Before the compilation of sales of records, the music market measured a song's popularity by sales of sheet music. The idea of compiling a chart based on sales originated in the United States, where the music-trade paper Billboard compiled the first chart incorporating sales figures on 20 July 1940. Record charts in the UK began in 1952, when Percy Dickins of the New Musical Express (NME) gathered a pool of 52 stores willing to report sales figures. For the first British chart Dickins telephoned approximately 20 shops, asking for a list of the 10 best-selling songs. These results were then aggregated into a Top 12 chart[nb 1] published in NME on 14 November 1952, with Al Martino's "Here in My Heart" awarded the number-one position. The chart became a successful feature of the periodical; it expanded into a Top 20 format on 1 October 1954, and rival publications began compiling their own charts in 1955. Record Mirror compiled its own Top 10 chart for 22 January 1955; it was based on postal returns from record stores (which were financed by the newspaper). The NME chart was based on a telephone poll. Both charts expanded in size, with Mirror's becoming a Top 20 in October 1955 and NME's becoming a Top 30 in April 1956. Another rival publication, Melody Maker, began compiling its own chart; it telephoned 19 stores to produce a Top 20 for 7 April 1956. It was also the first chart to include Northern Ireland in its sample.
Record Mirror began running a Top 5 album chart in July 1956; from November 1958 onwards Melody Maker printed the Top 10 albums. In March 1960, Record Retailer began compiling an EP (album) chart and had a Top 50 singles chart. Although NME had the largest circulation of charts in the 1960s and was widely followed, in March 1962 Record Mirror stopped compiling its own chart and published Record Retailer's instead. Retailer began independent auditing in January 1963, and has been used by the UK Singles Chart as the source for number-ones since the week ending 12 March 1960. The choice of Record Retailer as the source has been criticised; however, the chart was unique in listing close to 50 positions for the whole decade. With available lists of which record shops were sampled to compile the charts some shops were subjected to "hyping" but, with Record Retailer being less widely followed than some charts, it was subject to less hyping. Additionally, Retailer was set up by independent record shops and had no funding or affiliation with record companies. However, it had a significantly smaller sample size than some rival charts.
Before February 1969 (when the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) chart was established), there was no official chart or universally accepted source. Readers followed the charts in various periodicals and, during this time, the BBC used aggregated results of charts from the NME, Melody Maker, Disc and (later) Record Mirror to compile the Pick of the Pops chart. The Official Charts Company and Guinness' British Hit Singles & Albums, use as sources for the unofficial period, the NME before 10 March 1960 and Record Retailer until 1969.
However, until 1969 the Record Retailer chart was only seen by people working in the industry. The most widely circulated chart was the NME one, as used by Radio Luxembourg's legendary Sunday night Top 20 show, as well as by ABC TV's Thank Your Lucky Stars, which had an audience of up to 6 million on ITV.
Before 1969 there was no official singles chart. Record Retailer and the BBC commissioned the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) to compile charts, beginning 15 February 1969. The BMRB compiled its first chart from postal returns of sales logs from 250 record shops. The sampling cost approximately £52,000; shops were randomly chosen from a pool of approximately 6,000, and submitted figures for sales taken up to the close of trade on Saturday. The sales diaries were translated into punch cards so the data could be interpreted by a computer. A computer then compiled the chart on Monday, and the BBC were informed of the Top 50 on Tuesday in time for it to be announced on Johnnie Walker's afternoon show. The charts were also published in Record Retailer (rebranded Record & Tape Retailer in 1971 and Music Week in 1972) and Record Mirror. However, the BMRB often struggled to have the full sample of sales figures returned by post. The 1971 postal strike meant data had to be collected by telephone, but this was deemed inadequate for a national chart; by 1973, the BMRB was using motorcycle couriers to collect sales figures. In May 1978, the singles chart was expanded from a Top 50 to a Top 75. A World in Action documentary exposé in 1980 revealed corruption within the industry; stores' chart-returns dealers would frequently be offered bribes to falsify sales logs.
From 1983 to 1990, the chart was financed by BPI (50 percent), Music Week (38 percent) and the BBC (12 percent). On 4 January 1983 the chart compilation was assumed by the Gallup Organization, which expanded the chart with a "Next 25" in addition to the Top 75[nb 2] and began the introduction of computerised compilers, automating the data-collection process. In July 1987, Gallup signed a new agreement with BPI, increasing the sample size to approximately 500 stores and introducing barcode scanners to read data. The chart was based entirely on sales of vinyl single records from retail outlets and announced on Tuesday until October 1987, when the Top 40 was revealed each Sunday (due to the new, automated process).
The 1980s also saw the introduction of the cassette single (or "cassingle") alongside the 7-inch and 12-inch record formats; in 1987, major record labels developed a common format for the compact disc single. In May 1989, chart regulations kept Kylie Minogue's song "Hand on Your Heart" from entering at number one because sales from cassette singles were not included (they were sold for £1.99 – cheaper than allowed at the time). Following this, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) reduced the minimum price for cassette singles to influence sales figures. In September 1989, W H Smith began to send sales data to Gallup directly through electronic point of sale (EPoS) terminals.
