Apple's strangle hold on UK digital sales could change the face of the UK music charts.

Independent labels in the UK feel threatened by the imminent combination of the physical and download single sales charts on April 17.

They believe that merging the charts at this stage will skew the charts - a vital ingredient in helping music lovers identify new sounds that they like - in favour of artists represented on Apple's iTunes service, which The Guardian reports holds an estimated 80 per cent of the UK's music download market.

Indies embrace downloads

Independent labels are not averse to combining the charts - they have willingly signed deals to make content available through competing digital download services - but Apple's seeming recalcitrance in hosting music on its servers from the UK indies continues to amaze.

The UK market sees 22 per cent of all music sales coming from independent labels. Music lovers continue to criticise Apple for not ensuring its music service is representative of the UK scene.

UK music at ransom

Given Apple's 80 per cent hold on download sales, indies are concerned that combininng the charts on April 17 will change UK music to favour music from the big labels - Warner, EMI, Universal and Sony-BMG, "which supply the majority of iTunes' one million tracks", writes The Guardian.

Lohan Presencer, the managing director of label Ministry of Sound said: "The problem is that the download data will come largely from one supplier which controls in excess of three-quarters of the market. Ultimately they dictate what happens."

Macworld and The Guardian can confirm that independent labels still face difficulty getting their artists onto iTunes. Apple refuses to reveal how many dedicated staff it has running the UK side of its service, but indies respond it has just one person to organise its UK music affairs. They also complain that calls to the iTunes legal team "remain unanswered", according to The Guardian.

Ministry of Sound has a contract with iTunes. Despite this, the label is still waiting for its material to appear on the UK service.

Recent BPI initiatives betray concern

UK music industry trade body the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has already delayed the merger of the charts on the strength of such concerns, and has added its wait to the hitherto Association of Independent Music (AIM) campaign to get independent repertoire into download services.

The BPI believes the combining of the charts will herald a "new golden age" for the UK single - downloads raised single track sales by 48 per cent in the first quarter 2005. Indeed, download sales have reached 300,000 units each week, the BPI said - from 20,000 per week last year.

The UK singles market has been in decline for five years now, but digital downloads are hoped to ease the industry round the corner.

BPI chairman Peter Jamieson said: "The singles market has been criticised for being too narrow in its appeal," he believes the addition of downloads to official singles sales chart data will "broaden the appeal" of that market.

Jamieson said: "This could lead to a new golden age for the single.

Indies remain concerned

Indie labels remain concerned. Despite the strength of sales in the indie market, official data from the BPI reveals that not one of the top ten singles in the period January-March came from an independent. Two of those in the physical sales chart in the period did.

The BPI is aware of this to some extent. Jamieson said: "It is vital that independents are able to compete on a level playing field".

Among other initiatives to help achieve this, the BPI wrote to all the major digital download firms requesting them to prioritise deals with indies.

BPI responds

In a statement today the BPI responded to indie label concerns, saying: "No one is pretending that indie representation on the download platforms is as good as it could and should be, and there is a long way to go."

That said, the organisation dismissed concerns that the indies are underrepresented in the charts as being a concern as "simply not true".

"Looking at this week’s midweek download chart, the indies have in fact outperformed the majors," the BPI said.

This week’s midweek sales figures show nine indie tracks in the combined Top 40 - the physical sales chart shows just eight indies in the Top 40.

The BPI added that indie labels hold 11.7 per cent of the combined chart, as opposed to 11 per cent of the physical chart, while independent labels sales by download as a percentage of all independent sales considered in the top 40 stand at 15 per cent (majors 13 per cent).

Sales for the first combined chart will be collated between April 10 and April 17.