A news report suggesting you can top the charts by selling just a handful of records doesn't paint a healthy picture for the music industry. However, its real lesson is that combined sales charts are now a relatively useless tool for promoting music.
A story on news.com.au earlier this week reporting that UK band Bring Me The Horizon had topped the Australian album charts after selling just 3,600 copies of its album There Is A Hell, Believe Me I've Seen It, There Is A Heaven, Let's Keep It A Secret has led to a lot of speculation and discussion about the state of the music industry. The article points to illegal downloading as a likely contributor, and I certainly wouldn't dismiss that altogether, but the reality is more complicated.
The original news story rather blurs over one detail: whether the 3,600 copies represents total sales, or purely sales of physical CDs (which seems more likely). Contrary to what some news.com.au commenters appear to believe, the main ARIA album chart does indeed incorporate sales via iTunes and other digital outlets -- on this week's chart, an iTunes-only release from Angus & Julia Stone is at number 26.
ARIA also produce a physical albums only and digital albums only chart; Bring Me The Horizon topped the former, but not the latter. Indeed, they were outsold on the digital-only chart by the Angus & Julia Stone release, which suggests that the quantities involved in every case are pretty tiny.
I've always been a chart nerd who likes obsessing over chart statistics. Even as a chart nerd, there's no doubt that it's hard to see a national chart as meaningful if the sales numbers involved are so low.
It's worth remembering though that music charts exist as a promotional tool, and one that is financed by the music industry, not as an objective measure of behaviour. (This is different from TV ratings, for instance, since TV networks need to have an accurate measure of who watches in order to sell ads. Music companies just need to sell music.)
Because digital and physical sales can be tracked accurately, charts are potentially a highly accurate measure of mass-market taste, which wasn't always the case when they were assembled via diaries filled out by retailers. Regardless, their usefulness to the industry is still in producing a list which makes it easier for a store to prominently display this week's ten best sellers, which in turn makes it easy for customers to buy them. Whether that display is in a physical outlet or inside iTunes, it's a marketing technique.
Someone of my age is pretty accustomed to the idea that getting a number one album is also a significant achievement and a marker that you've had a real cultural impact. As an increasing number of people consume music without buying it, however, and as access to diverse genres becomes easier, then that's less likely to be a valid statement. If there's no mass market, there's no mass-market taste to measure.
Of course, that doesn't mean people are stealing music; they're far more likely to be watching it via a YouTube clip or listening to it on a streaming radio station. The importance of music to us as individuals hasn't necessarily changed at all, but the importance of the album chart clearly has. It may well be time to declare it dead.
Chances are that the world, and even the music industry, will survive that kind of change. After all, the centrality of albums over individual songs itself is largely a legacy of the 1960s. Assuming that a model that worked well 40 years ago automatically has to be the predominant approach today just doesn't make sense.
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