Viewpoint: 60 years of the UK music charts

Dr Mike Jones is Director of MA Music Industry Studies at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Popular Music

It is 60 years since the first singles chart was published in the UK on November 14 1952.

What was always remarkable about the charts was that they never revealed how many singles were sold either in a particular week, or cumulatively.

Far fewer records sold

What is certain is that far fewer records are being sold these days – whether in physical formats or as downloads. Further, even successful acts such as Coldplay, Pink and Katy Perry do not sell in the quantities that acts of a similar stature once sold.

In the 1960s singles that topped ‘the hit parade’ would sell in their millions; now they are more likely to sell in tens, not even hundreds, of thousands.

The album charts have been similarly affected and what makes it worse for record companies is that, while the costs of recording have dropped, the costs of marketing have continued to rise – companies now sell fewer copies overall of records that are still expensive to make available for sale. 

“While the costs of recording have dropped, the costs of marketing have continued to rise” 

It was the case for fifty years that the majority of record purchases were made by people who gauged the quality of a record by whether or not it was ‘in the charts’.

With the loss of retailers such as Woolworths (who sold most of the UK’s singles) together with the contraction of album-selling outlets such as HMV, and the now disappeared chains such as Virgin, Our Price, Andy’s and Fopp, the recording industry business model has collapsed.

The fall-out from this is that there is less money in local music economies – recording studios have closed not just because musicians can record at home, but because record companies, if they give them at all, are now giving far smaller ‘advances’ to artists they decide to ‘sign’.

Further, the contracts they offer make the musician responsible for many of the company’s costs.

Musicians’ career-development challenged

Musicians may now be freer to make music and to find their audiences but they are also far more challenged where career-development is concerned.

Taken as a whole, the story of the charts is the story of the growth and decline of a popular-cultural institution – the major record company. Rather like Music Hall before it, the major record company will soon be remembered with nostalgia but its decline will tell us much that is important about how to run, and perhaps how not to run, cultural industries.“

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One thought on “Viewpoint: 60 years of the UK music charts

  1. Rossstagg

    Yes I was signed to a UK major for 5 albums and worked at another UK major prior to that in A&R. Major record companies never did know how to run cultural industries even though they were once a major cultural industry force. There has to be a large dollop of ‘arts for arts sake’ in the effective running of cultural industries. But to quote 10cc it was always ‘money for God’s sake’ with major record companies. I faired so well from them – I shouldn’t knock them – but I cringe at how blindly they pursued their business, no planning but lots of mud thrown at walls. No wonder they were once considered the bankers to the industry – they needed to be – proper bankers would never loan business plan bereft idiots such as these any dough they’re way to sensible.

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