Is the UK albums chart fair?
Rappers and heritage rock bands are battling for the UK Number One, and it’s the acts with vinyl-loving fans who are winning.
Of the 52 weeks in 2020, 43 saw new albums go to Number One in the UK – more than any year before. There’s a palpable buzz around the charts when so many new entries are competing for the top spot. And lately the competition has become tighter, with close-run battles for the top slot, races that often pit long-established rock acts against rappers.
At the end of 2019, Rod Stewart’s orchestra-assisted album beat Stormzy’s sophomore Heavy is the Head in the Christmas album charts (Stormzy eventually climbed to the number one spot in January 2020). Last year, Nines’ Crabs in a Bucket beat Metallica’s live album S&M2. In recent weeks, Ghetts (with Conflict of Interest) went against Mogwai’s As the Love Continues, then drill star Digga D’s Made in the Pyrex mixtape and Newcastle indie band’s Maxïmo Park’s Nature Always Wins faced off for the top spot – only for both to be pipped (by a total of just 550 units) by Brighton metalcore band Architects’ ninth album, For Those That Wish to Exist.
But these battles aren’t just being drawn along genre lines. The trend is that the sales making the big difference are physical ones – CDs, cassettes, vinyl – rather than digital downloads, or the “sales” counted from streams. So far in 2021, six out of nine Number One albums have clocked more than 70 per cent physical sales.
The cultural implications of this are worth debating.
In the week Architects edged out Maxïmo Park and Digga D, around 70 per cent of both the bands’ sales came from physical formats, according to official chart data. Digga far outstripped every other new release in the streaming-only chart (in which Architects entered at number 24, and Maxïmo Park didn’t feature at all), but he was beaten into third place in the main rundown.
When Mogwai fought it out with Ghetts at the end of February, the Glaswegian post-rock outfit edged the grime veteran by just shy of 3,000 units. Again, some 70 per cent of Mogwai’s sales came from physical copies and around seven per cent from streams. The opposite was true for Ghetts: about 12 per cent of his sales were physical, and 45 per cent from streams (the rest being made up by downloads, many of which came during a final chart push which saw the rapper driving around London in a tank, projecting his artwork onto the city’s landmarks, and urging fans to download the album).
It seems reasonable to suggest that, based on streaming numbers, more people will have listened to Ghetts’ album than Mogwai’s in the week they were both released. More than 80% of all music consumption in the UK is now down to streaming. Mogwai were number one on the physical chart, and Ghetts was number 10. But Ghetts was the highest new entry on the streaming chart, while Mogwai didn’t appear on it.
The Official Charts Company does publish separate charts for streaming, physical sales, and downloads – but it’s the combined one that gets announced on a Friday evening.
Streams have been included in the singles chart since 2014, and have counted towards album tallies since 2015. But one stream doesn’t equal one sale.
In the singles chart, 100 streams count for one sale. Official music video streams from YouTube (the most popular destination for music streaming in the UK, and where UK rap is especially popular) are counted in the singles chart too, but they don’t contribute to album sales.
For album tallies, it’s a little more complicated. Charts in the UK, US and Germany use something called the “album-equivalent unit” to calculate the difference between physical sales and digital streams. In the UK, 1000 streams convert to one album sale. This is calculated in a specific way to avoid super-popular singles skewing the album’s chart placement.
The 12 most-streamed songs on the album (or all the tracks, if the total is less than 12) are counted together. First, though, the stream count for the two most popular tracks on the album is lowered down to the average number of streams across the remaining 10 tracks.
For example: if the two most popular songs have been streamed 100,000 times each, but the remaining 10 songs have only received an average of 20,000 streams, then all 12 tracks (including the two most popular) will be bumped down to 20,000 streams each.
All of those streams are then added up – in this example, it would be 240,000 streams (12 lots of 20,000) – and the total is divided by 1000 to get the number of equivalent album sales. So in this case, the total sales from streaming would be 240.
It’s complicated, but worth explaining because a lot of fans might not realise that streaming an album a few times won’t count much towards its final standing in the charts. Spending a tenner on a CD, or 20 quid on the vinyl record, will do a lot more to impact on its positioning in the Top 40.
