Did Ed Sheeran kill the UK Singles Chart – or was it dead already?
In March 2017, something seismic happened to the UK singles chart: Ed Sheeran almost killed it. Let’s be generous here and presume that he didn’t actually mean to, but his actions rendered it, in a stroke, redundant in a way it hadn’t been in its previous 65 years.
Sheeran, the biggest pop star on the planet, had just released his third album, ÷ (Divide). By this point, more people were streaming music than buying it and Sheeran’s fans listened to the songs from ÷ over and over again, more so than they did any other songs during the next seven days. In the digital era, each click counted for another “sale”.
Consequently, the week of 8 March 2017, Sheeran dominated. While ÷ was comfortably settled at the top of the albums chart, its individual tracks punctured the singles chart like acne scars on a peachy cheek. He was at No 1 with “Shape of You”; No 2 with “Castle on the Hill”. He took No 3 with “Galway Girl”; No 4 with “Perfect”. He was not at No 5, which was instead occupied by The Chainsmokers and Coldplay with “Something Just Like This”. But he was at No 6, and No 7, No 8, No 9 and No 10. In total, Sheeran had 16 songs inside the Official UK Chart’s top 40, a feat that had never been achieved before.
James Masterton remembers that week well. How could he not? For the past three decades, he has run his Chart Watch UK page – initially in print, now online – which takes an in-depth look at each week’s top 40 and analyses it accordingly. For Masterton, that particular week was historic. “Ed Sheeran’s exploits – that he was able to take advantage of the rules that were in place at the time, where any song that was streamed enough was eligible for chart placing – changed everything,” he says.
This really was the fault of streaming rather than any one artist. A similar event had happened before, in 2009 following Michael Jackson’s death, when fans responded to his passing by streaming his songs, thereby pushing much of his back catalogue up the charts. “But,” Masterton points out, “not to this extent. It was always possible that one artist could entirely dominate, but nobody did, until Sheeran came along.”
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