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:

History of the UK Charts – The Digital Age

Younger readers may not fully realise the pain that the global music industry went through at the turn of the millennium. The physical format – for singles, at least – died within a couple of years, and after some initial misguided action, legalising the now-ubiquitous download was essential. By 2004, physical sales were already outstripped by downloads, and so the chart needed to reflect this.

Downloads

An initial test download chart was finally compiled in July 2004, combining  legal sales of downloads from various online stores. This was first published as an official chart on 1st September 2004, with Westlife stealing the top spot with a rush-released live version of Flying Without Wings.

A few months later, on April 2005, downloads were incorporated into the main singles chart, although they had to also be available physically in order to make the charts. From March 2006, they were allowed to chart the week before their physical release, famously enabling Gnarls Barkley‘s Crazy to hit the top spot based on downloads alone. Similar rules caused the same track and also Nelly Furtado‘s Maneater to hang around the lower reaches of the chart for months, clocking up nearly a year on the charts between them.

Finally from January 2007, the physical requirement was removed altogether, enabling both tracks to re-enter the chart. Various unexpected reissues followed over the coming months, including live appearance, adverts, and online campaigns such as Rage Against the Machine‘s 2009 victory over TV series The X Factor, which saw Killing in the Name become Christmas number one, with more than half a million tracks sold.

Adding downloads to the album chart took a little longer, with the Official Album Downloads chart launching and downloads counting to the main chart simultaneously on 15th April 2006. For a few years, legal downloads ruled the roost on the official UK charts.

But this period was short-lived – UK download sales peaked in 2013 at 32 million, dropping to a fraction of that number within just a few years. In its place instead came something much simpler, and more lightweight, bringing with it significantly reduced revenues for artists.

Streaming

The Official Charts Company’s first experiments with charting streaming started with the Subscription Plays Chart, launched in September 2008, which was joined by the Streaming Chart – later replaced by the Audio Streaming Chart – in July 2014.

The same week in 2014 saw the introduction of streaming on the main singles chart, and things changed forever. A hugely successful artist could suddenly dominate the entire chart with the release of one album, as Ed Sheeran demonstrated in March 2017 when he claimed nine of the top ten singles (and sixteen of the top twenty) the week that his third album Divide was released. Rules were subsequently added to limit the number of tracks by a single artist to three.

Streams were added to the album chart in March 2015, with some slightly confusing rules to prevent albums from suddenly jumping up the charts based solely on the plays from one or two popular tracks. The impact of streaming on the album chart seems to have been less noticeable than the singles so far, which can perhaps be attributed to the additional rules.

Most recently, June 2018 saw a separation of paid streaming and free streaming, whereby subscribers of streaming services count as six times as many plays as free users. As part of this change, the UK charts also added plays from streaming video services such as YouTube, in recognition that many listeners are now getting their music from other places.

The Scottish Digital Age

Curiously, downloads were added much later to the Scottish charts, and at the time of writing, streaming still hasn’t made it on, so the Scottish charts are much more similar to the UK Sales charts than they are to the main UK charts. Downloads finally joined physical sales on the charts north of the border in October 2009, not long after The Stone Roses had managed a string of top three hits with reissued physical early singles.

For the UK as a whole, the Physical Singles and Physical Albums charts remain, with shockingly low sales figures. Lewis Capaldi hit the top spot on the singles in February this year with Grace, despite selling fewer than 200 copies. Two weeks later, Westlife got to number ten with just 19 copies sold. Some weeks, just 10 copies can get you a Top 40 placing. The Singles Sales and Albums Sales charts also continue, largely mirroring the Scottish charts.

Ultimately, whether or not you see the inclusion of streaming on the charts as a good thing is really up to you – it does enable you to see what the most popular songs are at any given time, but there does seem to be a schism between music buyers and music streamers, and you have to wonder whether the former might be more representative of music lovers than the latter?

Either way, the charts move slowly these days, and various draconian rules have been added to try to speed them up – which is ironic, given how quickly the charts have had to adapt to keep up in the last couple of decades.

