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The actions that define culture are rarely deliberate. Culture is, in many ways, an accumulation of accidents, small gestures and stumbles that somehow end up sticking together like a giant snowball rolling down a hill. Every successful band has the moment when they almost gave up just before their breakthrough; every artistic movement has its rejections, arguments, and fistfights; every book has a graveyard of characters and scenes that were killed to make way for the story. The end result may look neat — libraries of books ordered alphabetically, artworks organized into linear chronologies — but the process of making culture is anything but.

The same is true for how we measure the attention we give to culture. As we’ve seen in earlier episodes of this series on the history of attention, the concepts we use to frame and organize attention are palimpsests, built through the same competitions, frustrations, and dead ends as culture itself. They are invented to solve an immediate problem but grow in value and importance until they end up an inextricable part of the culture they seek to measure.

This is how the singles chart started — not as an attempt to create the most influential concept in music of the past half-century, but as an attempt to sell more advertising in a fledgling music magazine. Its inventor, Percy Dickins, was a magazine advertising salesman, ex-merchant seaman, and keen amateur musician. Stuck at the Melody Maker, the stuffy trade magazine for professional musicians, Dickins jumped at the chance to join the team starting a new magazine — the New Musical Express. Looking to find ways to increase its advertising income, he saw an opportunity to run lists of the bestselling singles, a relatively new format that was gaining popularity with young music fans:

We used to run a scheme for the PRS showing the best-selling sheet music. Looking through Variety they had all these records and I said to Ray [Sonin, the co-founder of the NME] “this would be a good idea, to have the best-selling records” and he said “good idea, you set it up.” I thought “If we’ve got all these records reviewed here, we can ask for ads to go with them. There are more records coming out now” and we gradually went that way. The paper was going well, we were being printed on a rotary press; it’s getting very popular and we are the paper. When we got the record chart going as well it was fantastic. We got more publicity from it.
—Excerpted from an interview with Percy Dickins by David Hughes, 2015

The first chart ran in the NME on November 14, 1952. At number one was the crooner Al Martino, with “Here in My Heart.” Vera Lynn, the “Forces’ Sweetheart” whose songs had helped Britain through World War II, had three out of the 12 songs on this first list.

The first UK Singles Chart in 1952.

Like Britain itself in the 1950s, the first singles chart felt like an in-between moment. The explosions of World War II were just beginning to recede, and the explosions of rock and roll were yet to be heard. It was a calm, sweet, and soothing list, ideal for a postwar Britain, made up of Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, and Rosemary Clooney.

Almost exactly a decade later, in May 1963, the Beatles had their first number one, “From Me to You,” and the role of the singles chart in popular youth culture was firmly established. The charts were the focus of a new, rawly emotional explosion of youth culture, driven by the passionate behaviors of fans. It was a hotly contested battleground, obsessed over by fans and artists, the target of shady attempts at manipulation by record companies and promoters.

Within just 10 years, the singles chart had grown from a simple list in a new magazine to the engine that drove a cultural revolution. But the singles chart wasn’t invented to do this. Percy Dickins wasn’t trying to start a revolution; he just wanted to sell more advertising space.

There are millions of books about popular music — biographies of rock legends, cultural criticism, academic studies, and cash-ins on the latest trends. But surprisingly, there are no books about the chart as a cultural concept itself. There are encyclopedias listing chart positions for every artist through chart history, but there are no books analyzing the chart as an idea, as something that made culture as well as just measuring it.

The music chart is, at its most simple, just a list. In the UK, this list was made up by asking a small sample of shops to report on record sales. In the United States, the Billboard Hot 100 was created in 1955 by merging three previous lists measuring singles sales, radio airplay, and jukebox plays (jukebox plays were dropped within the first two years). There are similar lists in other areas of culture, like movies and books, but they haven’t ended up defining their industries in the same way as the music charts.

Within a decade of its invention, the music industry would be focused around achieving chart success, with entire teams spending millions of dollars to try to make sure their artists reach that coveted number one spot. What was it that made the chart, this simple list, so economically and culturally significant?

