Formats Unpacked: The Singles Chart
How a single list of data became one of the most influential formats of the twentieth century
There was an interesting piece in the Guardian this week about why music TV deserves more than Jools Holland. The article points out that there have been some fantastic music TV formats over the years, and whilst times have definitely changed since the heyday of those formats, there is still an audience for more. It makes the point that when you have overwhelming access to music, as audiences now have, more curation, rather than less, is needed.
So this week our very own Matt Locke has unpacked one of the most important music formats of the last century.
Over to Matt…
What’s It Called?
The Singles Chart - the Top 40, the Billboard 100
What’s the Format?
It’s a list of the week’s biggest selling singles, in order of popularity. In its heyday, it was based on either sales data of physical singles (in the UK) or a mixture of physical sales and radio play (in the US). In the last 10 years, the measures have changed to adapt to how we listen to music, first adding digital sales on stores like iTunes, and now streaming plays as well.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Making culture is a messy process, with lots of dead-ends and unexpected breakthroughs, and it turns out that the way we measure culture is just the same. The singles chart wasn’t created to be a ground-breaking format that would change the way we made, sold and listened to popular music for half a century. It wasn’t intended to be a cultural behemoth that united artists, record labels and fans in a feverish desire to answer one question - what was the most popular song this week?
It wasn’t created to do any of that. It was created to sell advertising.
Its inventor, Percy Dickins, was a magazine advertising salesman, ex-merchant seaman, and keen amateur musician. In the early 1950s, he was working at the Melody Maker, the stuffy UK trade magazine for professional musicians, and jumped at the chance to join a 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, it was getting very popular. 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.
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.
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.
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 older, music industry–oriented, Melody Maker. As pop culture grew in the 1960s and 1970s, the new 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.
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 Dickins’ 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.
I grew up in the 1980s, probably the high point of the singles chart’s influence on popular culture. I remember at secondary school our music teacher had a cardboard version of the chart in her room that she would update as soon as the new chart was published. I can still recall the feeling of sadness when she moved Chaka Khan’s I Feel For You - one of my favourite songs at the time - down from the top spot. Later on, as a devout indie kid, the moments where the indie chart crossed over into the pop charts were always memorable for the culture clash it would create on Top Of The Pops. In 1991, Nirvana’s appearance, with obviously mimed music and guttural vocals, was a classic ‘f*** you’ to their chart 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.
There are many charts, but only one Top 40.
Readers of the Storythings newsletter will already know Matt is writing a book about how the attention we measure is an intrinsic part of the culture we create. The story of the singles chart, and all the radio, TV, and magazine formats built around it, is a brilliant example of that. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject subscribe to Matt’s occasional newsletter. It really is a wonderful read.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve enjoyed it please share it with your friends or anyone you think might find it interesting. If you’re thinking about developing a format and need some help we have workshops and toolkits to help. Just drop us a line.
See you all next week,
I was a Top 40 obsessed girl in rural Wisconsin in the late 80s/early 90s. Casey Kasem, and I believe another chart show, were played on KDWB from Minneapolis Sunday mornings. I'd have to miss the top 20 or so for church, so I'd record it every week - using the same cassette over and over. Maybe that's why I too ended up an indie kid because I actually had more fun listening to the bottom of the top 40 than the top of it. When I subscribed to Rolling Stone, I'd see some crossover from the college chart to the Top 40, and would hunt down those singles and albums. Such a fun way to obsess over an art form!