Are the Official Charts Company’s vinyl charts bullshit?
If the vinyl revival wasn’t official before, then it is now: the Official Charts Company has launched its own vinyl-specific chart.
In the same way that many have accused Record Store Day of being co-opted by major labels, though, the vinyl charts already seem like an old man’s game. If young listeners are embracing vinyl again, then why are reissues of Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd ruling the roost on the quarterly vinyl album charts? Even the weekly singles chart, more immediate and club-focused by definition, makes for dull reading: a charity Frankie Knuckles cover is number one, with Aphex Twin, at this point an establishment act, number two.
We spoke to a handful of UK-based record stores to find out whether the Official Charts Company give the land-dwellers of underground music a fair shot at success, or whether they simply pay lip service to music’s High Flying Birds. This is what we found out:
1. It doesn’t factor for small stores
Out of several dance/electronic-focused record stores that we asked, only one, Bleep, reports its sales to the Official Charts Company. They admit that they’re “one of the few niche indie stores who do”. “Anybody can report to chart”, they tell us, “but you need to have systems in place and be able to geo-identify customers and integrate to a technical specification that sends xml reports. This has a cost, and most stores aren’t prepared to swallow it.”
We’re not just talking local record shops, either: plenty of notable electronic stores we spoke to (including Rubadub and Boomkat) don’t report their vinyl sales. The Official Charts Company’s numbers, shops told us, are skewed towards bigger, more rock-focused retailers like Sister Ray, Fopp, HMV and Urban Outfitters.
Another store we spoke to said that they’d been asked to contribute to the Official Vinyl Charts, but it’s simply not worth the hassle. “Revival” or not, selling records is still a slog, and when you’ve spent a day balancing the books and ordering stock, it’s understandable that stores don’t consider these charts a priority.
2. It’s inaccurate
For a record’s sales to count towards the Official Vinyl Charts, they need to have a barcode to scan. That’s an extra cost in a niche industry where every cost counts, so it’s no surprise that countless indie labels don’t bother (we actually spoke to one significant dance music store who told us that they don’t even own a barcode scanner).
A lack of barcode could also be an aesthetic choice. Levon Vincent’s self-titled album released earlier this year didn’t include one, and it’s not too much of a stretch to guess that it sold two thousand copies in its first week [NB. That figure is an editorial estimate, we weren’t given numbers by a store or distributor]. With last years’s officially recorded vinyl sales at 1.28 million, roughly 24k per week, the proportion of copies sold by UK stores could have been enough for Levon to chart. But then why would he bother, if many of the stores selling his album aren’t reporting their numbers?
3. If the future of music is direct-to-fan, how does the Official Charts Company account for that?
Bandcamp and Big Cartel are big deals now, with the former especially growing at pace. Everyone from bedroom labels to significant indies such as XL are selling direct to fans, and so are the artists themselves, but who’s expecting a Big Cartel user to scan a barcode every time they package up a 12″? Like half of the artists in the Official Charts Company’s vinyl chart, their system already seems behind the times.
[Amendment: It’s been pointed out that Bandcamp can track sales for Nielsen SoundScan, the company behind North America’s Billboard charts, if the relevant data is entered. This doesn’t apply to the UK’s vinyl charts, of course, but it’s important to note.]
Whether the way that the Official Charts Company collates data is fair or not is up for debate (there are arguments to be made that if a label isn’t supplying barcodes on its records then it’s its own fault if its records don’t chart, and that shops have a responsibility to report what they sell). What’s clear, though, is that like much of Record Store Day at this point, these charts are tailored to benefit establishment acts and establishment labels, and are more suited to the world of guitar music and major label reissue schemes than the underground acts that kept the vinyl market afloat when it wasn’t in fashion. Like Record Store Day, it might not be long before they start to resent it.
For more on the Official Charts Company’s vinyl charts, head here.