Next time: in the final post in this series, we’ll sweep up all the remaining pieces, and speculate on what might happen next.

This post owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

History of the UK Charts – Format-Specific Charts

The UK has, as we discussed previously, a proud history of delivering a confusing range of genre-specific charts, but perhaps more intriguing are the format-specific ones. They’re nothing new, either – there are numerous today, but there were also several back in the 1980s.

Vinyl-Only Charts

The earliest UK charts, back in the 1950s, were, of course, format-specific, as there really was only one back then – 78s ruled until 7″ 45s took over. Although DJs had been cutting their own 10″ and 12″ acetates as early as the 1950s, the first commercial 12″ single appears to have been Buddy Fite‘s For Once in My Life, in 1970, and five years later, Donna Summer‘s Love to Love You Baby kick started an explosion of Jamaican 12″ releases, spreading back to the US and UK over subsequent years.

But the 12″ single was, of course, of special interest to disco and dance music fans, and so it seems logical that it would have had its own chart. Sure enough, from September 1985 to February 1991, early chart innovators Record Mirror carried the UK Twelve Inch Top 20, which in many ways remains one of the more interesting charts of the period. Apart from the obvious domination by New Order‘s Blue Monday, it sees some incursions by obscure releases that didn’t make as much of an impact on the main chart. Unfortunately, as with many of Record Mirror’s 1980s charts, there isn’t an official archive online now, but there are plenty of scans at the links below.

In the years after the death of Record Mirror in 1991, vinyl fell out of favour, with sales falling to practically zero by the late 1980s, and many major artists ceasing regular releases, so while the gap in the vinyl chart archive from 1991 to 2015 is a shame, we aren’t really missing a lot.

But with the revival of vinyl sales, there was a need for something similar again, and hence the launch in April 2015 of the official UK Vinyl Singles chart – followed, a year later, by the Vinyl Albums chart. Obviously the focus has changed again, with 12″ singles being joined by 7″s, 10″s, and all the other obscure shapes and sizes of vinyl. These are, of course, niche charts, dominated by reissues and collector’s editions, and the best illustration of this is the month or so every year after Record Store Day, when both charts get seriously clogged with random collector’s releases. But the Vinyl charts are a nice addition to the list of official UK charts, nonetheless.

Compact Disc and Cassette Charts

For pretty much the same period as the Twelve Inch Top 20 (1985-1991), Record Mirror also ran a Compact Disc Top 20, an album chart highlighting the best sellers in the new format. As with the Twelve Inch chart, it is appropriate that it was put to bed when it was, as a CD-only chart after 1991 would have showed very little unique when compared against the main chart. While it lasted, it was interesting – dominated in its early years by reissues and Dire StraitsBrothers in Arms, it subsequently came to echo the main album chart but with important differences – for instance in 1986, when Pet Shop Boys‘ debut Please was released only on LP and cassette, before climbing back up the main chart thanks primarily to its CD sales, several months later.

More intriguing, in a way, is the short-lived Cassette Top 20, which appears to have been published by Record Mirror for a matter of weeks in 1983 (here’s the page showing the chart from 29th January 1983, in which Men at Work can be seen climbing impressively to the top spot). While cassettes had been commercially available since 1963, and albums had been released directly on them for almost as long, it’s possible that they may not have made the chart until the 1980s. Perhaps this shows us a brief glimpse of cassette sales before they actually got added to the main chart – or perhaps it was only ever intended as an indicator of sales for a new-ish format? History doesn’t really give much information on this, unfortunately, so we can only guess now.

Airplay Charts

The US charts had always attempted to model what people were listening to, rather than what they were buying, and so had long incorporated airplay, but this was resisted in the UK, with claims that it would be too easy to manipulate the charts (as though somehow it was difficult to manipulate the sales-based charts). This is fair, but in the modern age, where streaming makes up most of the chart, it seems absurd (to me, anyway) to try to argue that airplay shouldn’t be included.

