Charts, Million Selling Singles, And Why They Probably Don’t Matter

Someone on Twitter just linked to this article about million selling singles.

A couple of quotes jumped out at me:

“Last year some 178m singles were sold in the UK, while the projected figure for this year is 190m. At that rate, this decade will eclipse the 90s as the most successful ever for sales.”

yeah, so that shit about file sharing killing music? Sounding a little tenuous, right?

Another choice quote from the article:

“There’s been a disproportionately huge increase of million-sellers – over 60% within the last 10 years,”

Again, WTF is all that ‘the death of recorded music’ stuff about?

The stats we most often see represented in graphs are so selective as to be entirely meaningless. Whether it’s that Information Is Beautiful nonsense about how many instances of a particular transaction are required to pay an artist minimum wage, or the BPI’s figures that say recorded sales peaked in the late 90s and have been tanking ever since… Neither of those are joined up stats, or have had much in the way of rigorous interpretation done. The former doesn’t look at how those various transactions interact (people listening to streamed music and then buying, or indeed Torrenting and then buying, or perhaps Torrenting things they can’t buy, and following it up by purchasing things they can…) and the latter statistic ignores so much as to be entirely meaningless…

Let’s start off by looking at the disproportionate effect of anomalous MASSIVE selling records. You know how big EMI is, right? Well, in 2005, when Coldplay’s X&Y came out, it was delayed from it’s projected release date, into the next financial year, and EMI’s share price dropped 16%!

That’s one band. One album.

That 90s-peak-for-music-sales stat also doesn’t mention how much of that resulting sales ‘drop’ in sales was picked up by the games and DVD boxed-set markets. They have looked increasingly like a much better value proposition than £12 for a CD, but both games and boxed sets of films and TV shows contain MASSIVE amounts of licensed, paid-for music. Each House boxed-set you buy is effectively a huge compilation album. A veritable hive of music discovery, a delicious cash injection into the music economy.

Also, that peak in music sales in the 90s was largely attributed to people finally replacing all their old vinyl and cassette collections on CD. More and more albums were remastered and reissued, record player needles became harder to buy, cassette decks wore out and weren’t replaced, and CDs were bought, in massive numbers. Loads of them were Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Elton John etc… A big deal for the majors, but not of any concern for those of us more focussed on the ongoing sustainability of the creation of new art, of the development of new artists, new careers, new ways of discovering music and making it part of our lives…

So, we have multiple levels of irrelevance – whether or not loads of singles are selling a million copies is more a stat about the imbalance in the market, how top-heavy it is, about how the marketing of singles works. One of the biggest drivers of singles sales in the US over the last few years has been the TV show Glee… do you really want to make predictions about your own indie music career based on the sales of TV show spin-off downloads??

I’d love to see another stat/graph that showed that recorded music sales curve with the top 10 biggest selling albums in any given year crossed off, and anything older than 5 years and any reissues removed from the stat. To find out how sales of current, non-megastar music is doing. My guess is, the line would be pretty flat from the 80s til now… But it’s just a guess, because that data hasn’t been made available.

To make any sense of what singles or album charts mean to us as unknown artists, we need to look at the ‘top 40’ as a fraction. It’s 40/? – what is that “?” – in 1952 when the charts started, it would’ve been a relatively small amount of records that were available at all. My granddad used to go to Foyles on Charing Cross Road in his lunch hour from work and listen to ALL the new releases that week. All of them. Try doing that with the thousands of albums added to Bandcamp DAILY 🙂

So these days, the ‘top 40’ is 40/600,000. Or more. With digital stuff there is no ‘back catalogue’, there is no need to ‘re-press’, there’s no problem trying to get a distributor to carry your record and a shop to take up shelf space with it. That doesn’t exist. Everything of mine is out there to be discovered, shared, to have stories told with it and about it. And whether or not it’s in the top 40 biggest sellers of any given week, or whether it’s in the 600,000 that aren’t in there, is neither here nor there. There are also WAY more places to sell your music now that don’t report to Gallup/Soundscan. So whenever you see a stat that’s reporting Soundscan figures, be assured that the vast majority of Bandcamp sales aren’t reporting there, likewise pretty much any artist who’s running their own web-shop for downloads, sales at gigs, etc…

It’s not that charts aren’t fun or interesting – I’ve seen recently a few artist friends of mine focussing on particular sales outlets (normally iTunes) in order to get themselves into one of the specialist charts there. I’ve benefited from having the ‘#1 most artist-recommended ambient album on Bandcamp’ (click for proof 🙂 ) – it’s just that they aren’t meaningful in understanding the health of the music economy.

From an ethnomusicological perspective, a study of our relationship with music charts over time is fascinating. It’s part of the history of childhood, the emerging sense of what it was to be a youth from 1950 til now, the role that popular music has played in defining or soundtrack national and international events and moods… but it’s not a thing of great import to whether or not our music lives are going to be sustainable or not. So don’t get too worked up over it.

Songs are still selling in their millions, and they’re still wholly unlikely to be your songs. Just do what you do, make the music you love, and try not to spend too much money doing it. Who knows, you might get to pay a few bills with it along the way. At the very least, you’ll have a load of recordings you’re proud to have represent you in this world, and that’s a great privilege. Trust me 🙂

2 Replies to “Charts, Million Selling Singles, And Why They Probably Don’t Matter”

  1. Back in the very early ’80s I got a volunteer post at a radio station sorting out the record library. It was only then I discovered how much new music was coming out and NEVER appeared on any playlist, so did not get an audience. The other thing I learned was that quality and being on the playlist was almost, but not quite, mutually exclusive.

  2. Great points in this piece, Steve. Another way we might characterize the “40/600,000” argument you make is to point out that the long tail is getting longer.

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