FEATURE19 October 2023

Signed, sealed and delivered: The Offical Charts’ CEO on music consumption trends

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The Official Charts have been documenting music tastes for decades. With new platforms growing in prominence, chief executive Martin Talbot tells Liam Kay-McClean about how his job has become more complex – but fascinating.

photograph of Martin Talbot

F or a first gig, Stevie Wonder at Earl’s Court, London, in 1984, takes some beating. Wonder reeled off hits including Superstition, Isn’t She Lovely and Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours), as well as songs from his vast back catalogue.

Martin Talbot, chief executive at the Official Charts Company, was in the audience that night for his first live concert, and has remained a huge fan of Wonder ever since, last watching him on stage in 2019, in Hyde Park. But it is that 1984 gig that remains one of his all-time favourites. “To see an artist like that in his pomp, in the early 1980s and just coming out of his peak in the 1970s, was amazing,” he says. “I didn’t grow up in a big city, so I wasn’t fortunate enough to go to gigs constantly throughout my teens. Stevie Wonder had a massive impact on me at that age.”

Fast forward four decades and Talbot is very much a veteran of the music industry, albeit not in a recording capacity. After a three-year spell as a journalist at the Hackney Gazette in the late-1980s, Talbot moved into music journalism, focused on business-to-business (B2B) publications aimed at music sector professionals – Fono and Music Week, both of which he edited, and a brief spell on the news desk at NME.

“I never really considered myself as a music journalist – I was more a business journalist covering the music industry,” Talbot says. “I found working in business media more invigorating and more interesting as a journalist – you could dig into more stuff; there were a lot more angles and things going on you could cover. There were various copyright tribunals, such as George Michael taking legal action against Sony Music – there were always interesting stories to get your teeth into.”

Then, in 2007, came the chance to move to the UK Official Charts Company, first as managing director and then, in 2013, as chief executive. “It’s been the role of a lifetime to have the opportunity to manage an organisation that is a national institution,” Talbot says. “I am very aware that there are decades of history in the charts in the UK, and I have been around for only a small proportion. It is quite an honour to do that, particularly at a time when the industry has changed so much.”

Different tracks

Despite working in and around the music industry for 20 years before moving to the Official Charts Company, Talbot accepts that his current role is quite a significant shift from that of working as a journalist.

“For anybody who makes the transition to running a business for the first time, it is a learning experience,” he explains. “Every day is a learning experience – particularly as I have not grown from within the business, but come from outside of it.”

Music Week was a publisher of the Official Charts, so Talbot already had a business relationship with the Official Charts Company, and knew the team and its work, albeit not the day-to-day minutiae. “When I came to the Official Charts Company, I already had experience of managing a team,” he says. “I had some really good mentors as well – people I have worked for who I’m still in touch with. I learned a lot from them about how to manage.

“There’s not a guide on how to do the job of chief executive – you have to make it for yourself and make your own way of doing it. I’d come from a journalistic background, and a lot of editors end up becoming publishers. Being a publisher of a magazine or website is not that dissimilar to being the chief executive of an organisation like the Official Charts Company. We create content and we commercialise it.”

Talbot says the key has been to surround himself with people who are experts in their field, and he tries to avoid too much hands-on management of the content side of the business. The Official Charts have been around since the 1950s and the Official Charts Company since the 1990s, but it was only in 2011 that the business adopted a logo and branding, and launched a website to allow more direct access to the singles, albums and specialist charts for music lovers. The company has recently presided over a brand refresh, leaning away from a B2B image towards that of a ‘punchier, consumer-facing brand’, says Talbot, to maintain the charts’ roots in appealing to teenagers first and foremost.

“If you go back to the 1950s, when the charts first started, it was all about rock ‘n’ roll music and teenagers rebelling against their parents, and that was played out in the singles charts at the time,” Talbot says. “There was the same in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and still is today.

“Occasionally, you get lots of middle-aged journalists talking about how the charts don’t mean anything to them any more. They’re not designed for middle-aged men, frankly – the singles charts are designed for a teen audience.”

Alternate takes

With new generations have come new ways of consuming music. Vinyl was king in the 1950s, before being supplanted by cassette tapes, CDs, downloads and streaming, before making a comeback of its own. As the man overseeing the UK’s charts, Talbot has been in charge during a time of intense flux. Streaming was first added to the Official Charts in 2014 and is now the world’s most popular method of music consumption, led by firms such as Spotify, Apple and Amazon – Spotify alone has 500 million users, according to the company’s figures from April 2023. In addition, there has been an accompanying proliferation of charts run by individual streaming companies, setting out the most listened to artists and songs on their platforms.

“When I joined, downloading [records] was relatively new, was yet to reach its peak, and then streaming came along and has transformed everything again and created other challenges,” Talbot recalls. “Something needed to make sense of the chaos of all of this music being created. What better than a chart that reflects consumption across all age groups and demographics, across the whole country. The chart we create isn’t just taking data from one particular platform – it is taking data from all of them.”