Two things might explain its success. The first has to do with time — the charts were updated on a relatively speedy weekly basis. This was not a deliberate strategy, but since weekly music magazines invented the charts in the United States and UK, the singles chart had to be updated every week. Having such a fast turnover meant that the charts reflected, and to a certain extent drove, the quickening pace of youth culture in the late 20th century.

Every week, the chart created new stories — acts that were making their debut, roaring up the charts, being replaced by hotter new acts, or reaching the glorious summit of number one. The charts were an ongoing soap opera for pop fans, a mythic world in which their gods fought each other for supremacy.

But this weekly rhythm did something else, something more profound. It fixed music to a specific time. Particularly during the emotional maelstrom of our adolescence, music helped us fix memories in the growing stories of our lives. For the period when the charts were the way we discovered music, songs were inextricably linked to the weeks they spent in the charts. They became a shorthand for collective memory — a cultural soundtrack of the late 20th century.

After decades of the charts, this has made popular music a potent tool for provoking memory and nostalgia. Because our experience of music was so closely linked to a specific time, it can be used to evoke a deeply emotional, immersive recollection of what we were doing, feeling, and thinking at that moment.

This has been regularly exploited by the TV and film industries, from Happy Days to Stranger Things. There seems to be a particularly potent link between archive news footage and chart music — the BBC ran a hugely successful series in the 1980s called The Rock and Roll Years that consisted of just archive footage and current chart music, with no narrator or voiceover.

The documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has used this technique to create what he calls “emotional stories” — films that use popular music and archives to give an immersive impression of what it was like to live through a specific moment, rather than tell the story from an objective perspective:

Eighteen months ago I tried an experiment in this area. I did a project with the theatre company Punchdrunk. It was called “It Felt Like a Kiss.” At the centre of it was a film that I made about a period, 1958 through to 1966. It was cut to music, and my aim was to try to create a feeling of what it was really like to live through a period, emotionally, and the relationship between those fragments of experience to the big stories of our time. Which we now, looking back, know, but at the time probably didn’t make much sense. I was trying to play with the perspective that we have now with archive film and music; what it must be like at that point.
—Adam Curtis, from his talk at the Story Conference, London, 2011

The second factor in the single chart’s success was that it was equally important to both fans and industry — the charts were public and popular. Percy Dickens went to work at the NME because he wanted to move away from the more staid, music industry–oriented Melody Maker. As pop culture grew in the 1960s and 1970s, these weekly music magazines were voraciously consumed by the public and the industry alike. This made the charts the primary means of discovering new music, as well as a measure of success.

Other media industries, like books and films, have had similar weekly charts, but they’re not as influential as the pop charts are to music fans. Film distributors might be obsessed with box-office rankings, but film fans are as interested in reviews, ratings, and awards as they are charts.

Book charts are important for classifying a book as a “bestseller,” but consumer buying is driven more by advertising, word of mouth, book clubs, placement/discounting in stores, and algorithmic recommendation on Amazon than by the weekly bestseller chart.

More than any of these lists, the music chart was the beating heart of the culture that it measured. In the late 20th century, music became one of the primary means for teenagers to explore and experiment with identity. It was a tribal signal of belonging, of rebellion, a statement of who we thought we were to the outside world. The music chart was therefore not just an inert compilation of data, but the aggregation of millions of moments of identification and self-realization. It was emotion, passion, and identity, all wrapped up in a weekly list of 40 or so records.

These two factors — a regular rhythm of weekly publishing and passionate adoption by pop music fans — were the reason the music chart was so central to the music industry. They were both the result of Percy Dicken’s decisions back in 1952, when he was just trying to sell more advertising. By putting the singles chart at the heart of the New Musical Express, he accidentally helped make a simple list of data into something public, powerful, and passionate.

Our obsession with the singles chart often dies away as we grow out of our youth. By the time we get to middle age, most of us lose track of the soap opera that is the charts. Music might still be an essential part of our cultural life, but it’s less of a tribal part of our identity.

