How is the UK Top 40 Calculated?

January 10, 2020

The UK top 40 might not be the behemoth it once was when Oasis and Blur duked it out for number one back in the early nineties but it still remains a hugely important way for record labels to discover just how many people are enjoying their artists’ music each and every week. But how are the music charts calculated today?

Songs used to reach the top 40 if they sold more than the other songs around them, a simple and sensible method of calculating the charts until music downloads came along. In 2006 the rules were changed to allow songs to chart based on downloads alone but would then leave the charts entirely two weeks after the physical release left shops. As a result Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy was in the charts for eleven weeks; one week after falling down the chart to number five it left the top 40 entirely as it was no longer eligible.

As of 1st January 2007, songs that didn’t have a physical release were able to chart. As such Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol went straight in at number 9. By 2014, the rise of streaming meant that the rules had to change again. By the last weekend of June 2014, audio streams from Spotify, Deezer and other services were counted. By 2017 this meant that Ed Sheeran had claimed 9 of the top 10 positions on the chart thanks to fans going crazy for his latest album; the rules were changed a few months later so that only three songs by any lead artist are able to be in the top 100 at the same time.

As of 2019, one download sale is equivalent to 300 paid streams which is equivalent to 600 free streams. Add all of those together and voila, we have the top 40! Or do we? It’s not actually as easy as that because every Christmas we all start listening to the same songs. So how do the chart company make sure that newer songs are also able to compete with the likes of Mariah Carey or Wham? Simple – any song older than 3 years’ old is on permanent Accelerate Chart Ratio status, which in basic English means they need to have double the number of streams to equal one download sale. That’s right, whilst newer songs need to be streams 3006-600 times to equal one sale, older ones have to be streamed 600-1200 times. Ouch!

This is all may seem slightly unfair but it helps to keep the music charts fresh each and every week. Added to this, it makes them increasingly hard to predict. Most chart analysts predicted that due to the final number 1 of the decade being calculated from 20th-26th December that the number 1 song of 2019 would be Wham or Mariah Carey. As it happened, River by Ellie Goulding was the final number one in a surprise to everybody. How did this occur?

At number three, Last Christmas was the most streamed song of the week but crucially had less paid downloads than Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, which took second spot. Ellie Goulding’s River claimed number one despite being an Amazon Unlimited exclusive. Users of Spotify or Apple Music weren’t actually able to stream the song so how did it reach number one? The only explanation is that it isn’t because the UK is awash with Ellie Goulding fans at Christmas but because Amazon placed the song into each and every Christmas playlist they created. As such, in between Slade and Wizzard, people asking for Alex to play Christmas songs would invariably be treated to River by Ellie Goulding. Just one week later, the song slipped to number 28 when everybody stopped asking Alexa to fill the rom with Christmas tunes. 

Photo by Free-Photos from Pixabay.


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By Henry Fosdike