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Billboard Hot 100

Billboard’s New Chart Rules

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Who woulda thunk streaming would break the charts?

The charts are for the industry. “Billboard” has to play nice or companies will find someone else to provide this information.

It wasn’t until 1991 that the charts reflected any modicum of reality. That’s when SoundScan appeared, tallying what actually sold, via computer information, as opposed to conversations with retailers that were then manipulated by the head of charts with input from the record companies themselves. Prior to SoundScan, a record started at the bottom and then moved its way up the chart. SoundScan flipped the script, albums started out at number one and then fell, because most sales for known acts come right after release.

But, going to a non-human compiled chart not only demonstrated that albums sold prodigiously and then less (except for developing acts, of course), but that more genres other than those featured on MTV were represented in the sales world, i.e. country flourished. Seen as a backward genre prior to this time, it turned out country sold incredibly well, and started to appear in the Top Ten, one can argue that it’s this chart change that turbocharged modern country.

But today, it’s all hip-hop and pop all the time. That’s what’s consumed most on streaming services, therefore, in order to get to number one on the “Billboard” chart in another genre, you had to manipulate it, i.e. bundle the album with merch or tickets or who knows what.

You see the labels want bragging rights. The execs may get little press outside the industry, but they can tell anybody they encounter they went to number one, it makes them feel good, it burnishes their image, irrelevant of how much money was made.

And the money is in streaming.

But once we went to a consumption model, we found out hip-hop was bigger than any other genre, and unlike with SoundScan, every other genre other than pop was completely squeezed out. With physical, you bought it, it didn’t matter how many times you listened to it. But now it’s all about how many times something is listened to, so… It’s the opposite of today’s television world. The truth is that network shows still tend to have the largest audiences. Even worse, in an on demand world, not everybody watches a show right away. Add on top of that the fact that Netflix does not report comprehensive data, so no one knows how many people watched a show, and the overall television ratings have become irrelevant. Newspapers still print the “Billboard” Top Ten, but even the “Los Angeles Times” no longer prints television ratings, never mind radio ratings.

But the truth is the average person does not read the physical newspaper. And the “Billboard” chart is buried so deep in the online iteration that unless you’re looking for it, you don’t see it. Most people get their news online, it’s a grazing activity, and you only go deep if the world exploded or it’s a personal interest, so no one knows your record went number one unless you tell them. As for all the non-hip-hop and pop acts that go number one based on chart manipulation, since they instantly fall down the chart, the story has no sticking power, although the PR industry hypes this achievement wherever and whenever it can.

But few talk about network television shows anymore. All the discussion is about Netflix, Amazon and pay cable, whose flagships have also entered the on demand streaming sphere. Television drives the culture today, after politics of course, and sex supersedes everything, but what excites people in television is that which often is seen by few. In other words, TV resembles the free-form FM radio stations of the late sixties, whereas music resembles the old days of three TV networks.

But the reality is more people are listening to more genres of music, and in quantity, than ever before. Concomitantly, what is number one is listened to less than ever before. You can have a number one track on Spotify and most of the nation is completely unaware of it. Its fans are streaming it prodigiously, but others don’t know it, even more, they’re not interested.

But what they are interested in is excluded from the chart.

Oh, “Billboard” has a zillion genre charts, as does Spotify, but those are seen as backwaters. And the old paradigm of crossing over from one genre to another is almost completely dead.

And the end result of this is music discovery is negatively impacted, and it hurts the industry at large.

Ed Sheeran was so successful, the Brits changed the chart rules so he couldn’t dominate, so other records could get a chance.

We need the same adjustment in the U.S., so other genres can get traction.

But it’s really not “Billboard”‘s fault as much as it is the streaming services’ fault.

In other words, just like Facebook, Spotify, et al, are not just pipes, passive conduits, they influence what people consume. So how do we get streaming services to reflect actual music listening/fans of bands and genres, and how do we get streaming services to boost bands outside hip-hop and pop?

This is not about denigrating or marginalizing hip-hop and pop, it’s about broadening the spectrum, to reflect what else is consumed, what else is worthy of attention, which would benefit the business and the consumer, would lead to a healthier marketplace.

Look at the concert numbers. They are not all hip-hop and pop, actually, their numbers are not even dominant, never mind that many streaming chart toppers cannot even sell a ticket.

So how do we come up with a chart that reflects reality and helps music as opposed to the three manipulative major labels who get rewarded based on the quantity of streams and therefore only sign and promote hip-hop and pop?

Once again, you’ve got to create a chart that the industry adopts. “Pollstar”‘s weighted chart means nearly nothing. “Rolling Stone” came out with a good chart, but the industry wasn’t interested. The labels want control, they don’t want to learn that what they’re purveying is not consumed.

Forever, this business has been one of hit material. Appealing to youngsters. But so much has changed! There are no constrictions on marketing and distribution, anybody can play, and not everybody wins, but many more than those on the “Billboard” chart do, some of them don’t even have a label, at least not one aligned with the three majors.

So, we need a new chart.

But the industry must buy into it.

But the industry just wants the chart to reflect what is already streaming.

And the touring industry goes completely by ticket and merch sales, and isn’t very interested in the “Billboard” chart.

The two are at cross-purposes.

Turns out raw consumption is not accurately reflective of the public’s interest. Like SoundScan, it’s a revolution, even though the interesting thing here is “Billboard” refuses to go to a straight streaming chart, because that would make its “special sauce” unnecessary. Streaming service consumption charts are the cutting edge, the most accurate representation of music listening, the “Billboard” chart is a joke, once again, only useful for industry bragging rights.

So, to repeat, we need a new kind of chart.

But we also need streaming services to accept responsibility for the fact that they have a huge impact regarding the breaking and acceptance of acts. If the services featured other genres on their homepage, promoted tracks by these other acts like it does the Weeknd, they’d break. But, once again, the labels don’t want this, they want control, they want a symbiotic relationship, and the streaming services, just like Facebook and Zuckerberg and the Administration, want to keep the labels happy and buy into their construct, which hurts the public, because it is aware of fewer genres and acts.

As for kids…

Few of them have credit cards, their parents are paying for streaming services. And many have family plans, and the adults stream too, but whenever they pull up the streaming service, all they see are tracks appealing to their kids, and if they dig down into the genres, it’s nearly impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, the great from the dreck.

Yes, the streaming services must accept responsibility. Consumption is important, but it’s not the only factor driving success today. Furthermore, what is not streamed prodigiously oftentimes has great inroads into public consciousness and would grow even bigger if amplified by streaming services.

Do I expect change?

No, but ultimately there is revolution. When you accede to an old game, eventually that game is disrupted. There’s the assumption that new players will ultimately agree to be purchased by old players, but I don’t know why. If you’re not in hip-hop or pop the majors don’t really want you, and if for some reason they do, they want a piece of your touring pie, where you make your nut, and if you self-distribute, you make most of the streaming money.

So expect more manipulation of the “Billboard” chart. Read the memo, they didn’t totally exclude it, they just moved the goalposts.

There is nothing wrong with music, but there’s a lot wrong with what gets attention and the resulting charts. It all seems transparent, but the truth is it’s manipulated by the players. But the interesting thing, once again, is if you look at what sells tickets, the scene is wide open, and a lot of these fans care about the system not a whit.

The industry is trying to replicate the twentieth century, but we live in the twenty first, hallelujah!

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