Either way, the ERA, and subsequently RadioMonitor, have been compiling a UK Radio Airplay Chart since at least 1993, supplemented by a TV Airplay Chart from 2010 onwards. These also have their own niche interest charts, with the Commercial Radio Airplay Chart also being compiled and carried today. It was also these charts that formed the basis of the often-confusing Hit 40 UK chart, the competitor to BBC Radio 1’s UK Top 40 countdown that was broadcast on Sunday afternoons throughout the 1990s. Hit 40 UK was carried by all the major commercial stations, and boasted a larger listenership, but also had the mind-boggling novelty of carrying the official Top 10 Singles, merged with the remaining 30 places of a combined airplay and sales chart.

Going Digital

We will cover downloads, streaming, and the niche charts of the digital age in a separate post next time, so for now,, vinyl sales are combined in the modern Vinyl Singles and Vinyl Albums charts, and CD sales can be inferred by comparing that with the modern Physical Singles and Physical Albums charts. And as we’ll explore, sales are jaw-droppingly low. But for now, this concludes our exploration of the format-specific charts.

Next time: the digital age

This post owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

History of the UK Charts – Specialist Charts

These days, there are no shortage of official UK charts. As long as you aren’t trying to do anything too obscure or mainstream, and you can fit your work into a particular bucket, there is probably a specialist, or genre-specific chart for you – from R&B to rock, classical, dance, and even Americana.

Soul, Northern Soul, R&B, and Urban Music

For all the obscure modern genre-specific charts that we’ll meet later in this post, the concept is, surprisingly, nothing new – they were already well established as far back as the 1970s. It fell to our old friend Record Mirror, which had been publishing a singles chart since 1955, and had adopted the new official chart on its launch in 1969.

This is not a well documented history, but its first specialist chart seems to have been the Body ‘n’ Soul Record Mirror Chart, which looks as though it was an occasional guest chart compiled with help from another magazine. More established at this time was a chart dedicated to Northern Soul music, named after the legendary Wigan Casino All-Nighter which ran from 1973 to 1981. The Wigan Casino All-Nighter Top 20 was a regularly published piece in mid-1975, which we can only assume was an opinion-based chart, was supplemented by the UK Soul Chart from September 1975.

The first official UK R&B Singles chart launched in October 1994, followed in 2003 by the R&B Albums chart. Related, but not quite the same, the UK’s Official Charts Company also started compiling the MTV Urban Chart in early 2011.

Disco, Dance, Hi-NRG, and… Futurism?

In June 1975, Record Mirror had launched what appears to be the UK’s first chart dedicated to disco music. Starting as a top 20, the UK Disco Chart gradually grow to become a top 90, and ran all the way through the 1980s until it was finally replaced by the Black Dance Top 100, which gave way the following year to The Club Chart, which continues to this day.

In December 1980, they launched one of their most fun charts, the Futurist chart, which lasted a couple of years and allowed early new wave and the likes of David Bowie and Kraftwerk to dominate for a little while.

From 1982, they launched the Pop-Oriented Dance Top 75. This evolved, confusingly, into the Nightclub chart, which lasted until 1985, but shouldn’t be confused with the more recent Club Chart. Alongside it, the Gay chart, which evolved into the Boys Town Disco chart, then the Boys Town / Hi-NRG chart, the Hi-NRG Disco chart, and eventually the Eurobeat chart. This survived until 1989, after changing its name several times.

By 1988, there was also a Pop Dance chart, which, as with some of Record Mirror’s more obscure chart offerings was retired in 1989. Some of the others ran right up until Record Mirror’s untimely (and apparently unexpected) demise in 1991.

The UK’s official Dance Singles and Dance Albums charts launched in January 2003, but inclusion criteria appear to be a bit of a mystery. Accurate as ever, Wikipedia’s entry on the subject talks about “sales of songs in the dance music genre (e.g. house, trance, drum and bass, garage, synthpop),” but synthpop act Pet Shop Boys are an interesting case study, having had exactly four hits since 1994: Yesterday, When I Was Mad (#16), Paninaro 95 (#29), A Red Letter Day (#5), and Miracles (#1). Their hit albums are similarly confusing: Fundamental (#1), Disco 4 (#3), and the recent reissue of Introspective (#10).

