Tuesday, February 10, 2004

SINGLE LIFE THREATENED?: The BPI have confirmed that singles sales continue to tank in the UK - down by almost a third between 2002 and 2003. Naturally, of course, it'd the downloaders who are to blame, although the same BPI statement proves this to be utter hoofstones. Because album shipments rose by just over four percent in the same period - are we expected to believe that people have no qualms about "stealing" singles but draw the line at the thought of downloading ten tracks from the same artist - like a shoplifter who'll happily pilfer an item each at Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury's but wouldn't dream of taking their coffee, whiskey and cat food from just one store? Hello, BPI.... your own figures state that 62% of albums now go for less than a tenner - you really don't think that might account for why people might be buying more albums, less four-quid-for-three-track singles? Really?

Of course, we're not meant to be talking about the sales figures at all right now, because the BPI were so worried by the damage the headline sales figures might do their member's share prices, they wanted to keep it all quiet until after the Brit Awards. The Guardian reports the head of press for the group, Steve Redmond, writing "This is a stunning result considering the pressure the business is under worldwide, but needless to say we can expect most focus on the singles figure. We would 'normally' release [these figures] in the course of next week, but I guess we will want to steer clear of the Brits." Ah, well. The Guardian bounced them into releasing the figures anyway - but the desire to keep them quiet is still puzzling - yes, the singles slump might have got the headlines (although surely it's the Press Office's job to stop that from happening?) but there would have been a chance to glide into the Brits on a cushion of 'Album Sales Rise.' We wonder if the real problem is that the BPI just looks ridiculous banging on about the evils of music downloading and how it's killing music against a backdrop of retailers calling up ordering more and more boxes of albums - wonder if they've been planning a Grammy-style lecture slot for the awards?

Elsewhere in the sales data, it's confirmed that legal downloads are already the second biggest singles format there is - 150,000 were tracked by the BPI in January, outstripping vinyl, cassingles and DVD singles. They're going to integrate download sales into the charts later this year, which raises a number of philosophical questions: if more downloads are being sold than many of the formats which currently make up the chart, how distorted is that making the current Top 40? Remember, a few hundred sales can these days be the difference between number one and not being in the top ten at all - have we been doing a horrible injustice to Victoria Beckham, pronouncing her career as dead as Peter Andre's nipples when,. maybe, all along, she's been selling loads to the clicking kids through the air (we're making a wavy finger gesture like the bloke in the IBM advert here, of course)? More to the point, when the download chart does start, and when the sales of downloads become integrated into the Top 40, how exactly is that going to work? In the past, indie bands who flogged their own seven inch singles from a plastic bag at the end of their gigs never used to have those sales added to figures returned from proper shops, but we'd be talking about ten or twenty copies at most. Now, though, a band like Ash could sell tens of thousands downloads through their own website - how will the chart company track this data? Or will everything have to go through a 'recognised' download site like OD2 or iTunes, in which case isn't that re-intermediating the central services which the internet has, hitherto, disintermediated? Will bands who had just been set free by the ability to make and sell their own stuff, online, how they choose and priced at what they feel fair suddenly have to surrender that freedom to be in with a chance of some publicity from Wes Butter's marvellous chart rundown and a crack at Top of the Pops?

More importantly, how can downloads be judged fairly against a CD single. If you flick through the British Hit Singles book, you'll find examples where albums charted in the singles run down because the 'singles' chart wasn't really a singles chart at all - it was simply a list of the best selling records, which in a thousand cases out 1001 would be singles. Sometimes, though, an especially popular album could turn up in the list. So the rules were changed, a separate album chart created, and so on. And the situation has held quite well (despite a lot of fiddling about what constitutes a 'single') so that the Top 40 consists of records more-or-less entirely sold on the basis of a single track. You can point at a disc in a shop, it'll have three tracks on it, led by one strong one. Fair enough. Now, zip forward to when downloads are being counted in, and imagine that Thom Yorke has produced ten shiny new Radiohead tracks, which he makes available online as individual downloads. Radiohead fans being quite techy, it's possible that the Top Ten that week could suddenly be all Radiohead (which would be kind of funny... we're picturing the audience curve for the Hit 40 on the ILR network). Is that fair? No, we don't really know what the answer is - it doesn't seem to be fair on other acts that such a situation could happen (although this fictional week could be a good one for Supatonic to bury their release in); equally, though, how could you treat the ten downloads as anything other than ten singles? Without resorting to some stupid rule that would immediately render the inclusion of downloads in the chart pointless? Which is, of course, what we're betting is going to happen.

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