How To Get A Number One Record

A lot of guff is written these days about how easy it is to get a record to number one. It’s not. We asked legendary chart watcher – the music geeks’ music geek – James Masterton to take a look at the charts in 2014 and tell us everything there is to know about number one sales.

Regardless of your motivation for purchasing or streaming a pop record – whether it is because you like the song or singer; because you think it will annoy a politician who has said something stupid; or because it is Christmas and you want an old rock song to mess with Simon Cowell’s head – part of the fun has always been discovering if your fevered multiple clicks have actually helped your song of choice get to the top of the singles chart.

Ask anyone even slightly connected with the music business and they will tell you that their most commonly asked question is this: just how many records do you need to sell to top the charts? Such questions are often phrased in a confident way by people who have an idea in their head of how much it used to be “back when pop music wasn’t rubbish” and are anticipating a more derisory answer than they are actually given.

In actual fact the size of the number one sale of the week has varied widely over the years depending on appeal and economics. Numbers range from the all-time low of 17,964 sold by Orson with No Tomorrow in March 2006 to the all-time high set by Elton John’s Candle In The Wind ‘97 which attracted the attention of 1,546,688 weeping housewives in September 1997.

The only true and guaranteed-to-be-accurate answer to the question is “One more copy than the number two single that week”. It’s a lawyer’s answer – concise, irrefutably accurate and adding nothing to the information already available – yet it is actually rather significant, as will become clear shortly.

An actual number can be divined based on the data of the year gone by. During 2014 there were, naturally enough, 52 singles charts published, starting with the chart dated January 4th and ending with that of December 27th. Two of those weeks were rather too extraordinary to be considered a true part of the dataset. November 29th saw the Band Aid 30 single hit the top with a colossal sale of 312,928 copies – not all of which will have been purchased based on the quality of the music.

Similarly, the final chart in this sample was the Christmas chart, which saw X Factor winner Ben Haenow sell 218,239 copies to many people who just liked his stubble. So to avoid skewing the averages we’ll ignore those weeks altogether. (Frankly, if you had designs on topping the chart against either of those singles you were on a hiding to nothing, regardless of how many you sold.)

So that leaves us with 50 weeks of the year. During this time the sale of the number one single ranged from a low of 58,503 copies sold (Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran on December 13th) to a high of 162,801 copies sold (Rather Be by Clean Bandit on February 1st).

The mean average figure for this period was just over six figures – 100,056. Similarly, the median value (the exact mid-point of all the totals when laid out in order) is 101,742.

It is possible to argue that we aren’t always comparing like with like here. During the course of 2014 the method used to compile the singles chart was changed slightly. Since July, audio streams of tracks from services such as Spotify and Deezer were factored in with 100 streams counted as equivalent to 1 paid-for download. However the impact of this was less pronounced than expected and indeed the average for the sales-only first half of the year was just under 108,000 (compared to 91,000 for the combined tail-end).

Now, remember the lawyer’s answer? This is why it’s significant. What we are measuring here is how many copies the number one single actually sold, not how many they needed to sell.

In the race to beat the number two record it was possible to achieve victory by besting the 46,000 copies sold by Union J with You Got It All on December 13th (not entirely coincidentally, the same week that Ed Sheeran topped the charts with the lowest sales point of the year). The most that you would have had to best was the 108,317 copies sold by Pharrell Williams’ Happy to be the number two record on January 11th (which Pitbull and Ke$ha did with 138,891 copies of Timber that week).

Taking a rough average from those two suggests that you’d only really have needed to sell just over 77,000 copies to beat half of the number two singles this year – which is still 23,000 fewer copies than the average actual sale of a number one.

The message here is that there actually is no easy answer to the question. The size of the top end of the singles market is subject to so many variations each week that aiming for the summit is like attempting to hit a constantly moving target, one whose swings are all but impossible to predict before the fact.

However, there is one smaller chart benchmark which is far easier to nail down. Sales of the number ten record each week did not vary by such huge amounts – 18,000 at their lowest point to 34,000 at the highest. The weekly average was 26,149 which is not only closer to the extreme highs and lows than at the top of the charts but also well within the reach of your average social media army.

Unlike the number one, landing a top ten record is pretty much a static target. And now you know exactly what it takes to get there.