The Official Charts Company gathers data, with support from Kantar, from 8,000 sources daily – from major streaming services to online and high street retailers, supermarkets and independent record shops. The data it gathers equates to more than 99% of the total UK singles market, 98% of the albums market and 90% of the country’s DVD market. In comparison, the first UK chart – the brainchild of NME publisher Percy Dickens and printed on 14 November 1952 – was based on about 20 phone calls to record shops. The first number one? Al Martino with Here in My Heart.

Data quality was a challenge when streaming first arrived – especially when adding large quantities of music-listening information to the charts daily – and streaming companies had to be able to supply information at a robust enough level of quality to meet the Official Charts Company’s standards.

“When streaming came into the singles charts, it was a growing, but small, part of the market,” Talbot remembers. “Often, when you have new areas of consumption that are evolving, the companies that are selling those products and formats are not necessarily set up to deliver data to the quality we require it.”
Data is gathered from suppliers every day by 5am, with the Official Charts Company updating the charts at 10am with further sales flashes daily. There is a need for quality and robust data, and the company has worked to ensure it gets sufficient quality and quantity from streaming platforms and other music retailers.
How has it felt to preside over the Official Charts at a time of such flux in the music industry? Talbot reflects: “I remember seeing a managing director of a major record label on a panel recently, and someone said that his job must have been tough. He said it was not – that it was a privilege to steer the record label from one era to another and manage that transition. I feel the same way about the charts. It is much more complex than it used to be, but that’s what makes it fascinating.”

Photograph of Martin Talbot and Ed Sheeran

Skipping a track

Streaming is no longer the new kid on the block in the music world, but some of the challenges it has presented to the singles and albums charts remain. The algorithms that power many streaming platforms, for instance, have provoked ire in some quarters in recent years over the way they promote particular songs and artists, with some people keen for a more serendipitous way of discovering new music.

The Official Charts Company recently published a report called The People’s Algorithm, a piece of work carried out with CultureStudio and with 1,121 respondents across two surveys. The research explores the role of the charts for algorithm-weary music fans who are looking to escape heavily personalised content-recommendation feeds. Among the findings was that 69% of charts followers say that the charts are their top means of discovering new music. “Three or four years ago, the idea of algorithms feeding you stuff you might like based on what you have already explored or enjoyed was being pushed forward as great and positive,” says Talbot. “I think the tide has turned a bit, and algorithms are now pushing things that people don’t really want.”

The company’s website attracts 3.1m visits per month, with 13.5m views of Official Charts video content generated monthly and 370,000 subscribers listening to its playlists on their favourite streaming platforms. Talbot is a big fan of the Official Charts’ more specialist charts and argues that they can provide a timely anecdote for algorithm-sceptic listeners.

“The specialist charts are all about introducing people to music. Lots of my favourite artists would be appearing more on the specialist charts than the singles and albums charts,” he explains.

“The main charts have always been about the mainstream – the most popular and, therefore, the biggest artists of the minute. But there’s so much beneath it. That’s why the specialist charts are there.”

The challenges do not stop there. Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to deeply affect the music world, with outlooks ranging from optimism over how it could revolutionise music recording and preservation to deep concern that AI could end up undermining the music industry in ways that were previously unfathomable. Earlier this year, for example, there was a debate about Sir Paul McCartney using AI to create a ‘new’ Beatles track using previously unreleased John Lennon vocals.

Talbot thinks that there is a lot to contemplate – AI could prove useful for recording artists, but his focus is on the potential copyright implications of the technology and its impact on the charts. With AI being in its infancy, the Official Charts Company is keeping its powder dry for the time being, and focusing on ensuring that copyright laws and musical integrity are upheld, while analysing longer-term issues stemming from the deployment of AI in the industry.

Talbot says: “What does it mean if Sir Paul McCartney and The Beatles use it to enhance a John Lennon vocal? Is that legitimate or not? I don’t think there is anyone who would argue The Beatles example wasn’t legitimate – technology has been used for years to clean up and help the creative process.

“It is important to emphasise that much is still to be debated and settled. The one clear line we have is that, if someone is breaching copyright to create something, that is not good, and nobody wants to see that in the charts.”


As you might expect, given his career trajectory, Talbot is a big music fan himself, spending his summers travelling to music festivals, including Latitude in Suffolk. When we speak in July, Talbot has just been to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – his wife is a huge fan – and Pulp in London.

Prince is a particular favourite – Talbot was lucky to see his Sign O’ The Times tour in Paris in the late 1980s to promote the album of the same name. “Talk about being at your pomp – he was absolutely 100% at the top of his game,” Talbot recalls. “That tour didn’t come to the UK, and me and a friend had the foresight to buy a coach trip to Paris to see the gig. He was, and still is, the best artist I have ever seen. He was absolutely in a different class.
“If you really love an artist, go and see them when they come around. Even if you have seen them before, go and see them again – you never know, it might be the last one.”

Whatever happens, Talbot expects that the Official Charts will long outlast new technologies and remain relevant to new generations. “When streaming emerged,” he says, “a lot of people thought there wouldn’t be any other way of delivering music. One thing we have learnt from the past 60 years is that there will always be change.

“The charts provide a narrative for the history of popular music. They provide a hook for our nostalgia about music – we talk about the single that was number one on the week we were born. The charts have huge value and power. I have no doubt we will still be here and doing what we do.”

This article was first published in the October 2023 issue of Impact