And, while coordinated social media campaigns in launch week can help, their impact is ultimately limited. The #Nina4Number1 hashtag helped push Nines to the top spot above Metallica last September, and similar hashtags were also used by Ghetts, Mogwai, Digga D, and Maxïmo Park. But only Nines has managed to beat out the competition with streams and downloads alone.
“I think the charts are actually a good reflection of what’s going on in the UK, like, not just the Black music bubble,” says Sian Anderson, who presents a show on Radio 1Xtra three times a week, as well as working in marketing for Parlophone. “I think that there are obviously shitloads of people who listen to rock music.” Anderson believes that if you took physical formats out of the question entirely, and streaming was the only way to listen, acts like Mogwai, Architects, or Maxïmo Park would still outsell their younger rap counterparts.
Anderson points out that heritage acts have the advantage of having many years growing their fanbase. This, coupled with the fact the that older age groups are more accustomed to the idea of buying physical formats, makes it seem like older rockers are guaranteed to have a good head start in chart battles. With the continued surge in popularity of UK rap, a major shift in young fans’ consumption habits towards physical purchases could change the game in the future. But is it likely?
It makes sense that if you started a band in 2000 – when Spotify was just a twinkle in Daniel Ek’s eye – then your fans are more up for buying your music on CD or vinyl, or possibly downloading it. Whereas Digga D was born in 2000, the same year Maxïmo Park formed, and there’s a fair chance he, like many of his fans around his age, won’t have bought a CD or vinyl record in his life.
Another factor is that CDs, tapes and records take time to make and distribute – so you need to plan that into a release campaign. For prolific, often independent rappers operating outside of the major labels’ release cycles, the idea of sitting on a finished mixtape or album so you can get physical copies made might feel frustrating – especially if you have impatient fans breathing down your neck.
But at the end of the day, how much do chart placings actually affect a UK rapper’s career in the long run?
“When I look at the different sort of metrics, the different ways to measure if an artist that I work with is successful, chart positioning isn’t really one of them,” says Andy Musgrave, who looks after business for AJ Tracey. “I look at those kinds of things as slightly outdated measures from a time where artists were in competition with each other for success, which I don’t believe is the case anymore. I think there’s room for everybody to be successful. These points of comparison, I don’t know if I really support them.”
Indeed. The rankings are, ultimately, arbitrary: 10,000 sales might clinch you the top spot one week, but you could sell 50,000 the next and not make the Top Five if you happen to be up against Taylor Swift or Drake. That said, in the view of Ghetts’ management, the impact of seeing peers succeed – and learning from their success – is significant.
“[Digga] having a number three, us having a number two, AJ, Fredo, Giggs, whoever has it, it’s just building [the profile of UK rap],” says Trenton Harrison-Lewis, who manages Ghetts along with Daniel Tuffin. “I’ve been in the business since 1987, and it ain’t been like this. It was not like this!” he repeats with feeling.
Sian Anderson remembers those days, too. She recalls the struggle to get big shops and supermarkets to take copies of Wiley albums before grime exploded into the mainstream, and compares it to today, when UK rappers are all over billboards and magazine covers. Artists and their teams are learning from one another and getting behind a collective cause – despite the competitive confines of the business.
Tuffin and Musgrave both say it feels like a win for everybody when someone in the UK rap scene is thriving. Artists like Wiley, Dizzee, Lethal B, Skepta, and Giggs have all broken down industry barriers in the past. Dizzee Rascal’s seminal debut Boy In Da Corner peaked at Number 23 when it was released in 2003, a feat that was a major breakthrough for an uncompromising grime record. And while Number 23 probably isn’t considered a high position by UK rappers these days, the legacy of that record has far outlived its commercial success.
Stormzy, Dave and Nines reaching Number One have been huge moments for the UK rap scene – but more important than the chart positions, arguably, is that they opened up new opportunities for others to follow. Digga D’s chart success has come in spite of unprecedented levels of intervention from the criminal justice system, and therefore it’s considered by his fans as a triumph over major setbacks.
The charts are still just a sales rundown masquerading as a cultural arbiter. Streaming, social media, and weekly rankings can make music feel fleeting. But all of these albums will still be around after the chart race is long forgotten. As Ghetts himself put it: “This isn’t just about first week sales, it’s about where we go from there after, how much further we can push the boundaries.”