How Not To Be A Chart Chump

It is the time of the season. The sign to all music fans that Christmas has truly arrived is the frenzy which greets the sales week that will determine the UK’s Christmas Number One single.

It is an annual game in which people who for most of the year profess to neither know nor indeed care in what direction popular music tastes lean but who suddenly become extremely engaged with the idea of what the biggest selling single for the Christmas holiday is. At least for a few hours after it is announced anyway.

As close followers of the music charts (yes, they do exist still) will confirm, recent years have seen game reach exciting new levels of intrigue as social media is leveraged for mendacious or virtuous reasons to persuade interested parties to “lump on” the purchase of a particular record which it is presumed will signal… er, let me get back to you on that one. Being Christmas Number One is far from just being “top of the charts for the 25th”. It is somehow a major cultural event, a watershed in history. Or perhaps just an excuse for a giggle.

I’m on the record as being rather snobbish about the whole thing, being of the old school mentality that you buy or listen to a piece of music because you happen to like it, not because some chap with a knocked together logo on a Facebook page has told you to or because it demonstrates how much you really, really like going to the doctor. But it happens, all conspiring to turn the last but one sales week of the year rather berserk and random. The net result being that Christmas time in music risks bearing little or no resemblance to the rest of the year.

The advent of the streaming era and the fact that musical popularity is no longer solely determined by who sells the most has kind of reduced the impact of this week over the past few years. Nevertheless, it seems entirely appropriate to offer some kind of public service and a guide to the pitfalls and pratfalls that may lie ahead of anyone attempting to propel their favoured piece of noise to what they hope is the higher reaches of the singles chart.

This then, is Masterton’s Guide To Gaming The Christmas Chart:

  1. Be realistic. It probably isn’t going to work.

Harsh but true. Only once, be it at Christmas or any other time of year, has a social media inspired campaign managed to gatecrash the very top of the charts. The now iconic Rage Against The Machine race of 2009 only occurred because the chart regulations had never anticipated it. The rules at the time were there to prevent unscrupulous record labels and their management from attempting to hype records into the charts. The idea that the general public would gang up en-masse and buy 50 copies each of a 16 year old record at the busiest time of the year was a totally new one. So there was indeed nothing to stop you buying 50 copies at a time. Or a day. Or twice a day. As some people claimed to have done.

Specifically the Singles Chart Rules forbid “purchasing records or causing records to be purchased or streamed other than as a genuine consumer transaction”. For online stores this amounts to allowing no more than three copies of any one version of a track per purchase. One for you, and two to be “gifted” to a friend. Any extras that you buy at the time will simply not count for chart compilation. Whilst you can get round this by buying multiple versions (remixes, live recordings etc.) of the same song to bolster your total, by and large it means that the only way to storm the singles charts for real is by sheer volume of numbers. And at Christmas that means you need a heck of a lot of popular support.

The solution is simple. Although “Christmas Number One” is a sexy sounding aim, you end up looking stupid come the final tallies going: “yeah but we got Random Track x into the Top 30 and that’s a MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT”. Yes it is, but not the one you set out for. Campaigning to bombard the Top 10 or even Top 5 at a push is by no means beyond the reach of a well motivated set of Facebookers. Number One just isn’t going to happen.

2. Don’t Forget Streams. In Fact No, Forget About Streams

Since the summer of 2014 a large spanner has been thrown in the works of potential chart hypers. It is no longer just about sales, it is about people streaming your song online. Since then this market has grown to phenomenal levels. We’ve leaped from a a full 50% of logged chart data now coming thanks to digital streams rather than purchases to new records of around 92% or above. The most played songs of the week routinely clocked up 3 million plays or more. To overcome the existing market your potential Number One song will need to do the same.

Yet that is phenomenally difficult to engineer. Because the chart rules committee were wise to the prospect of people setting up farms of machines to endlessly play the same song over and over. So for chart purposes you are restricted to 10 plays per IP address per day of any song. Over the course of the week it is not possible for any one individual to log more than 70 streams for a particular song. Or to put it another way, for chart compilation purposes just under half of a download, based on the standard sales:streams ratio of 1:150. It means that for people like this punter:

Or even this incredibly enterprising soul with his mobile phone farm:

It will indeed be a waste of their time. And processor cycles. And electricity.

3. The Live Charts Are Helpful, But Deceptive

Midway through chart campaigns the generals at the front bring back breathless reports of the progress of their chosen song up the live tables issued by the major retailers. “We’re the Number 3 song on Amazon’s Nose Flute Music chart” they holler. “UP TO 12 on iTUNES COME ON WE CAN DO THIS” they triumphantly cry. Then everyone acts baffled when the song in question is listed at 34 on the midweek update. Or lower on the finished chart.

First you should understand that the Amazon live charts are meaningless. They may be the biggest retail brand online to the dismay of some and almost certainly the go-to place for any keen book buyer. But their share of the digital music market is tiny. A dot in comparison to others. Being the most downloaded song in your genre category on Amazon may look impressive, but it probably only takes 50 or so people in the last day to get there.

Oh, and here’s the other thing that confuses people. The retailer’s live charts are not cumulative, they are reactive. The precise methodology of the iTunes live tables still remains known only to a select few but it is generally presumed to be a rolling average of sales over the last 24 hours. Rising to “Number 6” on iTunes is meaningless unless you have a) been there or higher earlier in the week or b) remain there or go higher for the rest of it.

Monitoring iTunes for many years was a phenomenally useful medium for noting what was selling right now, at that precise moment. Although as sales of recorded music crash through the floor it too is rather deceptive, as selling around 5–6,000 copies in a day is now enough to make you appear somewhere in the Top 10. As a barometer for what has taken place during the course of a full sales week it is surprisingly flaky.

4. You Are Not The Only Dog In This Race

During the course of Christmas Chart week the Official Charts Company are more forthcoming than normal about the numbers involved and the exact difference between the chart contenders. This inevitably leads to people getting very excited at the midweek stage noting “We are just 8,000 copies off the top. This is do-able, come on people”.

Well yes and no. You may well be able to rustle up another 8,000 copies from your legions of supporters in a couple of days. The only problem is this will only take your tally up to where the chart leader was two days ago. Because it is pretty unlikely they are not going to sell any further copies that week. To put it another way, it is like arguing that since Car 2 in a race is only 7 seconds behind Car 1 it will inevitably be in the lead in 8 seconds time if it keeps driving at the same pace. That’s only actually possible if Car 1’s engine has exploded.

5. Finally, Be Wary Of Breaking The Irony Meter

As noted in point #1 above. Your “DJ Trepan For Xmas №1 2017” campaign probably won’t work the way you planned it. The odds are stacked against you. And despite your apparently comfortable lead at the top of Amazon’s Armpit Squelching Music daily chart and your inexorable progress towards the Top 20 on iTunes, the final reckoning may well see you fall short of the Top 40 altogether.

In the aftermath of this disappointment it is vitally important as you and your followers survey the wreckage of your attempt to promote mass purchases of 15 different versions of the same song, to stream it non-stop across five devices in your household for 24 hours a day for a week and indeed to generally contrive a level of demand for a four minute pop record that doesn’t accurately portray its true popularity amongst the general public at large — you should not under any circumstances complain that your failure to rig the singles chart is itself proof that the charts are “fixed”.

Oh well, too late for some.

James has written about every Christmas Chart race since 1992. He’s doing this one as well, week by week at Chart Watch UK.