The chart itself has had a midlife crisis, driven not by a dimming of teenage passions, but by a change in the way we buy music. In its prime, the chart was inextricably linked to radio and physical single sales. By the early 2000s, the rise of digital downloads had a major effect on the way we bought music and, as a result, to the charts.

Data journalist Cath Sleeman has analyzed the amount of time songs spend in the UK Top 40 and found a remarkable shift as soon as downloaded tracks were included in the chart data. Before then, in the 1980s and 1990s, most singles spent about four weeks on the charts. By the end of 2014, this had doubled to eight weeks.

Chart from ‘Turnover in the Top 40’ by Cath Sleeman. View the interactive version at The Long + Short.

This shift illustrates how the chart’s importance has changed as our music listening moved from physical to digital sales. Record shops had limited space for inventory, so they focused on chart records. With the near-infinite inventory of digital stores, music fans bought songs over longer periods, leading to them staying on the chart longer.

The chart has changed again with the rise of streaming music services like Spotify. In 2014, when those services were officially included in chart data, they accounted for around 40 percent of “sales” (with 100 streamed plays equal to one “sale”). By 2018, this had risen to 80 percent, even though the number of streams to equal one sale was increased to 150.

Streaming albums also means that every track can be counted as a “single,” leading to major albums dominating the charts in the week of their release. In March 2017, 16 out of the top 20 UK singles were tracks from Ed Sheeran’s new album “Divide,” giving the chart a crisis of identity — had the way we consumed music changed so much that the chart was no longer an effective way of representing the industry?

The chart, in its heyday, was both a metric for sales and the means to discover new music. It was both exhaust and fuel — an engine that drove a revolution in pop music. Perhaps its demise has been caused by the separation of these two roles. The chart continues to adapt in order to track the changing way we listen to music, but the role of discovery has shifted from the chart itself to the Spotify playlist.

In the late 20th century, the most influential figures in the music industry were the pluggers and promoters, the shadowy figures who knew which record stores were tracked for chart data or how to get radio stations to put a single on rotation. Payola — the practice of paying promoters to get songs on radio playlists — was widespread throughout the industry. In the 1980s, Dick Asher, president of CBS, tried an experiment by not paying promoters in Los Angeles to support the Pink Floyd single “Another Brick in the Wall.” After a few weeks’ standoff, with the song charting everywhere expect L.A., Asher relented and paid up. With the promoters now getting their cut, the song quickly leaped to number one.

Record companies are now learning how to game Spotify playlists as they once did the charts. The biggest Spotify playlists have millions of followers, so getting a song on these playlists is almost a guarantee of success. Just as records used to be released in multiple versions to boost chart positions, songs are now being released in multiple versions to get on the most influential Spotify playlists:

Take Despacito, the biggest song of the year both in terms of how many plays it has clocked up (4.6bn and counting), and how many different versions have been put out. There is the original with Daddy Yankee; the globe-conquering follow-up featuring Justin Bieber; a Portuguese version; a salsa version; a pop version and an “urban” version; not to mention multiple remixes. As well as evincing the apparently insatiable appetite for a reggaeton song about having sex on a Puerto Rican beach, it’s a clear example of how songs are now moulded to get on to as many playlists as possible.
—Eamonn Ford, “How Spotify Playlists Have Changed Music Forever

If the chart is dying, or is at least seeming less relevant, then there is a remarkable circularity in its journey. It started in 1952 with one artist — Vera Lynn — having a quarter of the entries on the chart. Over the next 50 years, it became the focus of a huge explosion of pop culture and the engine driving a global billion-dollar industry. Now, as the role of the “Hot List” passes from the charts to Spotify playlists, that moment is marked by another artist — Ed Sheeran — dominating the charts.

From Vera Lynn to Ed Sheeran, the past 50 years of the music industry wouldn’t have been possible without the singles chart. It was more than just a list; it was the beating heart of music culture in an era when the limitations of physical distribution meant that the chart could create a shared experience out of the passionate, tribal world of pop music.

As the way we listen to music changes, from charts to playlists, we might be losing not just the chart, but this shared experience as well.