The charts are only relevant when you’re top of them.
Success is often measured by chart entries or awards, at least that’s what the public or the masses are perceiving. People listening to a niche subgenre won’t look for their stars in the Top 40 pop charts anyway, but in general the population will agree that the most successful artists are the ones topping the charts, as this is also mostly the music they will hear on the radio. This, however, is not always the case. Many musicians are dreaming of having a Top 40 hit, maybe even getting into the Top 10, or having a “number one”. A Grammy nomination is appreciated too, and winning it would also be nice. Don’t forget the MTV Video Music Award that you wanna take home. Before you continue dreaming, we should take a closer look at those things. A realistic look.
The show business is basically a big show on its own, and all kinds of charts and awards are part of that show. In the end they mean nothing at all.
The first thing to note is that there’s a huge number of Top 40s. Most countries have their own charts, there are “official ones”, although many radio stations are also running their own versions. And then there are Top 40s for almost every genre or even subgenre you can imagine. In the end there are only two that really matter:
- The US Billboard charts, and
- the UK BBC Radio 1 charts.
Local charts may also be of some importance for you if you’re performing in your local (non-US/UK) country, but only if it’s a large country with an active local music scene like Canada, Australia, Germany, or France for example. Forget about all other lists. Nobody except for your grandma will care about the fact that you’re number one in your local small town charts, unless you’ve done something so incredibly cool that it will go viral.
I don’t have to compete in the charts. I can just be myself as a musician, a songwriter and play with the musicians that I really love.
So how can you make it into the US or UK charts? Well, by selling singles, either physical units or downloads. The process isn’t always the same for every list, but that’s basically it. The fact that high record sales equal top chart positions led to several scandals in the music industry. Musicians, managers, producers, and record companies have tried to improve chart positions by buying large numbers of their own records in the past, although this may have become a bit more difficult nowadays as sales are now traced electronically.
A chart position doesn’t say anything about total sales over a longer period of time, as the charts are being compiled on a weekly basis.
In other words: The charts are lists representing positions based on the total number of sales for one week in one specific market. And, most importantly:
Charts don’t offer any information about the quality of the music.
Back to sales numbers.
It is very important to understand that a high position in the charts – even a number one – at a certain point of time does not mean that the record is selling overly well over a longer period of time. People don’t buy that much singles anymore, so that it has become quite easy to enter or even to top the charts with quite low sales numbers nowadays.
In other words:
Having a hit in the singles charts doesn’t mean you’re selling millions of records or that you’ll get rich overnight.
I grew up in the day when the Beatles sold 1 million singles in a week. And all you’ve got to do now is sell about 10,000 singles and you’re in the charts.
One major problem with number one hits – or any other highly popular songs in the Top 40 – is that you hear those songs just everywhere. Thanks to trend-based play lists, they’re being played on all radio stations all of the time. This way the songs get over-exposed, sales will quickly drop (most people won’t buy a song they hear on the radio every single hour), and the same will be true for their chart position.
The higher a song makes it into the charts, the more quickly it will be risking to disappear.
Record companies try to prevent this by further pushing the marketing, although this will only help to further delay the ultimate fate of the song.
If a single climbs up in the charts, then it will be played more often on the radio, it will quickly become over-exposed, and thus sales will rapidly be drowning.
The masses usually only perceive the singles charts, while they completely ignore the album charts. The album charts tell us which albums generate most sales, and you will be surprised to see that the artists getting high positions in the album charts will often not be same artists that are doing well in the singles charts.
Chart numbers can be deceiving. An album doesn’t have to sell that much these days to show up really high on the charts.
The singles charts are important for the masses and the artists who want to make it into the media. The album charts are important for real artists who actually create art, and who also earn some real money with it. Album sales are also important for the music industry as a whole, as albums generate a lot of money.
If you buy online then you spend about $1 on a single, while you have to pay $10 for an album, so an album roughly generates about 10 times more income than a single. And the same is true for physical sales by the way.
Let’s take a look at some UK charts now. Here’s a list of the best-selling singles in the UK since 2000, including the release years, units sold, and peak chart positions (as of 2016):
- Happy – Pharrell Williams (2013 – 1,813,000 copies – #1)
- Anything Is Possible / Evergreen – Will Young (2002 – 1,790,000 – #1)
- Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell Williams (2013 – 1,630,000 – #1)
- Someone Like You – Adele (2011 – 1,570,000 – #1)
- Moves Like Jagger – Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera (2011 – 1,503,000 – #2)
- Somebody That I Used to Know – Gotye featuring Kimbra (2012 – 1,484,000 – #1)
- I Gotta Feeling – The Black Eyed Peas (2009 – 1,436,000 – #1)
- Get Lucky – Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers (2013 – 1,436,000 – #1)
- Wake Me Up! – Avicii (2013 – 1,390,000 – #1)
- Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars (2014 – 1,390,000 – #1)
And then a list of the best-selling albums in the UK since 2000:
- 21 – Adele (2011 – 4,776,750 – #1)
- Back to Black – Amy Winehouse (2006 – 3,590,000 – #1)
- Back to Bedlam – James Blunt (2004 – 3,310,000 – #1)
- Spirit – Leona Lewis (2007 – 3,130,710 – #1)
- 1 – The Beatles (2000 – 3,121,030 – #1)
- No Angel – Dido (2000 – 3,080,000 – #1)
- Crazy Love – Michael Bublé (2009 – 3,043,500 – #1)
- White Ladder – David Gray (1998/2000 – 3,000,000 – #1)
- The Fame – Lady Gaga (2008 – 2,896,700 – #1)
- A Rush of Blood to the Head – Coldplay (2002 – 2,881,400 – #1)
It’s funny to hear that some music experts declare the album to be dead, considering those numbers.
