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Article - The Singles Chart Shake-up - February 26, 2007

"To release a CD single costs around £20,000 (almost $40,000), whereas a download release costs virtually nothing. This should give greater power to young artists - and smaller labels – by enabling them to compete with the fierce marketing budgets of the major labels."

picture The crisis in the music industry marked by the introduction of the digital download technology is showing signs of coming to an end as the industry gradually adapts.

As digital downloads are now counted in singles charts, a whole new field of opportunities opens.

HitQuarters outlines the implications of these recent developements, especially for new and unsigned artists.

The biggest shake-up of the Top 40 in 50 years

Last year we heralded the one billionth music download sale as a milestone on the rise of the digital age, and now as 2007 opens and iTunes has recorded its second billion sale, we welcome a major new benchmark- the incorporation of digital-only single releases into the official UK charts.

As of January 1st this year, the UK Official Charts Company made all download track sales count towards the charts irrespective of whether the track is accompanied by a physical release (such as a CD single) or even been officially released as a single.

The change is a key refinement of a ruling brought in last March whereby digital sales were allowed to contribute providing a physical single was released a week later. This gave rise to a new era of chart anomalies beginning with Gnarls Barkley’s single ‘Crazy’, which reached the number one spot in April as a result of download sales alone.

Last year’s step forward was only a tentative one however, a concession to independent labels - whose repertoires were poorly represented at major online music outlets retailers – and retailers affected by the drop in over the counter sales.

This new chart is the long-awaited realisation of the concept of the all-inclusive digital and physical chart, and arguably the biggest shake-up of the ‘Top 40’ in its 50 year history. The ruling will not only introduce a great many more chart anomalies, but completely reinvent the concept of a ‘singles’ chart.

For instance this new regulation will mean that any download is eligible for the chart, whether it be an album track, b-side or a golden oldie. Therefore, from Elvis through to Queen and the Clash, literally anything from any era could be a hit without needing official ‘single’ status, just as long as it is available to purchase as a download from an approved online retailer.

As a gauge of the times, the Guardian newspaper website has started a weekly ‘singles club’ section which highlights not necessarily new official single releases, but tracks newly available to buy, and provides individual links to the iTunes website.

With digital downloads already proving popular with older music buyers, this ‘open market’ characteristic may lead to greater artist and genre diversity emerging in a chart traditionally associated with teenage consumers. For example we could see the Beatles return to singles chart superiority this year when their entire back catalogue is released online.

The singles chart may well re-emerge as the measure of the contemporary mainstream music market the way that it was back in 1960s before albums began to dominate sales.

A more immediate effect of the change is the phenomenon of recent chart hits returning for a second run at the top. The deletion of the CD single of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’, did not stop the song from re-entering the charts at number 30 in January, for instance.

An even more prominent example, however, is Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’, which re-entered the charts the same month at number 9 after already achieving a top ten spot last August.

The new digital/physical chart is therefore already starting to reflect the enduring popularity of hits of quality as opposed to hype. At the moment the UK chart is dominated by singles that enter the chart high due to pre-release publicity and then plummet. This new situation could mean that in the future singles slowly climb the chart as a result of positive word-of-mouth, similar to the US and UK charts of the past.

The recovery of the market and a new hope for unsigned artists

Regardless of how deeply the new system affects the chart, downloads have unquestionably given the music market a new lease of life. Sales in the UK singles market have shot up from 32.3m in 2004 to around 65m in 2006. This new chart ruling is a long overdue representation of this revolution.

This is all hopeful and encouraging news for unsigned artists, who would benefit from a more open and varied music market. But what immediate impact will the new chart have on their career aspirations?

The news is a very positive development for fledgling artists. As it is now not compulsory to release a physical version of a track in order to qualify for the charts, this will relieve some of the financial burden associated with releasing music.

For example, to release a CD single these days, an outlay of around £20,000 (almost $40,000) is commonly expected, whereas the costs required to issue a download release are virtually nothing.

This should give greater power to young artists - and smaller labels – by enabling them to compete with the fierce marketing budgets of the major labels, thereby creating a fairer and more competitive marketplace
.

The ruling has had an immediate effect on unsigned acts too. Koopa, an unheralded punk-pop three-piece from Colchester, England, made chart history by being the first unsigned band ever to have a UK Top 40 single, when their single ‘Beg Borrow & Steal’ reached number 31 on January 14th.

The song’s rallying cry of “We got this far with no money/and this is what real music sounds like" should spark a fire of inspiration in other unsigned acts, and a flash of concern across the face of the music business.

Not only were the enterprising trio without a record contract but had also gone without a publishing contract, a marketing force or an expensive video as well.

In addition to their keen sense of the potential of the internet – such as with the new promotional power of MySpace – Koopa’s chart storming was aided by a small but ardent fanbase and the digital distribution company Ditto Music.

