Business Interviews Labels & Publishers

Q&A: Martin Talbot, The Official Charts Company

By | Published on Wednesday 14 November 2012

Martin Talbot

On 14 Nov 1952, the first UK singles chart was published by the NME, making the chart 60 years old today. Although the NME’s chart remained the most trusted for a number of years, it wasn’t until February 1969 that an ‘official’ chart was established when Music Week (then still known as Record Retailer) and the BBC commissioned the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) to compile an official countdown of the best selling tracks of the week, that was announced each Tuesday on Johnnie Walker’s Radio 1 show.

Since then the charts have been through various changes, both in branding and ownership, but are now operated by The Official Charts Company, a joint venture between record label trade body the BPI and the Entertainment Retailers Association. As well as the official singles and albums charts, the company also publishes various other countdowns, including a download-only single track chart, various genre-focussed charts and rundowns of video sales.

With the 60th anniversary of the singles chart upon us, CMU’s Chris Cooke spoke to Official Charts Company Managing Director Martin Talbot, to find out more about the history of the singles chart, how changes in the music industry are affecting it, and what the future holds.

CC: Let’s start at the start, tell us how the British music charts first began.
MT: Essentially, the first singles chart was created as a marketing tool. The then publisher of the New Musical Express, Percy Dickins, started calling up his retailer mates to ask what records had sold well that week, and started compiling that information into a chart. The aim was to create something that could act as an incentive for labels to advertise in his newspaper.

CC: So when did things move beyond the NME, when did the record industry take ownership of its charts?
MT: The NME chart continued through the 50s, also joined by new charts launched by other rival papers, including Record Retailer, Disc, Melody Maker and others. The NME chart was widely regarded as the most important chart until about 1960, then the one in Record Retailer became the main industry-recognised chart. And it stayed that way right up until the first “official” chart was launched in 1969, by the BBC, Record Retailer and BMRB.

CC: When and why was the Official Charts Company established?
MT: The Official Charts Company has existed since the early 90s, though was only given its current name in 2001. When it was set up, originally as the Chart Information Network, the company also took over database rights to the historic charts going back to 1960, and took on the central role acting as the guardian and gatekeeper of the previous decades of the industry’s “official” charts.

CC: How did you become involved in the company?
MT: I joined as Managing Director in 2007, after several years as Editor of Music Week. Because Music Week is one of the key licencees and partners of the Official Charts, I was very familiar with them, what they meant to the industry and what potential they had.

CC: The Official Charts Company seems to have become more consumer-facing in recent years, particularly via your website. In America, the charts are synonymous with Billboard, in the UK they’ve generally just been known as ‘the charts’ (or perhaps ‘the Radio 1 chart’). Was the repositioning of the Official Charts brand an attempt to give the British charts a stronger identity?
MT: That was certainly part of the thinking. The creation of our new identity (the up arrow, down arrow logo, and the “secret” number 1 at the heart of it) and the pop portal were to really make the Official Chart stand out as what it is – THE chart, the UK rundown recognised by artists, managers, labels, retailers, everyone, as the UK’s most important, accurate, reliable and important measure of popularity, as reflected by sales.

We know that’s what people think of us – even the competition know our chart is the best and most meaningful! We created the icon to act as a kitemark, to emphasise the point – that these aren’t some pony old charts made up by a committee in a darkened room, or a fluctuating barometer changing on a daily or hourly basis. These are the British public’s chart with an amazingly rich 60 year heritage and, in the digital era, they are more democratic than ever.

CC: For the uninitiated, how are the main singles and albums charts compiled?
MT: We receive data electronically every day from 6500 retailers – download stores, supermarkets, independent shops, mail order operations, specialist entertainment stores – and compile it into a range of charts, combining all of the data together up until midnight on Saturday night.

CC: How does this compare to 60 years ago?
MT: It is on a different planet – back then, Percy Dickins literally called a couple of dozen shops and manually collated the data. It was so rudimental, that the first chart (a Top 12) actually included fourteen tracks, because two tracks were level in both eighth and eleventh place!

CC: The main Billboard songs chart in the US also includes airplay data and, as of last year, streaming data. Do you think either of those would add value to our UK Official Singles Chart?
MT: We are already collecting streaming information from audio services such as Spotify, Deezer and Napster among others. But, at the moment, with singles sales still booming, the time isn’t right at the moment to introduce streaming to the singles chart.

The reality is that the Official Streaming Chart is more languid than the Official Singles Chart (tracks move up and down at a much slower rate) and it also follows a week or two behind, as singles make an impact on the sales chart before they peak in terms of streams.

It has, to an extent, been easier for a decision like this to be made in the US, where airplay has long since been part of the Billboard chart formula. But we have always prided ourselves on having a totally transparent chart based on sales and sales alone, pure and uncut.

CC: Obviously the charts create a weekly ‘event’ for the UK music industry. What other benefits does the data you collate provide for the record industry and the wider music business?
MT: You’re right, the charts are only half of what we do – when we collect the data (around 3.5 million singles, two million albums and over 50 million streams every week) we also make it available for labels, managers, retailers, publishers and other agencies via our Official Charts Online and Topline services, plus via mobile and through bespoke data feeds.

All of the data we have collected back to April 1994 can be sliced and diced so you can see how any release has sold, with data broken down by format, geographic region, days of the week, retailer type, among other things. For all of the biggest labels (major and independent) this important insight is at the heart of their marketing and promotions plans.

CC: There is a plethora of data about music fans’ habits out there these days, from social media analytics to file-sharing stats. Do you ever see the Official Charts utilising any of that?
MT: Never say never. When Percy Dickins created the first chart, he would never have even conceived of the CD, let alone downloading and streams. Who knows how we will be consuming music in another 60 years time!

CC: Given all that other data that is available on the internet, there are some people who would say that the main record sales charts are no longer ‘relevant’. What would you say to those people?
MT: Recorded music sales are still one of the key revenue streams for artists and music companies – and singles sales are booming right now. The number of singles sold this year is likely to be pushing 190 million by the end of December, we have seen ten new million-selling singles this decade alone (the best millionaires total at this stage, of any decade in history), the number of singles you have to sell to reach number one is double what it was ten years ago, and you have to sell more singles to make the Top 40 today than at any other time in the past two decades. Don’t believe that consumers are falling out of love with the process of buying music. They’re not, and the figures we have issued as part of the 60 years of the Official Singles Chart celebrations prove that. Long live the single.