Something which might be a little inexplicable to you if you’re not a follower of the UK charts is the concept of chart rules. Does the chart really get so much attention that it needs legislation?
Well yes, it does. By the late 1980s, various acts – or perhaps their record companies – were trying to push the concept of the single a little too hard. In 1987, new rules were introduced to limit the number of formats for the first time to five. Perhaps slightly inexplicably looking back, one of those had to be a cassette. So typically a single would be released on 7″, 12″, limited 12″, CD, and of course, a tape.
This was reduced to four formats (with the cassette requirement removed) in June 1991, and singles were now limited to a maximum of four tracks. But American singles had no such restrictions, and with the growth of the remix there was now a strong market for imported singles from the USA.
This was curbed in March 1992 with the introduction of rules allowing for remix singles – you were still limited to four formats, but two of those could include any number of versions, up to a maximum playing time of 40 minutes, while all other formats were limited to 25 minutes and 4 tracks.
So it remained for much of the 1990s, except for some minor adjustments for minimum dealer prices, and so the single reached its heyday. By 1997, CDs were selling better than they had ever done before. But also the rock market was starting to outstrip the dance market in terms of sales, and ageing rockers were in charge of institutions like the BPI and also Top Of The Pops.
July 1998 saw the introduction of draconian chart rules which limited the number of formats to three, and limited the number of different tracks to three. But crucially, the playing time was now limited to 20 minutes.
What happened next? CD single sales collapsed, almost overnight. With nearly 58 million CD singles delivered to retailers in 1997, only 53 million shifted in 1998, and by 2001 the number was down to 40 million. Remember, this was long before downloads started making a significant impact on the charts.
So was this a coincidence, or cause and effect? It’s difficult to say – while the correlation is clear, it’s possible that the new chart rules were brought in to try and stem falling sales. Or it’s equally possible that they were the cause – after all, album sales didn’t start to fall noticeably for another decade.
Yet again, it’s very tempting to look at this in retrospect and see the record industry’s own fingerprints all over the nails in its coffin.