How To Release A Top 40 Single [Book Excerpt]

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Lee Parsons is Co Founder of Ditto Music, a music distribution platform for over 80,000 artists. This is an extract from his ebook “How to release a top 40 single, case studies from artists like Sam Smith and The 1975 which can be downloaded hereKoopa and Ditto Music – The story of the first unsigned UK top 40 single.


In 2006, my brother and I had been in bands for years. We were those ‘struggling musicians’. But when digital opened up new opportunities for individual artists and changed the traditional music industry structures, we saw our chance to release music for ourselves, we took it and started Ditto Music.

The first single we released was our own. After spending 6 months working out how to crack the charts, we landed at 72. It was disappointing but it wasn’t a fail. Now we knew what not to do and we were ready to turn this newfound knowledge to our advantage.

Running a two-man operation out of our tiny flat, we started to digitally release and promote our friends’ music. It was hard to get taken seriously at first. We were seen as a small start-up, we had no marketing budget and the music industry wasn’t exactly sitting up and paying attention to our efforts. We desperately needed to prove our worth.

Then we met Koopa.

A band of three young guys from Essex, Koopa had built up a huge fan base but couldn’t seem to break through and get any media attention. From the experience of releasing our own single, we knew the second week in January was always slowest for chart sales. So, in September 2006, we decided to try and get Koopa a chart placement in January 2007.

If all went to plan Koopa would be the first totally unsigned artists to release a digital-only single and chart in the UK top 40. We were not even thinking about how to get in the iTunes charts at that time, it was primarily focused on top 40.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.17.13 PMIt was a bold strategy and nerve-wracking for us and Koopa. But, in January 2007, our plan worked. We released the first digital-only top 40 single and the first top 40 single for an artist not signed to any record label, including their own – it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records.

In the past, for a single to qualify for the UK Charts, the artist releasing it had to be signed. Even if they were releasing the single themselves, they had to be signed to their be chart. What ‘unsigned’ means and who the first ‘unsigned’ artist to qualify for the UK Charts was, has been debated far and wide.

To Ditto Music, ‘unsigned’ means not being ‘signed’ to any agreement, with any record label or other institution. And that makes Koopa the first ‘unsigned’ artists to release a single which qualified for the UK Charts.

How It Happened

In 2007, Koopa had been gigging for 7 years to build up a fan base. But many of their fans were still under 18 and couldn’t buy music online because they didn’t have a credit card.

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 11.27.49 PMTo get round this (and avoid fans misusing their parents’ cards), we looked into SMS sales – no labels were using SMS for sales in 2007. We set Koopa up with SMS code “Koopa” and a dedicated text number. All fans had to do was text ‘Koopa’ to 8100 and pre-order the track without having to buy it online. And, in 2007, fans didn’t even need to download the single for it to count towards the charts, they just needed to send the SMS.

SMS is really accessible and a great opportunity to massively increase single sales – getting friends and family to use their phone is much easier than dragging them to a computer.

Some Quick Sums
• A new £5 sim card automatically gives £5 credit.
• One SMS download costs £1.50.
• For every SMS sale, the artist receives 75p.
• So you can buy the track 3 times for £4.50 and receive £2.25 in royalties.
• But sites like eBay sell sim cards cheaply in bulk, so you can get £5 credit for just £3 per sim card.

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• So for £3 you can download a track 3 times, get £2.25 BACK from sales and it costs just 75p in total, 25p per download instead of (roughly) 92p.

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Around 80% of Koopa’s single sales were from SMS.

But we were working out how to get Koopa a chart position legally so we had to make sure any extra SMS sales were supported by real sales and real fans. Here’s why…

In February 2007, a band tried to cheat the charts by buying 5,000 sim cards from eBay and downloading their own track repeatedly. They went straight into the UK Midweek Chart at number 9 and were disqualified just a few hours later.

Their mistake? Not having any real sales to back up their downloads and making the scam obvious by using consecutive phone numbers from eBay bulk-bought sims.

Anything odd looking raises a red flag and is guaranteed to be spotted fast by the charts’ company. So if you’re going to bend the rules, be careful and be smart.

For Koopa, we avoided any obvious illicit tactics and made legitimate sales by putting their single on pre-order for nearly 4 months during which time the band gigged almost non-stop. Fans at shows were asked to download the single live, instead of buying merchandise. And, in a stunning feat of self-promotion at the Isle of Wight festival, Koopa asked the entire crowd to get their phones out and download the single en masse during their set.

Over that four month period, with combined online and SMS sales, Koopa had enough to get a position in the UK Midweek Charts at number 12. They then charted at number 32 and followed up with two more chart hits, the last peaking at number 14.

Koopa’s hard work and Ditto Music’s strategies paid off. The band were quickly signed by a label and went on to record their debut album with Mark Hoppus from Blink 182.

SMS campaigns are simple to set up (Ditto Music can help) but not many artists use them so they still feel fresh. Why don’t you ask the crowd to support you by downloading your single at your next gig? 

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