Billboard’s charts used to be our barometer for music success. Are they meaningless in the streaming age?
by Travis M. Andrews
Clockwise from top left, Drake, Kanye West, Prince and Michael Jackson. (Washington Post illustration; Getty Images; iStock)
Drake and Kanye West — two reigning kings of pop music — both flooded the American consciousness with music this summer in strikingly different manners.
West released a series of seven-track albums, including one bearing his name and one collaboration with Kid Cudi. Drake, meanwhile, dumped the contents of his hard drive on streaming services as a 25-track behemoth titled “Scorpion.”
Both approaches might seem ostentatious, but they also hinted that pop artists might be using some savvy trickery to manipulate the charts.
If that’s the case, it worked.
Despite lackluster reviews, Kanye’s “Ye” charted at the top
of the Billboard 200 albums chart. He also set a record: Every single song debuted in the Top 40
of the Billboard 100. Perhaps that’s because it was only seven tracks, which encouraged listeners to spin (stream) it again and again. Perhaps that was Kanye’s plan.
And, despite its own lackluster reviews
, Drake’s “Scorpion” utterly decimated current streaming records. It broke the one-week U.S. streaming record
for an album in a mere three days, eclipsing Post Malone’s “beerbongs & bentleys,” which earned the record less than two months prior. Perhaps that was inevitable, given the sheer amount of songs listeners had to work through. Perhaps that was Drake’s plan.
[Review: The world doesn’t need another soggy Drake album, but here, have two]
These records aren’t surprising. Instead, they’re a function of the charts desperately trying to figure out how to rank music in the streaming age.
Billboard added streaming songs as one of the metrics for its charts in 2012
, leading the Recording Industry Association of America and Nielsen to follow suit. The criteria have changed several times in the interim — just last month, the company made changes
to weight paid streams on services like Spotify over unpaid ones on jukebox-esque services like Pandora for the Billboard 100 singles chart. Meanwhile, for the Billboard 200, 1,500 streams of any songs on one record equals one listen to that record.
As the charts struggled to come up with a streaming equivalent to an album purchase or a song download, the media has been awash with headlines
touting the latest record-breaking chart numbers. Artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Drake, Kanye, Lil Wayne and Post Malone are constantly breaking each others’ records, leaving bands such as Prince, the Rolling Stones and ABBA in digital obscurity.
Beyoncé performs onstage at Coachella on April 14. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella)
All these headlines spark a few questions: If records are being broken every time the chart-bearers change the rules, then do they mean anything? Is it fair to compare Beyoncé and the Beatles? It was harder to purchase “The White Album” than to put a stream of “Lemonade” on repeat, after all. And if not, what happens to the way we conceive of the history of popular music? Meanwhile, are those shifting metrics altering the actual music we, the consumers, are receiving?
Since their inception in 1958, the Billboard charts served a window to pop music history. Along with statistics collected by RIAA and Nielsen, they offer a road map of what tunes, musicians and genres Americans found interesting enough to consume en masse.
But they’ve always been at least something of a mirage.
“When the Beatles were around, there were horrible records of who sold what,” Donald S. Passman, author of “All You Need to Know About the Music Business,”
told The Washington Post. “Nobody knew how many records were sold in retail, only how many were shipped to the store. So the charts were based on shipments.”
Smelling opportunity, many record companies would simply send out a bunch of records. Even if they ended up getting half of them back, the albums would climb the charts.
As Steve Knopper — who recently added a chapter on the streaming age to his book “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age”
— put it: “There was a lot of hanky-panky going on, with record labels lobbying the stores. In the old days in the record industry, there were a lot of interesting ways of goosing the charts.”
That might still be the case.
SoundScan, a technology for tracking music sales and airplay, appeared in 1991 like a sonic boom. Suddenly, the charts were being fed actual, reliable statistics. Things didn’t remain simple for long, though, since the introduction of the iPod meant the rise of digital downloads, which Billboard began tracking
in 2003. Then came streaming, which Passman called “the most fundamental, radical change I’ve seen in the music business” in his decades working within it.
