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29 July 2016

How Drake gamed the UK Singles Chart to spend 15 weeks at number one

Take a superstar rapper, add a “global” sound, with a liberal helping of rhythmic vagueness, and subtract the visuals, and you could have your very own trail-blazing UK number one.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Which singles would you guess have had the longest run at the top of the UK Official Singles Chart? Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love”? Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”? Rihanna’s “Umbrella”? Unless you’ve been paying close attention to the top 40 in recent weeks, you probably wouldn’t guess Drake’s “One Dance”. But if he makes the top spot again today, Drake will break the record as the artist with the most consecutive weeks at number one, matching Bryan Adams’s “Everything I Do (I Do It For You)” with 16 weeks, and beating the 15 weeks held by Wet Wet Wet’s “Love is All Around”.

I adore “One Dance”, even now, when its iron grip on the charts has seen it become utterly ubiquitous. But if you’re a casual pop music listener, the song may not even ring any bells. It’s far less distinctive and well-known than some of Drake’s other hits, like Rihanna collaboration “What’s My Name?” and last summer’s UK number one “Hotline Bling”.  It doesn’t have a particularly melodic chorus, and is without the peaks and troughs of the blazing pop ballads that have held the top spots for decades. It probably wouldn’t be a hit at karaoke, and the lyrics are not particularly memorable. So why has it shot to the top spot and stayed there?

Perhaps the chilled-out nebulousness of “One Dance” works in its favour. Ben Beaumont-Thomas at the Guardian writes that the track “sits at the heart of a listening-activity Venn diagram: it works for jogging, for driving, and at any point on a night out”, and adds that the “globalised” sound of the record, with its Nineties British pop, Afrobeat and Jamaican dancehall influences, attracts “an audience outside rap’s core demographics”. Telegraph critic Neil McCormick writes that the song is “lovely, in a tepid sort of way”, and suggests that its “very vagueness may be perfectly suited to listening on repeat in the background”.

This might be where the song’s success truly lies. In the 16 weeks since its release, the song is thought to have secured some 90 million streams (scoring 7.8 million in just one week) – and would be the fastest song to ever reach so many. The vast majority of its chart figures come from streams via Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal.

Audio streaming data has been included in chart calculations since 2014 – the UK Official Singles Chart counts every 100 streams on audio services like Spotify as equivalent to one single sale. If thousands of people up and down the country are keeping the song on a loop on their streaming services, it shows in the figures. “One Dance” has sold comparatively few copies – last week’s chart showing that it drew just 22 per cent of its sales from paid-for purchases. In fact, it sold just 44 per cent more than the song at number 10 – which is the slimmest gap in sales in any chart this century.

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Two weeks ago, in the song’s 14th week at number one, Drake dropped the price of “One Dance” to 59p on iTunes, perhaps in an attempt to boost sales ahead of today’s potential record. “It is a standard campaign feature on iTunes adopted by a number of best-selling singles,” a spokesperson told Music Week, adding that the strategy “can prove very effective in driving incremental single downloads over the short campaign period”.

But there’s another key rule of the UK Official Singles Chart that Drake is exploiting. While audio streams can contribute hugely to a song’s position, video streams do not. While the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the US, and many other charts worldwide, include YouTube and other video streaming data in their calculations, the UK does not take them into account.

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Last year’s song of the summer, “Hotline Bling”, had a video that was designed to be shared – shots of Drake dad-dancing amid Tumblr-esque pastel lighting that looked as though they had been made with the .gifs in mind. It worked: “Hotline Bling” was a viral video that accrued hundreds of millions of views, and basically became the biggest meme of 2015 – yet only reached number three in the UK singles chart.

In contrast, “One Dance” does not have a music video, and you can’t hear it on his YouTube channel – if you want to hear it easily online, you essentially have to go down an Official Chart-approved channel.

Does Drake’s reluctance to release a video of “One Dance”, even now, months after the song came out, reveal a deliberate change in strategy? Who knows, but, intentionally or not, Drake has revealed the perfect formula for snatching the UK top spot. Take a superstar rapper, add a “global” sound, with a liberal helping of rhythmic vagueness, and subtract the visuals, and you could have your very own trail-blazing UK number one.