Rock ‘n’ Roll and Heavy Metal

Record Mirror carried a Heavy Metal chart from December 1980 onwards, with a separate Rock ‘n’ Roll chart following five years later. Meanwhile, Kerrang launched their own charts, which continue to this day. Then, like the R&B Charts, the Rock & Metal Singles chart also started in 1994, and the Rock & Metal Albums chart followed in 2003. Inclusion criteria are similarly confusing and enigmatic.

Classical

Classic FM had broadcast its own chart since its launch in 1992, which subsequently and perhaps somewhat unpredictably boasted Mark Goodier as its presenter. As a competitor, not one but two official classical charts launched in October 1999, the Classical Artist Albums chart, and the Classical Compilation Albums chart.

If there’s a theme emerging here, it’s that inclusion criteria for the specialist charts tend to be arbitrary at best. Back in 2000, William Orbit famously caused something of a furore with his album of updated, electronic covers of classical music Pieces in a Modern Style. Exactly what they were talking about with this talk of a “ban,” I don’t know, as its chart run was still going strong months later, but

The Specialist Classical Albums chart followed in 2010. I don’t honestly understand the criteria for what makes them so special, but suffice to say, William Orbit would not be welcome here.

Finally, the Classical Singles chart was added in May 2012, but only lasted three years before being ignominiously retired. Four years later, the Official Charts Company started carrying another classical singles chart, the Scala Singles Chart, although its remit is rather broader, talking in the description about “classically inspired music,” and including Thom Yorke, among others.

Asian Music

For the benefit of non-UK readers, the UK is home to a substantial population of people of Indian, Pakistani, Baangladeshi, and Sri Lankan origin, with a strong culture and vibrant music scene. In recognition of this, the Asian Download chart launched in early 2010, later renaming itself the Asian Music Chart. This has a strong following, broadcast weekly on the BBC Asian Network digital radio station.

Other Specialist Charts

Record Mirror carried two other regular charts that I could find, plus a whole load of one-off personal charts. The Reggae chart launched in December 1980, but was sadly retired by 1987.

The Official Charts Company website now carries official Country Artists Albums, Country Compilations, and Jazz & Blues Albums charts going right back to January 1994. They then took things in new directions with Soundtrack Albums chart, which launched in early 2002, and then the official UK Christian & Gospel Album Chart kicked off in March 2013.

Perhaps the oddest is the official Progressive Albums chart, which launched in October 2015, an oddity for the Official Charts Company because it was only published once a month. This led to them forgetting to publish it a lot of the time, and it hasn’t now been updated since the start of 2017.

The most recent addition to the UK’s ever-growing list of official charts was the Americana Albums chart, launched in January 2016

So, all in all, there is a long list of historic and current UK specialist genre-specific charts, and, perhaps inevitably, just one thing is common to all of them – all rely on somewhat spurious rules to decide whether a release does or doesn’t fit. Sometimes, if a release underperforms on a regular chart, they can be a handy way to find out how it is performing. At other times, they can be confusing and more than a little disappointing.

Next time: format-specific charts

This post owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

History of the UK Charts – Midweeks and Artists

Right from the earliest days of the UK charts, it was clear that one chart wasn’t enough. Sure, there was always one that held more sway than the others, as sheet music gave way to singles, and so-on. But there was always a place for an odd niche chart, and also somehow, just one update a week wasn’t quite enough.

So enter the midweek charts, an early indication of how the Sunday chart might play out – but with huge differences, where fanbase-driven artists might plummet tens of places down the chart in just a few days, as all their fans rushed out to buy their latest box set in the first couple of days of release.

The Midweek Chart

For a large part of history, the UK midweek charts were shrouded in bizarre mystery. They seem to have existed primarily just to give record companies a hint at how they might want to promote new releases as the week progressed. But for the public, a radio presenter or tabloid newspaper would boldly claim that something looked as though it might hit the top of the charts this week, but their source was never fully revealed. Online whispers would hint at multiple full midweek charts, but would never reveal much. It was all very strange, but somehow rather exciting at the same time.

