History of the UK Charts – What Next?

Throughout this series of posts, we have explored the myriad odd, obscure, and intriguing official (or sometimes semi-official) UK charts. On the way past, we did skip a few, so let’s take a quick look at them before we go any further.

Independent Charts

The history of the Independent, or “indie” chart is well chronicled. By the end of the 1970s, numerous small independent record labels had grown up, with independent shops to support them, and they had started to build a healthy following. Because most of them were fairly small, with tight budgets, their chart performance tended to be limited, and so on 19 January 1980, the first Independent Singles chart was published.

Today, the 1980s are celebrated as the heyday of the independent charts, with books dedicated to the era, and while the 1990s saw the explosion of “indie” music (generally meaning grubby guitar-based music), many of the truly independent labels started to get gobbled up by the majors, who in turn spun up their own, partially-owned “independent” offshoots, in order to get a piece of this particular pie.

Finally, in 2009, this practice was made more difficult thanks to chart rule changes, and the indie charts live again – with a Top 50 Singles and Albums chart published weekly. The same week, 29 June 2009, saw the lauch of the Independent Singles Breakers and Independent Albums Breakers charts, a slightly odd pair of charts which are only open to artists who have never hit the main UK Top 20 previously.

My favourite chart of recent times is probably the Record Store Chart, a Top 40 albums chart, which was added just in time for Record Store Day 2012. Like the Independent Singles and Albums charts, it uses sales data from a sample of Independent retailers – unlike them, there are no restrictions on what can chart – it’s just a sales-based chart compiled from the best selling albums in independent record stores.

Regional Charts

Back in the 1950s, the UK charts had started in London, and had only spread slowly out of the capital, and so the regions and nations of the UK were often underrepresented. Northern Ireland, in particular, did not manage to contribute to the main UK Singles and Albums charts until the 1980s.

This lack of representation, and also the inevitable differing of tastes across the UK, led to a push for a Scottish chart in the 1970s, when Radio & Record News and Record Business started compiling charts. Gallup launched the first official Scottish chart on 17 March 1991, when it was broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland and BBC1 Scotland. Current archives on the Official Charts Company website go back to 1994, which is when MRIB took over compiling the Scottish charts. It’s not clear now whether this was the start of the Scottish album chart, or whether that goes back further as well.

The Scottish charts had, as you might expect, always been kinder to genres of music that were better known in Scotland, so punk, rock, and new wave have always tended to perform better, and the 1990s saw an amusing wave of so-called Tartan Techno. Homegrown acts, too, performed better – often to the detriment of the chart, as Wet Wet Wet‘s infernal hit from summer 1995 Love is All Around, which dominated the UK chart for a mere 15 weeks, sat at the top in Scotland for an astonishing 20 weeks.

Another curiosity of the Scottish charts is just how far they lag behind the full UK ones in terms of keeping up with the latest listening trends. Whereas the UK charts added downloads into the mix from April 2005, they weren’t included in the Scottish charts until late 2009, meaning that a lot of fanbase-driven artists were able to score some exceptional hits, such as Pet Shop Boys hitting number 3 and 2 with Love etc and Did You See Me Coming? respectively, which only peaked at 14 and 21 respectively on the UK charts. Even now, five years after streaming was added to the UK-wide charts, it still hasn’t been added in Scotland, and so artists such as Pet Shop Boys continue to score hits north of the border.

The Welsh Singles and Albums Charts appear to have started around the same time as the Scottish charts, but curiously never seem to have built up the following. It was broadcast for a while by BBC Radio Wales from 2000 to 2007, and was available online during the same period. These have fallen offline now, but selected examples can be found, if you search hard enough – and the completist chart publication UKChartsPlus still carries them.

Modern Welsh chart watchers, perhaps understandably, seem more interested in the performance of Welsh acts on the full UK chart. You see occasional discussion of the Welsh chart from time to time, but it’s limited.

Saddest, and also most surprising, in a way, is Northern Ireland’s chart, which definitely existed at some point – I found references of chart show on the radio in 1989 – but there’s very little mention online nowadays. And, of course, because of the common confusion between England and the UK, it’s unfortunately impossible to know just from online searches whether England or any of its regions have ever had their own chart.

What Next?

So where does this leave us? In 55 years, we have gone from having no UK charts, to sheet music, to a small, tentative record of the best-selling singles, to albums, downloads, streaming, and now pretty much zero sales. The official UK chart has come to be one of the most painstakingly compiled datasets in the world – and yet, partly due to its own diversification, and partly due to changes in the world around it, it seems to have also become almost entirely irrelevant.

What’s nice now is that the Official Charts Company give us a full archive of the last couple of decades of charts on their website. While it would be nice if some of the niche charts were more complete, and it would be fantastic if they were fully searchable, it’s at least nice to have them all in one place.

The one trend that you can comfortably see is an increasing diversification of charts – no longer is there just one chart that everyone tunes in to hear on a Sunday afternoon. It’s almost as though we’ve returned to the late 1950s and early 1960s, where everyone has their own chart that they trust, and nobody really cares about the official one.

If there’s a trend to identify here, it’s that this shows absolutely no sign of slowing – this decade alone has seen the launch of the Asian Music Chart, Vinyl Albums, the MTV Urban Chart, Streaming Singles and Albums, the Record Store Chart, Classical Singles, Christian & Gospel Albums, Progressive Albums, Americana Albums, and the Scala Singles Chart. Next, we can probably expect a weekly Ed Sheeran chart and the K-Pop/Children’s Novelty Crossover Top 42.

But more likely, in a way, is that someone will come up with something new to take the place of the Independent Singles and Albums charts – something edgy, that all the cool people will buy into for a while, until it gets bought out and compiled by the Official Charts Company too, and everyone loses interest again. Time will tell.

This article owes a lot to the following sources:

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