK in vans to buy up multiple copies of singles from chart-return shops, or where labels issued singles on 10 or more formats (cassette, CD, 12-inch, seven-inch, picture disc etc) until the charts were shamed into restricting the number of eligible options.
That all now feels like a simpler time. Today, chart companies are permanently scrambling to keep up with technology. Downloads, for example, were quarantined in their own chart before finally being rolled into the “grownup” chart. Streaming, however, has proven the biggest existential threat, with a complex weighting system eventually being applied, and convoluted conversion equations cooked up to arrive at sales equivalents in chart tallies where, in the UK for example, 100 streams on the paid version of Spotify, but 600 plays on the ad-supported version, “equal” a sale.
What was once a hugely unscientific undertaking – the UK singles chart was born in 1952 when Maurice Kinn called up a handful of record shops and printed a Top 12 in NME – has become too scientific, and record companies forensically comb the rules for loopholes they can exploit. As music unspools in a million different ways, the Top 40 as the place to make sense of it all has had its validity shattered. The charts are now, to misquote Churchill, an algorithm wrapped in a T-shirt, inside an enigma.