In January 1990, the BPI gave notice to Gallup, BBC and Music Week; on 30 June 1990, it terminated its contract with them because it "could no longer afford the £600,000 a year cost". From 1 July 1990, the Chart Information Network (CIN) was formed by Spotlight Publications[nb 3] (publisher of Music Week), in cooperation with the BBC and the British Association of Record Dealers (BARD) – representing retailers, including W H Smith, Woolworths, HMV and Virgin – who agreed to exclusively supply sales data to the CIN. A Chart Supervisory Committee (CSC) represented the BBC, CIN and retailers. The BPI were reluctant to join and "consider[ed] the option of launching a rival chart" but in September an agreement was reached, and it joined the CSC. For this period, the chart was produced by Gallup and owned by CIN and Music Week (who would then sell it to the BBC and BPI).
In January 1991 the CIN became a joint venture between Link House Magazines (formerly Spotlight Publications, later Miller Freeman, Inc.) and the BPI; they shared the revenue and costs (reportedly between £750,000 and £1 million). During this time, other retailers (such as Woolworths and John Menzies) began submitting data using EPoS terminals. In late 1991 the sample consisted of 500 stores scanning barcodes of all record sales into an Epson PX-4 computer, and 650 other stores providing sales data through their own EPoS computerised tills. These computers were to be telephoned six times a week, providing the data to Gallup. In June 1991, the BPI reduced the number of eligible formats from five to four.
In November 1990, the "Next 25" section of the UK singles chart (positions 76–100, with special rules) ceased to be printed in the trade magazine Music Week. In April 1991, Record Mirror ceased publication, along with the "Next 25". Virgin installed JDA EPoS terminals in September 1993, and began providing sales data to Gallup.
In February 1993 the research contract for the chart was put out to tender, with a new four-year contract beginning 1 February 1994 offered. Millward Brown, Research International and Nielsen Market Research were approached, and Gallup were invited to re-apply. In May, it was announced that Millward Brown had been accepted as the next chart compilers, signing a £1-million-a-year contract. Millward Brown took over compiling the charts on 1 February 1994, increasing the sample size; by the end of the month each shop sampled used a barcode scanner linking via an Epson terminal with a modem to a central computer (called "Eric"), which logged data from more than 2,500 stores. Gallup attempted to block Millward Brown's new chart by complaining to the Office of Fair Trading about the contractual clause in which BARD retailers exclusively supplied sales data to the CIN, but the interim order was rejected. In June 1995 the case was dropped, after the clause allowing BARD retailers to supply sales information to other chart compilers was deleted; because CIN retained the copyright, other compilers could not use (or sell) the information.
On 2 April 1995, the number of eligible formats was reduced from four to three. The decision came after nine months of negotiations with BARD, which objected that it would adversely affect the vinyl record industry. Although record labels were not prohibited from releasing singles in more than three formats, they were required to identify the three eligible formats. This resulted in a reduction in the number of singles released in 7-inch format; the most common three formats were 12-inch single, cassette and CD, or a cassette and two CD versions. The ruling resulted in the Oasis single "Some Might Say" charting twice in one week – at number 1 with sales from the three eligible formats, and at number 71 from sales in a fourth (12-inch) format.
Subsequently, CIN sought to develop new marketing opportunities and sponsorship deals; these included premium-rate fax and telephone services and the chart newsletters Charts+Plus (published from May 1991 to November 1994) and Hit Music (published from September 1992 to May 2001). Beginning in May 1991 Charts+Plus featured singles charts with positions 76–200 (plus artist albums positions 76–150, Top 50 compilations, and several genre and format charts). In September 1992, a second newsletter was created: Hit Music, a sister publication of Music Week featuring (among other charts) the singles Top 75 and a revived "Next 25". In November 1994, Charts+Plus ceased publication; Hit Music expanded its chart coverage to an uncompressed (without special rules) Top 200 Singles, Top 150 Artists Albums and Top 50 Compilations. In November 1996, the Artist Albums chart extended to a Top 200. Hit Music ceased publication in May 2001 with issue number 439.
In February 1997, CIN and BARD agreed to a new 18-month deal for the charts. In 1998 the CSC agreed to new rules reducing the number of tracks on a single from four to three, playing time from 25 minutes to 20 and the compact disc single minimum dealer price to £1.79.
This particularly affected the dance music industry which had previously released CD's full of remixes, with some labels having to edit or fade out remixes early in order to fit them on a CD single. On 1 July 1998, BARD and BPI took over management of the chart from the CIN (a Miller Freeman and BPI venture) with new company Music Industry Chart Services (Mics); however, in August they decided to return to compiling the charts under the name CIN.
In 1999, Millward Brown began "re-chipping" some retailers' machines, in anticipation of the millennium bug. However, some independent retailers lost access to the record-label-funded Electronic Record Ordering System (Eros); it was "too costly to make it Year 2000 compliant". Towards the end of the 1990s companies anticipated distributing singles over the Internet, following the example of Beggars Banquet and Liquid Audio (who made 2,000 tracks available for digital download in the US).