Billboard has tried to stay in front of the game, constantly reconsidering how to react to new technologies. The company is always considering what a song download is worth, what the difference is between a stream and a radio play, etc.
“What we do is we react to the marketplace around us. I think we were fairly nimble on downloading and even more so on streaming to make sure we’re reflecting where the music consumer is going,” Billboard’s senior vice president of charts and data development Silvio Pietroluongo told The Post. “Where that will end up, though, I don’t know.”
He pointed out that streaming changed the actual manner in which we listen to music (once again).
“When streaming started, the idea was people would pick the tracks they wanted to hear, but now they’re being fed songs like a jukebox,” Pietroluongo said, referring to curated playlists and Internet radio stations. And Billboard has to “look at whether these actions should be treated differently.”
Because, much like those record stores, some artists appear to be gaming the system.
“I think there’s kind of an emphasis of just constantly flooding the market with songs, rather than building up to a big album,” Knopper said. Kanye appeared to do this with his recent seven-track albums, as did Drake with “Scorpion.” And, speaking of Drake, he’s done it before, with 2016’s record-breaking “Views.”
As Pitchfork’s senior editor, Jillian Mapes, wrote at the time:
There were many factors as to why “Views” ultimately broke single-week streaming records . . . By allowing individual song streams to count toward the album tally in Nielsen and RIAA data, there is an actual incentive for Drake to tack the nearly-year-old “Hotline Bling” onto his already saggy album because “Hotline Bling” is popular, and by virtue of that fact, it will continue to rack up streams.
It’s a knotty issue for Billboard, because streaming is more than a passing fad. It has ostensibly replaced both physical and digital album and single sales. In the first 15 years of the aughts, album sales fell from 785 million to 241 million, according to the Harvard Business Review
As a result, music journalists often find themselves excitedly comparing things that are inherently incomparable.
Michael Jackson performs during the Super Bowl halftime show on Jan. 31, 1993 in Pasadena, Calif. (George Rose/Getty Images)
“Can you say Kanye is as big an artist, being this successful in streaming, compared to Michael Jackson in the ’80s or the Beatles in the ’60s?” Knopper said. “That seems like apples and oranges. … It’s a completely different type of success and consumption.”
Even if you could, would the comparisons matter? Do the charts even matter to most consumers? Maybe — but probably not.
“They matter to record companies in terms of market share and clout,” Passman said. But “I don’t think consumers really read the charts anymore.”
Cultural critic Chuck Klosterman agreed. “I don’t know if serious or even casual music people care that much about any musical statistic outside of what is currently the number one song in the country . . . I think a lot of people who are drawn to studying the charts are the kind of people who are drawn to statistics.”
And the charts only focus on a frozen moment in time, not lasting cultural impact. Consider this: If someone asked you what was the most popular song in 1972, you’d probably hop on over to the Billboard charts and find that Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)
” and Roberta Flack’s “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face
” dominated the year. That might be puzzling, since Don McLean released “American Pie
” — a song that endures today — that same year.
“If you’re looking at charts to understand music history, the best analogy is using statistics to understand sports history,” Klosterman said. “You’re looking at something that numerically seems simple but it’s completely impacted and changed by the era it comes from.”
Plus, he added, like all statistics, “charts can be used in any way you want them to be.”
“It does seem that as often as the charts are used to validate someone’s importance, they’re just as often used to show that temporary interest in any kind of art is ephemeral and kind of meaningless,” Klosterman said, pointing to Prince and Led Zeppelin as an example. One could easily point to Prince’s five No. 1 hits as proof of his pop dominance. Simultaneously, one could point to the fact that Led Zeppelin never had a No. 1 hit as proof that singles don’t matter, since they’ve become one of the most pervasive rock bands in American history.
Maybe Kanye was inspired by the biblical number, and maybe Drake was ready to drop a Big Statement double-album. But it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Zeppelin had released “Physical Graffiti” in the streaming age.
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