They had been around for a long time – I found mentions online of Radiohead‘s Creep entering at number 7 (it did) way back in 1993, The Beatles‘ Free as a Bird entering at number 1 in 1995, and George Michael topping the album chart in 1998. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the midweek charts really became widely known about, and being shared online through unofficial forums and newsgroups.

So then in a bizarre twist, around 2003, the Official Charts Company started telling people not to share them, citing “legal issues”. You have to wonder now quite why they were so worried about keeping them secret, but it didn’t last forever. The Guardian explains what happened next, at number 28 on their chart facts rundown:

Until the internet came along and ruined everything, the midweek chart – an early tally of the forthcoming chart’s movers and shakers – was a top-secret document seen only by those in the industry. In 2010, with midweeks having circulated each week via email and messageboard for more than a decade, the OCC admitted defeat and launched the Official Chart Update on Radio 1, which ran on Wednesday afternoons. When the proper weekly chart rundown moved to Fridays, the midweek rundown moved to Mondays.

The Guardian, 29 June 2017

The Chart Update

Stranger in some ways is how open the Official Charts Company has now become. Seemingly the weekly chart grew so popular that publicly available midweek charts were needed as well. Or perhaps it was a step to halt the decline of the charts?

Either way, in March 2010, BBC Radio 1 started a half-hour segment highlighting the Singles Chart Update, and when the Official Charts Company redesigned their website in early 2012, they also found a place for the Single and Album Chart Updates, now including sales and streams from Friday to Sunday.

They still make for interesting charts, as you watch fanbase-heavy acts enter high on the Update and plummet fast before the final chart, but otherwise a degree of magic seems to have disappeared with the mystery of the midweek chart.

On the Radio

Midweek broadcasts had actually begun way back in the 1960s. Just as Billboard stopped running the Friday NME Chart as their main UK chart, Radio Luxembourg started using it as the source for their chart, and continued to present this early midweek show for another two years.

BBC Radio 1 was much later to the game, starting broadcasting the Chart Update on Wednesdays in 2010, featuring highlights from the Top 40, and presented, successively, by Greg JamesScott MillsGreg James again, Dev and Alice Levine, and most recently, Nick Grimshaw.

It’s strange to think now, in an age where the official chart show is now just another weekday programme, that there’s any degree of interest at all in a radio show about the midweek chart, but amazingly it still appears as part of Nick Grimshaw‘s show, now on Mondays. Potentially essential listening, if you still care.

The Artist Chart

Another of the odder chapters in the history of the UK charts which is worth a brief side-step is the Artist Chart. Combining sales from all of an artist’s releases, whether singles, albums, or possibly anything else, makes for an intriguing list to compare against the others. There’s a good chance you won’t have heard of this one, as it only seems to have existed in weekly form for about a year, it was never published, and there doesn’t appear to be any record of it left on the internet.

There had been precursors – Record Mirror had included a UK Artists Singles Chart way back in the 1950s, and then Hit Music published an early oddity from 1992, with two separate charts – the Singles Acts Year-to-Date and Albums Acts Year-to-Date, which would detail the most successful singles and albums artists for the year, but as far as I can make out, the only combined UK Artist Chart was broadcast on BBC Radio 1 in the late 1990s.

Broadcast as part of Lisa I’Anson‘s show on Fridays from January 1995, there’s little record of the chart online now, except some minor annoyance from the industry around its launch. It seems to have lasted at least until August 1995, and possibly until I’Anson’s weekday show ended at the end of 1996.

This series of posts is taking a break again now, but it will return, to explore genre and format-specific charts, and some of the twists and turns of the digital age.

This series owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

History of the UK Charts – Between Singles and Albums

As we saw earlier in this series of posts, the modern definition of an album is relatively straightforward – there are a number of sneaky clauses, but the main decider is simply what the dealer price is. Singles are more complex, and have evolved over time. If you have a bit of spare time, you can try to digest the rules here, but here’s a high-level summary.

