Ed Sheeran Broke The Charts [Mark Mulligan]


BrokenEd Sheeran is hugely popular; and while no one wants to demean his success (OK, maybe some do…), when one person occupies for 9 of the UK top 10 singles and all 16 tracks from his new album are in the top 20, something is broken.

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By Mark Mulligan of MIDiA 

Unless you have been hiding under a stone on Mars this last few weeks you will have struggled not to hear or see some clip of Ed Sheeran one way or another. Atlantic Record’s carpet bombing market campaign has tipped Sheeran into global ubiquity. At the centre of this approach is a ‘be everywhere’ streaming strategy which saw Sheeran clock up over 68 million Spotify streams in 1 day (a record for any single artist). Though, the 1 billion views he clocked up for ‘Divide’ on YouTube shows where the real streaming audience of scale resides. But what makes Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ campaign stand out is what it has done to the charts. Or rather, the weaknesses in the charts that ‘Divide’ shines a light on.

What Role Should Streaming Era Charts Play?

As of March 13th, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Divide’ album accounts for 9 of the UK top 10 singles, while all of the 16 tracks on the album are in the top 20. If there was ever a sign that streaming is breaking the charts then this is it.

The writing has been on the wall for charts ever since the recorded music business decided to incorporate streams into them. Doing so was a perfectly understandable move but it is one that has incapacitated the charts. As we predicted back in 2014, incorporating streams into charts would fall over because the charts were being forced into trying to simultaneously measure sales trends and airplay. As I wrote 3 years ago: “try simultaneously [measuring airplay] with measuring sales and you end up with a diluted mish mash that does not do either job properly.”

Underpinning all of this is an existential industry debate over whether streaming is replacing retail or radio. In truth, of course it is replacing both, but which is it doing more? The answer to that determines the role charts should be trying to play. However, the answer looks very different depending on where you sit. If you are a record label you see streaming growing by 57% in 2016 to reach $5.4 billion. Streaming is indeed becoming the future of retail. But it is also how you break artists and releases now, therefore it is a bit of both. Go over to the artist side of the equation and streaming becomes a crucial tool for driving exposure and helping sell concert tickets. As Ed Sheeran himself said during his last album promo cycle, for him it is all about live. Indeed, for most successful artists, recorded music revenue is just a small part of the revenue mix. So at its most extreme, streaming is a marketing campaign that pays you instead of you paying for it.

Reach Or Engagement?

In the old charts model an Ed Sheeran super fan buying ‘Divide’ and playing it a hundred times in the first week would only show as one sale, and an album sale at that. There would be no impact on the singles chart. But in the current UK streaming charts, not only does that fan’s album listening now get counted in the singles charts (instead of just the album charts), the resulting 1,600 streams (16 tracks*100) become 160 chart placings (100 streams = 1 sale for singles charts). Consequently, the charts are conflating audience reach with audience engagement. It is the equivalent of Facebook merging Monthly Active Users and Daily Video Views into a single metric. It wouldn’t work for Facebook and it just doesn’t work for music.

A Fiendishly Difficult Problem To Fix

There is no doubt that ‘Divide’ is a fantastically successful and popular album, the problem is that because the charts are conflating sales with consumption we simply don’t know just how successful it really is. And that does a disservice to both Sheeran and his fans. Don’t get me wrong, I truly feel for the various charts organizations across the globe. This is a fiendishly difficult problem to fix, but the current solution just isn’t working. In all likelihood, a dynamic solution is going to be needed, one that has the flexibility to evolve as the streaming market and its industry role changes.

The Time May Have Come For A Separation Into 2 Charts

Ultimately the recorded music business needs to decide what it wants the charts to measure. In old parlance: sales versus airplay, in contemporary terms: reach versus engagement. One near term fix would be to only consider cached streams towards the charts (perhaps with a smaller deflator than the current 100). This would have the advantage of making the measure more reach focused rather than engagement led. It would also have the effect of reducing the impact on ‘push’ curated playlists, which depending on where you sit, can be either an entirely good thing or an entirely bad thing.

If such an approach was taken then some sort of purer engagement chart would need creating to sit alongside the main chart, one that weighted total streams alongside traditional radio. The argument for a streaming-led airplay chart is even stronger than revising the sales chart. With playlists now accounting for 58% of all streams (see MIDiA’s Streaming Music Healthcheck report for more) and curated playlists a third of those, streaming is becoming less about on-demand and more about lean back, radio-like experiences. Streaming is seemingly making radio programmers of the entire recorded music business. It is time for a chart that reflects this change.

‘Divide’ is an exceptional album in terms of commercial performance and audience reach, as is its impact on the charts. But in the latter respect, it is simply a trail blazer for the way in which big albums are going to play out on streaming. ‘Divide’ might not be the hair that breaks the camel’s back but it has certainly fractured it.