A Lick Of Paint
The official Official Charts website (if you get my meaning) has a brand new look this week. Transforming the previous incarnation whose performance flaws were well acknowledged, the new site hosts a tweak of the company's branding materials and dare I say it ensures it looks less like an explosion in a legwarmer factory than it did before.
The new site expands the chart database to encompass some of the newer technologies that have crept into music consumption over the past few years. Now as well as tracking details such as catalogue number and chart history you can also stream audio clips of every song and where available play a 30-second clip of the video. Both multimedia items are sourced from iTunes and Apple Music and cleverly are previews only - streaming a track from Official Charts won't count for chart compilation itself meaning they don't distort their own countdown.
Selected single tracks even have a mini write-up to accompany them. I cannot begin to imagine the scale of the task of trying to ensure every song in the database has such an entry and it remains to be seen how extensive this library becomes.
The new site also expands many of the charts available for browsing - with full histories of the specific format breakdowns now available - so for example you can track the life of a song on the Official Download chart as well as the main singles chart itself. Most notably the new site also contains the French and Irish charts, both of these now compiled by Britain's Official Charts under contract.
The Truth Will Set You Free
But perhaps the most exciting part of all is that the launch is accompanied by a new independent study that sets out to define just how the pop music charts are viewed, both across the industry and by the general public. But let's face it, we've all heard countless times the moans that "the charts are not important any more" and "who pays attention to what is in the Top 10 anyway", views that are most strident amongst those fans who were used to the charts benefitting from the kind of exposure they used to get from Top Of The Pops and displays in high street record stores.
The charts do indeed suffer from a lack of visibility and prominence in the cultural conversation they used to have. But it turns out that doesn't actually matter at all.
The new report is called The Official Chart - The 'People's Algorithm' and is produced by marketing specialists CultureStudio. Compiled between April and May this year it features research gathered from interviews with academics, historians, industry observers and most importantly of all a survey of over a thousand ordinary consumers drawn from both Official Charts digital channel users and other random members of the public.
The results are utterly fascinating. Far from being a cultural irrelevance or perhaps only of note to an older generation for whom they have more resonance, fully 76% of those surveyed claim awareness of Official Charts. 69% of those surveyed noted that the charts are their favourite means of discovering new music - outranking newer media such as TikTok and YouTube or traditional paths such as radio and peer group influence. For the under 25s that figure rises even higher to 72%. The charts matter to the young.
But radio still has its part to play, particularly with the Friday evening Official Chart Show. Radio One boss Alex Haydn-Jones describes the charts as "bringing order to chaos" noting that the chart show helps guide the audience towards what is popular. And the value of an independent countdown cannot be understated. As the report notes: "music critics tell us what they think is valuable, the charts tell us what is actually being listened to". One survey respondent is quoted saying: "It's how I find artists I've never heard of, and there's [excitement] in not knowing if what's coming next will be something I love, or something I hate, not something an algorithm has decided I would like".
The stats about the Radio One chart show are quite telling. Jack Saunders has an audience of 1.3m listeners on a Friday afternoon, 53% of that audience being in the 15-34 demographic. And consistently one of the most popular on-demand shows on BBC Sounds? The Official Chart Show. Consistently.
Learning that so many people still think like me has also been glorious. My love of music and my own desire to be a historian of music was driven by the singles chart - both the brand new one that came out each week and the vintage countdowns that played by shows such as Old Record Club. I swiftly realised that each new Top 10 was itself writing a new part of history. The charts provide us with nostalgia but, as the report discovers, the concept of nostalgia should not be associated with older audiences only. Even Gen-Z have a powerful emotional connection to the past. Research shows that 2 in 5 Gen-Zs have a fondness for 90s music and entertainment, 42% of them connect powerfully with the 00s.
The report echoes the things I've been saying in interviews for years. The Official Chart serves as a continuous alert, reminding us what is popular in culture both in the present and as the soundtrack of our lives as we grew up.
Let's not forget the artists too. Reinforcing the point I make whenever referencing the social media feed of the acts involved, it matters to the performers too where they land on the chart. It is how they define themselves in reference to their peers. As Thom Rylance of The Lottery Winners noted following their No.1 album success back in May: "It feels like fifteen years of hard work, not taking a wage, neglecting all our financial and social responsibilities and pouring everything into something that we really believed in; it's affirmed that was the right decision".
This has been a fantastically smooth bit of PR work from Lauren and Helen in the brand team at Official Charts. Their online home has launched a brand new look, the first in over 12 years, and comes complete with an official document of the confidence everyone has in their product. And that's also why this site remains here too. Because even after so many years, it still matters a great deal who makes it to No.1 each week.
If you would like your own copy of The People's Algorithm report, you can obtain it from Official Charts themselves. Fill in the form and they will wing you a copy.