Permitted formats (using my own terminology to try to simplify it):

  • Single: digital or CD, with one track, and a maximum playing time of 15 minutes
  • Maxi: vinyl, digital, CD, or USB, with up to four songs (three tracks on a 7″ single), and a maximum playing time of 25 minutes
  • Remix: vinyl, digital, CD, or USB, with one song, and a maximum playing time of 40 minutes

This is probably less of a deal nowadays, but of these, you can have up to 3 physical formats, from:

  • Any combination of Single CD, 7″, or 12″ vinyl
  • Two Maxi or Remix CD, DVD, or USB formats
  • Plus up to 3 digital bundle formats, and any number of digital single-track versions of the lead song

This might seem confusing if you haven’t seen it before, but, apart from the odd tweak here or there, this is pretty much how the UK chart has worked since the late 1980s – the digital formats are a more recent addition, of course. But other than that, five formats were reduced to four in the early 1990s; and four became three in 1998. Singles were reduced to three tracks and twenty minutes for a while, but then sense prevailed, and it was decided to try to rip music fans off a little less by expanding the rules again.

But once you step past all those rules, there are, of course, a couple of gaps. Something that costs the same as a single, but runs past the 25-minute limit might be an EP, or a mini-album. Or if it’s a bit longer, maybe it’s a full album that just retails at a lower cost. There’s no hard and fast rule, but by original definition, an EP, or “Extended Play” release, would have normally been a 7″ single playing at 33 1⁄3 rpm, running at maybe 15 minutes in terms of total playing time.

So where do those releases fall? The answer has evolved over time – in the 1960s, EPs had their own chart, and since then, Budget Albums have been a thing – albeit a thing that nobody really talks about much.

The UK EP Chart

As the Single and Album charts came to be established as two separate things, it was inevitable that EPs would get their own place in history, but it was somewhat short-lived.

Melody Maker may have been second to launch an Album Chart in the UK, but they led the charge with the EP Chart, kicking it off in November 1959 with a Top 10, and running until May 1963. Record Retailer also published an EP chart from March 1960 to December 1967, which slowly worked its way up from a Top 10 to a Top 15, and finally a Top 20. Finally, Music Echo and Pop Weekly also published short-lived EP charts in around 1965-1966. And after the Record Retailer chart ended the following year, there has never since been an EP chart in the UK.

Of course, that’s fairly appropriate – EPs were hugely successful in the 1960s, often acting like cut-price albums, but they fell out of favour over time, to a point where the term is often used these days for something that is really just a single.

The UK Budget Album Chart

For a while after the disappearance of the EP charts, EPs were either incorporated into other charts, or were lost for good. Then, by the late 1960s, Budget Albums started to appear on the market, often as cover albums by anonymous artists, but they appear to have been initially excluded from the main charts.

In 1969, Record Retailer published the first Budget Album Chart, although confusingly, it appears to have actually been a Mid-Price Album Chart, due to the actual prices involved. Then, in early 1970, an actual Budget Album Chart appeared, as did a Mid-Price Album Chart. NME, meanwhile, allowed all lower-price albums on their album chart.

From August 1971 to January 1972, Budget Albums were allowed onto the now-official UK Album Chart, and there was a sudden but short-lived influx of low-cost albums on the chart, many of them anonymous cover albums, and some of them entering right at the top spot. After that, they were removed for good.

The Record Retailer Budget Album chart lasted until June 1975, when it was retired. It’s not clear to me whether Budget Album charts then disappeared altogether for a couple of decades, or was published somewhere all along – a lot of people seem not to care particularly. But from 1997, the Budget Album chart has become available again, albeit with a bit of searching.

It’s a funny old chart – you can see one on UKChartsPlus’s sample edition here. In that particular week, it appears to be primarily made up of cut-price multi-artist compilations, discounted “greatest hits” collections by established artists. EPs make it on, occasionally, but it’s fairly rare – this only appears to have happened twice in 2010, for example.