Companies like Ditto Music and The Orchard act as digital distributors, and for a small flat fee provide young artists with the infrastructure and paperwork to get the music on the major download sites and into the charts.

Unsurprisingly, Koopa’s success provoked interest from numerous record labels. However the band rejected all advances on the grounds that they either wanted to manufacture them too much or did not offer anything they themselves could not now provide.

This gives the artist a greater degree of power. The new chart rules allow acts to achieve their own success before the involving a record company. And with the self-confidence this promotes, if a label wants to add an act to their roster they will then have to impress them, as opposed to vice versa.

At one point it seemed like the internet might herald a new era whereby artists release albums on their own websites and bypass record labels altogether. This has not proven to be the case.

Most of the artists releasing albums in such a way are not visionary new acts but old artists, like Simply Red and Level 42, who were considered over the hill by their record labels.

Instead the internet is proving to be a valuable tool for unsigned artists to refine their style and expand their audience, by posting music online and accumulating interest from music blogs and forums across the world, before beginning their professional partnership with a record company.

Therefore, as Koopa have shown, when labels show an interest, an act could have already established their image, songs and a receptive and encouraging audience, leaving the record company to fulfil their official role, and ‘take them to the next level’.

This hopefully will likely result in less acts signing with labels in desperation before finding their image and music manipulated against their wishes.

The Brooklyn-based alternative rock band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was one of the first bands to find success as a result of online exposure. They self-released their debut album in 2005 and, aided by word-of-mouth recommendation, extensive MP3 blog coverage and a favourable review in influential music site Pitchfork, it managed to initially sell 25,000 copies.

It was not enough to base a successful career on but it sparked enough of a buzz to provoke massive record label interest for their official album release. They were then able to choose a record deal that suited their interests and ambitions – and promptly chose UK independent Wichita Recordings.

Although England’s Arctic Monkeys were perhaps the most publicised exponents of this new trend of internet success stories, they were actually more homegrown and less internet-savvy than Koopa in their approach.

They followed the traditional path of creating as original and exciting music as they could and then build up a loyal following by performing it in the local live circuit. The internet’s power as a marketing tool took control when after the band gave their demos away on CD at gigs, the fans uploaded the tracks onto their computers and shared the files across the internet.

The Sheffield four-piece subsequently scored a number one in the UK for their second single and managed to fill a 3000 capacity venue for their second London gig. This ‘pre-signature buzz’ allowed them to cherry-pick their preferred label, Domino Records.

The PR backlash

Unfortunately a consequence of these anti-corporate internet artist success stories, and their heart-warming populist appeal, is their increasing hijacking by devious marketing and PR forces.

Scottish singer-songwriter Sandi Thom hit the headlines across the world last March after using a webcam to showcase 21 gigs from her London basement. The 60 people attracted to her first show reportedly grew to an estimated 60,000 for the last and as consequence she was signed for £1 million by Sony BMG subsidiary RCA.

The story is one that is becoming increasingly familiar, that of impoverished artists using the internet to connect with an audience oblivious to their talents. But in the end it turned out to be a well-managed PR stunt by her manager with the aim of securing a major label deal.

Ultimately the internet has become an indispensable tool not just for artists, but also for managers, PR and marketing firms and record labels, in pursuing their own specific aims. Sandi Thom is an internet success story, but not as people had originally thought- she succeeded in taking advantage of the media’s penchant for internet success stories.

Ultimately, although the new rules have provided fresh opportunities for new artists, they are not a substitute for talent and hard graft. The internet aided both the Arctic Monkeys and Clap You Hands’ rise, but the heart of the success was the extraordinarily infectious quality of the music.

Koopa have earned their rewards through years of struggle, reportedly playing around 500 gigs in the last three years.

The UK originally led the charge of digital charting when back in March 2003, the UK Official Charts Company announced it would debut the world’s first digital-download singles chart the following autumn.

However, despite acknowledging dominance of download sales by announcing the merging of its digital charts with the official Top 40 singles two years later, delays forced the realisation of these plans to be put-back until this year.

In the meantime, the US equivalent, the Billboard Hot 100, after following the UK’s original lead without being beset by delays, managed to introduce digital downloads into its national chart last March. The change quickly altered the complexion of the American chart with acts like Green Day and 50 Cent receiving significant boosts due to download sales figures.

There was other news this year signalling the music market’s further advances into digital and the demise of the CD, but this time concerning albums. Universal Music Group International announced that for the first time it would be releasing albums exclusively as digital downloads.

On January 18th Universal announced that it would begin an ambitious campaign to make more than 100,000 deleted European recordings available online over the next few years.





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Next week: Interview with Jay Brown


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