Sony and Universal offer music On Air, On Sale: Are the charts dead?

Record labels in moment of sanity shocker! Sony and Universal are making new songs available to buy as soon as they're on the radio. Is the hit parade dead?

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

You've just heard a bangin' choon on the radio, and you want to get said banger into your MP3 player and into your life. Skipping over to iTunes, wallet in hand, you draw a blank. Until the song is released, you're stuck with the lottery of radio play, dodgy rips on YouTube, or -- whisper it -- a pirated copy. Frustrating, isn't it? Fortunately, in a shockingly rare moment of sanity from record labels, Sony and Universal have introduced On Air, On Sale.

On Air, On Sale is a policy that sees new songs available to buy as soon as they're released to radio stations. Even better, new music will be released to streaming services such as Spotify too, so you can listen legally even if you don't want to lay down the cash.

Wait for it

The traditional method is to release the song to radio stations to build a critical mass of word-of-mouth, so that when the song hit shops it would already have lots of attention. The attention garnered in the pre-release window would then translate into strong sales and a strong chart appearance in the first week.

The success of new releases is a feedback loop: when a release sells well it gets in the charts, which exposes it to people who rely on charts rather than searching out music, or who haven't previously encountered the release. Thus, it sells even more. And we say release because this isn't specific to music: app developers know getting into the iTunes charts is essential, especially as iTunes is rubbish for searching out new apps.

The hit parade takes a hit

The days of the charts as we know them are pretty much over. Yes sir, the hit parade is dead, because the old model of first-week sales is on the way out. Instead, we'll have fragmented sales charts on iTunes, Amazon and other outlets. To show what a poor state the traditional charts are in, Showroom of Compassion, the latest slice of twitchy drollery from US altrockers Cake, has become the lowest-selling number one record on the Billboard chart since current measurement began in 1991.

The band sold just 44,000 copies of the album, including digital copies. It's not a one-off either, as Taylor Swift achieved the same dubious honour last week. Digital music is so fragmented that music fans don't buy albums as a whole, and there's little need for singles as any song can sell well and get into the charts even if not officially released as a single.

It's mind-boggling that record companies haven't done this sooner. They whine about piracy, without thinking that maybe people who would buy a song get frustrated when they can't, and turn to torrent sites instead. We're not seeing day-and-date releases will end piracy, but at least record labels are closing this glaring invitation to pirate. Again, this isn't limited to music -- and isn't limited to new releases either, as we argued when we couldn't watch Tronanywhere.

Where do you buy your music? let us know in the comments. For more music-related messing about, take a look at our five high- tech music videos that put you in charge and the technology that changed music. Choon!