Browsing through the hits, you see some interesting entries – for instance, The Human League had multiple hits with their cut-price best of The Best Of (#10 in 2000), Best Of (#7 in 2001), and The Best Of (A’s, B’s & Rarities) (#32 in 2005), but also studio album Dare peaked at #16 on a reissue in 2006. Depeche Mode had a number 1 with their Goodnight Lovers EP in 2002, and then had multiple hits with reissues in 2004. Plenty of other artists have never had a single hit on there.

If all this makes the Budget Album chart sound like some kind of purgatory, where badly behaved singles and albums are sent to live out the rest of their days – well, that’s because it is, pretty much.

Next time: midweek charts and artist charts.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

History of the UK Charts – The Lower Reaches

After a bit of a break, it’s time to return to our series of posts exploring the long and complex history of the UK charts. As you may remember from previous posts, after humble and understated beginnings, the singles chart started in 1952, with the albums chart following four years later, followed by a long period of arguing about which one was actually official.

In those early days, the size of the charts were very much dictated by the numbers of records sold within their sample set of stores, which of course was itself heavily influenced by the sample size. When NME launched their first chart, as few as 15 stores might have reported their sales, each providing a top ten list, and so it’s hardly surprising that the initial chart only had 12 positions.

Despite not being as widely available, there have long been unofficial chart positions running way down to pretty much infinite numbers – the UK press were excited to share Naomi Campbell‘s 1994 chart placing for her album Baby Woman as having peaked at number nine hundred and something (unfortunately those particular articles never seem to have made it online).

Singles

By the late 1970s, record sales were healthy enough that positions outside of the range of the official chart were shared within the music industry, but not published externally, and so while it was the Top 75 Singles that were official at this time, records of lower positions can occasionally be found.

This appears to have started with publication of the Bubbling Under list from 1981, an alphabetical listing of singles that were just outside of the main chart. From 1983, this was officially published in some publications as The Next 25, a “compressed” listing of near-misses from just outside the main chart. Special rules were used to “star out” any releases that were falling in popularity, leaving just new entries, re-entries, and climbers. Thanks to an intriguing piece of rewriting of history, these are now included as part of the Top 100 listings on the Official Charts Company website.

Also existent but not, apparently, available to the public at that time, are much longer charts, which make for intriguing reading. Thanks to this fascinating post, we can now all see the full chart for 29 January 1983, revealing that the number 200 single sold just 24 copies. Although things have changed a lot since then – crazy as it might sound, that would be enough to get you onto the top 10 in the Physical Singles chart nowadays.

The Next 25 continued to appear in certain publications until April 1991, but then the following month, a sister publication of Music Week, Charts Plus, started publishing the full, uncompressed Top 200 Singles. A second publication, also in the same family, called Hit Music, started in September 1992, and revived the compressed Next 25, continuing to publish it until Charts Plus closed in November 1994. The Top 200 moved to Hit Music, and continued to be published until its closure in May 2001.

The extended chart continued to be available within the music industry, but not formally published, until a private publication Charts+Plus (now called UKChartsPlus) picked it up in September 2001. Meanwhile, chart compilation had changed so that positions 76-200 were now all compressed, so rather than a Top 200, the chart was effectively a Top 75 and a Next 125.

This continued until April 2005, when the chart expanded to a Top 250, shrinking back down to a Top 200 in March 2006, and then dropping right down to a Top 100 in July 2017. As always, lower positions are apparently available within the industry, but not formally published any more.

At least we can finally all agree that it’s a Top 100 now.

Albums

As with the Single Chart, positions below number 100 had been made known within the music industry in the 1980s. Unlike the singles, those extra positions on the Album Chart were first published in a sister publication of Music Week, called Charts Plus, from May 1991 to November 1994, which included the Top 200 Albums. A separate publication in the same family, Hit Music, published the Top 150 Albums from September 1992 to November 1996, and then the Top 200 Albums until the magazine closed its doors in May 2001.

From February 1994 onwards, even though the album chart that was published in Music Week was only a Top 75, as with the singles, the Official Charts Company now displays the Top 100 as official. Whether we will ever see those missing 25 positions for the preceding five years remains to be seen.

Next time: the mystery of what lies between singles and albums.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

  • “King of Skiffle” and others, and their extensive chart collections on UK Mix