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Ed Sheeran, the charts and the law of unintended consequences


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Congratulations to Ed Sheeran and label Atlantic Records, who enjoyed a record-breaking week for sales, streams and chart placements as expected.

Sheeran’s home country was one of the first to declare figures, with his ‘Divide’ album racking up 672k first-week units in the UK alone, behind only Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ (696k) and Adele’s ’25’ (800k) from the history of the albums chart, according to the Official Charts Company.

As hinted at last week, physical sales played a big part in Sheeran’s success, accounting for 62% of those first-week units, compared to 26% from download sales and 12% from streams converted into ‘sales’ for the purposes of the chart.

But globally, the streaming stats for ‘Divide’ were startling too: the album did 374m streams on Spotify alone, giving The Weeknd’s first-week record of 223m streams a good shoeing.

Sheeran and his label will rightly be celebrating this success, but ‘Divide’ could and should also spark a new wave of debate about the interplay between streaming services and the charts – specifically the singles charts.

Again, the UK is the key case in point: all 16 tracks on ‘Divide’ are in the top 20 of the OCC’s official singles chart this week, including nine slots in the top 10. Yet only three tracks on the album – ‘Shape of You’, ‘Castle on the Hill’ and ‘How Would You Feel’ – have been released as ‘singles’.

This is not to point the finger at Atlantic, Spotify or the OCC, but to highlight the fact that more light needs to be shone on streaming’s impact on the charts.

What percentage of listening to the 13 non-single tracks on ‘Divide’ came from album listening rather than as standalone songs? How can full-album listening be separated out from single plays, and how should spins of album tracks on popular playlists be treated? How, as streaming grows ever larger, can we avoid top 20s dominated by the latest big album?

Or perhaps, in a world of tracks discovered and consumed more flexibly than ever, this is a moot question, asked only by people who grew up on the rhythm (and excitement) of a weekly singles-chart rundown on the radio.

Maybe as we go forward, that excitement will increasingly come from the weekly turnover of New Music Friday playlists, or personalised selections like Release Radar, although this surely isn’t an outcome the official chart bodies are looking forward to.

We are in uncharted territory here – pun not intended – and while the OCC and other chart organisations have tried to take a thoughtful approach to integrating streaming data in their singles charts, the pace at which the market is evolving is breathtaking.

‘Divide’ dominating the top 20 singles chart truly is the law of unintended consequences in action, but we hope that spurs more thought about how these charts continue to adapt to the streaming era.


Written by: Stuart Dredge