Irish rock band U2 sold 2,790,000 copies of their incredibly successful album The Joshua Tree in the UK in 1987, when the music industry was still earning huge piles of cash. So I think the current numbers don’t look that bad at all. Adele even broke numerous records with her album 21, which is one of the most successful albums since the 1980s. You will also agree that the 10 albums are mostly good recordings by mostly good artists, while at least some of the top singles are really bad.
Okay, let’s do some math now. If you add up all UK single sales in the list above, then you will see that the ten most successful 21st century singles sold about 15,442,000 units, which means that people spent about $15.5 million on those.*
*) Note that we’ll suppose that all sales were online sales, which is not true of course, but this will allow us to easily calculate the totals.
If you take Adele’s 21, then you’ll see that people spent over $45 million on this album alone.
The number 1 album surpasses all top 10 singles combined by a factor of 3.
People in the UK spent more than $325 million on the top 10 albums combined. You could never reach those numbers by selling a bunch of singles. Of course you cannot simply compare things like that, as you would have to compare the total of all singles sales and of all albums sales, but that’s not the point here.
The top 10 albums surpass all top 10 singles by a factor of 20.
The most striking insight:
People seem to be willing to spend a lot of money on (mostly good) albums, while they are not willing to spend as much money on (mostly bad) singles.
This is why you should do albums, and not singles.
Albums will allow you to create art and to make money at the same time.
Focusing on singles and on the charts will force you to create crap and you won’t earn a lot. That’s the point.
People would still buy a lot of great albums, but there are almost none.
The great ones still sell very well, but the problem is that the number of good albums that are being released every year is now just very, very low – in contrast to the situation we had during the Golden Age (1955-1995).
If the folks working at record companies were clever, then they would instantly start looking for artists who would be able to create great albums, as this is what music lovers would buy.
But unfortunately they are not, and so they are looking for artists who will produce bad singles that people will not buy.
But what are the main reasons to have a number one hit anyway? Well, it will be great for your ego. This may turn into a problem later on of course. You will also get some cash, and depending on how popular your song will be, you’ll be able to buy a new car, maybe a new flat, or even a new home. This, of course, is only true for the very clever artist. The other ones (and that’s probably more than 90% of them) will quickly adopt a lifestyle that fits their new status and all of the cash will be gone after about two years, or even earlier. By that time they will have been dropped by their producers and record companies, which means they’ll be jobless and broke, and they will have to look for some kind of an average job. They will still be admired by some weirdos in their local pub when telling their incredible story, but that’s about it. Where do you think all of those many Top 40 stars disappear after a while?
At this point, I don’t need my records to be Number One or sell as many as this person or that person. That’s not fundamentally important — I don’t believe that sustains you.
One of the great myths that the record industry wants to make us believe is that all of those stars make big money and will live happily forever. This is just not true. I’ll tell you more about this problem later on. The second reason to top the charts is that a number one will generate a lot of media buzz, and so it will help to sell your album which is – as I just told you a few moments ago – very important, as album sales generate lots of cash.
Album sales will make you happy as an artist, because it’s the album that allows you to create real art, while the single has to follow some strict rules, especially if it shall make it into the charts. Generating album sales via a successful single release however only works if you’re making good music, as your single will have to attract people who like good music, as those are the people who will buy albums.
If your crappy bullshit single goes to number one because kids and retards are buying it, then sales of your even crappier bullshit album will not be boosted because kids and retards don’t buy albums, unless they’re really die hard idiots. Robin Thicke’s single Blurred Lines was a UK number one in 2013, with 1,630,000 copies sold. His album of the same name sold 60,000 units in the UK (and that’s really bad for an artist supported by a big record company), which means that less than 3,7% of the single buyers also went for the album. This clearly shows that people buying crap will not spend more money to buy even more crap of the same kind. Please remember the following, as this will be overly important to you:
- The music that you hear on the radio and that you will find in the singles charts is the music preferred by the masses.
- This is the music that seems to be very popular, it’s the music that’s being pushed by the media and by the record labels, but in the end it doesn’t generate that much cash.
- The real money is being made with album sales, which has always been the case.
- The artists who perform very well in the singles charts often don’t sell a lot of albums.
- The artists who sell lots of albums are the ones that make the most money with their music, and those artists are often under-represented in the media.
So the final conclusion will be the following:
If you want to become successful with your own music, then you should try to become an artist selling lots of albums, which means that you should completely forget about radio and singles charts altogether.
Trying to make it into the singles charts will be a very stupid plan nowadays, and you will need a different strategy if you want to earn some real money with your music, no matter what other people or so-called “experts” will tell you.
All of this was very different in the Golden Age – back then, great artists were much more present in the singles charts, and hit singles further thrived album sales so that the entire business strategy would work out well, as even the masses were incited to buy albums.
You’ll soon learn way this is no longer the case (it’s both the record companies’ and the artists’ fault by the way), and how this awful situation might eventually be reversed.
Please note that all sales numbers used in this article are based on certified numbers alone, as well as on the data that’s freely available. Actual sales numbers may diverge, although the numbers listed here should be good indications.