The music charts may have plummeted in significance somewhat since the demise of Top of the Pops and the physical ‘single’, but even total music snobs like myself often can’t resist a peek at the charts just before Christmas as we see who claims the prize of having the best-selling single on December 25th.
From reading up on it, it seems like it’s something we make much more of a fuss about than other countries do. Whether it’s the heritage of Cliff Richard or the desperate home that we might one day see the next Slade, Wizzard or other release vaguely relevant to Christmas, the honour of being top of the UK charts at this time of year seems to hold a special significance.
Since it appears to be only vinyl hipsters who are still actually buying physical copies of music, what’s also evident is that the internet is playing an increasingly significant role in deciding who gets that coveted title. For a start, downloads are of course included in how the charts are compiled, and this has been the case since 2004. As of 2014, music streaming from the likes of Spotify and Deezer has come into the equation too.
The web’s contribution doesn’t end with how music is purchased and listened to, though. It’s also been used to spearhead campaigns and influence decision making, leading music that would otherwise have been nowhere to be seen at Christmas time to top the charts. There have been two notable examples of this in recent years:
2009 – Rage Against the Machine
It’s still hard to believe this actually happened. Looking at the Christmas 2009 charts and seeing ‘Killing in The Name’, an angry, swearing-filled rock song that touches on racism and aggressive policing and reached just No. 25 in the charts on its initial 1993 release, at the top of the charts seems like a mistake or wind-up. It was a wind-up in many ways, but it was one orchestrated by a grass-roots and largely underground movement.
Fed up of the chain of X Factor songs topping the charts at Christmas, Essex DJ Jon Morter started a Facebook group called ‘Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No. 1’, which still has nearly 7,000 members today. The exposure the campaign received, perhaps helped by Simon Cowell’s angry reaction to it and the six-figure sum it raised for homelessness charity Shelter, meant that the impossible became a reality and poor Joe McElderry became the first X Factor winner not to top the charts at Christmas since 2004.
Further showing how the net had changed the way we listen to music, ‘Killing in The Name’ became the fastest selling download to date and the first song ever to reach Christmas No. 1 by downloads alone.
2015 – The Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir
Post-Rage Against the Machine, the X Factor’s grip on the Christmas charts has loosened a little, and last year’s run-in was contested between Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber and what was something of a mashup of songs called ‘A Bridge Over You’ recorded by NHS workers.
The latter, again backed by a social media campaign, had struck a chord with a section of the British public. This may have been out of support for the effort medics put in over Christmas or resentment from some quarters at Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s treatment of junior doctors, but it still looked like Bieber might win the battle.
That was until the pendulum swung in the Choir’s favour thanks to this sporting tweet from Bieber himself:
— Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) December 23, 2015
Bookmakers shortened their odds for the musical medics, and it turned out that it was they who topped the charts. Did a single tweet decide Christmas No. 1 last year?
With Clean Bandit looking likely to cling on to top spot for the Christmas week this year, any social media surprises seem off the radar for 2016, but these examples show how music, awareness campaigns and the internet have come together in today’s digital Christmas.