In November 2001, Chart Information Network (CIN) changed its name to "The Official UK Charts Company".
In January 2004, MyCokeMusic launched as the "first significant download retailer". Legal downloading was initially small, with MyCokeMusic selling over 100,000 downloads during its first three months. In June the iTunes Store was launched in the UK, and more than 450,000 songs were downloaded during the first week. In early September the UK Official Download Chart was launched, and a new live recording of Westlife's "Flying Without Wings" was the first number-one.
In 2005, Wes Butters presented his final UK Top 40 show, concluding his tenure at Radio 1. The chart show was then rebranded for the chart week ending 16 April, and the first singles chart combining physical-release sales with legal downloads began. Several test charts (and a download-sales chart) were published in 2004; this combination (within the official singles chart) reflected a changing era in which sales of physical singles fell and download sales rose. On 17 April 2005, hosts JK and Joel commented during their BBC Radio 1 broadcast that the incorporation of download sales resulted in an approximate doubling of singles sales for the week. For the first week's combined chart the impact of this doubling was not readily apparent at the top of the chart, although a few singles in the middle positions benefited.
Initially, the British Association of Record Dealers was concerned that the popularity of downloading would siphon business from the High Street. It also complained that including singles not available physically would confuse customers and create gaps in stores' sale racks. However, it agreed to the new rules provided that digital sales were only included to a single's sales tally if there was a physical equivalent sold in shops at the time. Since there was no rule governing a minimum number of pressings, Gorillaz released only 300 vinyl copies of their single "Feel Good Inc." on 12 April 2005 (a month before its general release). This allowed it to debut in the chart at number 22 (eventually reaching number 2), and remain in the Top 40 for a longer period.
After pressure from elsewhere in the music industry a second compromise was reached in 2006, which now allowed singles to chart on downloads the week before their physical release. The first song to make the Top 40 on downloads alone was "Pump It" by The Black Eyed Peas, which charted at number 16 on 12 March 2006. Three weeks later, "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley became the first song to top the charts on download sales alone. As part of the revised rules, singles would now be removed from the chart two weeks after the deletion of their physical formats; "Crazy" left the chart 11 weeks later from number 5. This was in addition to the existing rule that to be eligible for the chart, the physical single had to have been released within the last twelve months, supporting the general view that the chart reflected the top-selling "current" releases.
On 1 January 2007 the integration of downloaded music into the charts became complete when all downloads – with or without a physical equivalent – became eligible to chart, redefining the UK singles chart by turning it into a "songs" chart. "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol returned at a Top 10 position (number 9, just three places below the peak it had reached the previous September), while "Honey to the Bee" by Billie Piper (following a tongue-in-cheek promotional push by Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles to test the new chart rules) reappeared at number 17 (nearly eight years after its original appearance on the charts).
The first number-one hit never released physically was "Run" by Leona Lewis, the 11th song in total to reach number one on downloads alone. Unlike the previous 10, it did not receive a physical release in subsequent weeks (although it was released physically overseas, notably in Germany).
It was announced in June 2014 that as of Sunday, 29 June, audio streams from services such as Spotify, Deezer, Napster, O2 Tracks, Xbox Music, Sony Unlimited and rara would be counted towards the Official Singles Chart, in order to reflect changing music consumption in the United Kingdom. The final number one on the UK Singles Chart to be based on sales alone was "Gecko (Overdrive)" by Oliver Heldens featuring Becky Hill. On Sunday 6 July 2014, the Official Charts Company announced that Ariana Grande had earned a place in UK chart history when her single "Problem" featuring Iggy Azalea became the first number-one single based on sales and streaming data.
On 7 December 2014, Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" became the first single to reach number one as a direct result of streaming inclusion. Despite Union J's "You Got It All" topping the Sales Chart that week, "Thinking Out Loud" was streamed 1.6 million times in the same week, resulting in an overall lead of 13,000 chart sales.
On 10 March 2017, Ed Sheeran claimed 9 of the top 10 positions in the chart when his album ÷ was released. The large number of tracks from the album on the singles chart, 16 in the top 20, led to a change in how the chart is compiled with tracks from a lead artist eligible for entry limited to three.
Comparison of singles charts (1952–1969)
With no official chart before 1969, a number of periodicals compiled their own charts during the 1950s and 1960s. The five main charts (as used by BBC's Pick of the Pops) were:
- New Musical Express (NME) (1952–1988): The first singles chart, a major source until March 1960, widely followed throughout the 1960s
- Record Mirror (1955–1962): The second singles chart; compiled the first album chart, published Record Retailer chart from 1962. The Pick of the Pops average stopped using Record Mirror after 21 May 1960, due to the paper changing its weekly publication day
- Melody Maker (1956–1988): The third singles chart, major source for album charts from 1958 onwards
- Disc (1958–1967): The fourth singles chart
- Record Retailer (1960–1969): The fifth singles chart; a trade paper, regarded as a major source from its inception; jointly formed BMRB chart in 1969. Not included in the Pick of the Pops average until 31 March 1962.