Kim Kardashian popularised the term "breaking the Internet" and now, there is such a thing as "breaking the charts", thanks to Ed Sheeran. The British crooner did the unthinkable in March 2017 when all 16 tracks from his number one album ÷ [Divide] debuted in the UK's top 20.
As lead singles Shape Of You, Castle On The Hill and Galway Girl continued to hold court atop the UK singles chart, other album cuts like Dive, Perfect and New Man ranked high when they typically would have struggled to chart at all in the past. The public's general reaction of awe over Sheeran's unprecedented success was met with perplexity from music industry bigwigs, who thus questioned the credibility of the weekly chart – there were even calls for a "drastic rethink" of how streaming data is incorporated into sales figures.
Several weeks later, Sheeran was still riding high on both the single and album charts but faced a new threat from Harry Styles and his debut track Sign Of The Times. The One Direction star would eventually knock Sheeran off the top spot for one week but his triumph almost did not happen – a technical glitch at Spotify meant Sign Of The Times was removed for several hours, potentially missing out on thousands of streams and highlighting the unpredictability of the constant evolving technology.
With these latest developments in mind, are the charts now irrelevant? Simon Cole, CEO of music service company 7digital, told IBTimes UK: "I would not use the word 'irrelevant'. Less relevant is what I would say, it will be a long time before weekly sales are irrelevant. They will be less relevant because they're now part of a mixed economy which includes a massive amount of streaming.
"[But] my approach to it would be why are we doing a weekly chart? 15-24-year-olds might just about be interested in the weekly number one but could there be a place for a daily chart compiled of the five most-streamed songs yesterday? Certainly, teenage kids would find that more engaging as a breakfast show feature than they would find listening to two hours of 40 songs on a Sunday."
As for the reliability of streaming data following the Styles controversy, Cole adds: "I thought it was ironic because I remember when we went through a period of huge power cuts in the UK and you couldn't go shopping on a Saturday afternoon. I'm sure that disrupted the charts at that time. External events will always disrupt an industry on some occasions and yes, he was a victim of an outage. But I think the technical robustness of the streaming industry is absolutely remarkable."
The underdog of back catalogues
Much of the streaming boom can be credited to the tech-savvy younger audience constantly seeking out new ways of making music consumption easier than yesterday. While the focus may be on current hits of the moment – whether Drake's One Dance or Sheeran's Shape Of You – Cole predicts that the future actually lies in the past. Back catalogues are actually more popular than may realise with younger generations keen to seek out vintage tracks heard on adverts or the radio.
Cole says: "Everyone is focusing on the latest hits but very few are focusing on what streaming allows that physical doesn't. There is one thing that shines out – back catalogues. Songs which have been lost can become hits instantly in the streaming world."
Even this could take prominence over the standard top 40 weekly chart, according to Cole, who continues: "I'd like a chart of back catalogues being listened to on Spotify. [For example] What's the most popular Motown song being streamed on Spotify? People watching a show or film, going online and [looking for it]. The data on Shazam is absolutely fascinating in regards to a back catalogue song being out there and people looking for it."
Cole certainly has a point – the soundtrack for HBO series Big Little Lies, featuring many throwback soulful hits – proved to be so popular that it was released to streaming and digital services. Clearly, there is a market and audience beyond typical songs that would appear in the top 40.
Although he believes the charts could be more related to consumer habits, Cole is not necessarily ready to scrap the weekly charts entirely. He reasons: "Why should we stop doing it just because Ed Sheeran made it look a little less robust? Rather than thinking about what we should scrap, we should start thinking about what we should do."