Billboard’s Endless Struggle With Streaming
8 min read

Billboard’s Endless Struggle With Streaming

Hello, my only note this week is about the outro! Starting this month, on the first newsletter of the month, I will insert a longer outro that includes background information on myself and the newsletter for new readers. Also, I’m sorry if I’ve been slow on emailing everyone back; I just got a flood of them the last couple of weeks and I’m still working through them all. Now onto the newsletter, this week’s topic goes back to an old passion of mine: The Billboard Charts.

I wanted to go back to a slightly favorite older topic of mine, and of many other American music fans, The Billboard Charts, in particular, the Hot 100 (songs) and Top 200 (albums). Early readers of Penny Fractions will know that I spent quite a bit of time tracking Billboard’s rather public existential crisis over how to address streaming. A year later, the question around Billboard’s role in this era feels even more up in the air, even as an obsession with the charts remains high. The last six months saw chart delays and confusion within the Top 200 over what does and doesn’t count towards the charts with regard to both streaming and album bundles. These mini-fires are all raging while Rolling Stone prepares to launch its own charts in a direct challenge to Billboard. So, I wanted to dive back into the charts not only see how the industry’s biggest trade publication is adjusting to this new era but to reexamine the central tension of the charts to either measure song popularity or how much money it produces, which over the last decade is increasingly not the same thing.

The Hot 100

Originally announced in the fall of 2017, but finally solidified last May, Billboard introduced a number of changes to the Hot 100 and Top 200. The leading editorial voice in the music business established a weighted system for song streams and in the Hot 100 broke it down this way:

...paid subscription streams (representing a full point value per play), ad-supported streams (representing a 2/3-point value per play) and programmed streams (representing a 1/2-point value per play). Those values are then applied to the chart’s formula alongside all-genre radio airplay and digital song sales data. Streaming remains the most dominant factor on the chart, followed by radio airplay and digital sales in descending order of significance.

There was a bit of concern that such charts alternations might decrease the amount of music from rap and Latin artists who were seeing massive chart success due to the influence of streaming only a couple of years ago. A glance at the Hot 100 this week shows that rap’s saturation is waning a bit. Yet, I’d be hesitant to attribute that directly towards this chart adjustment.

The point I made a number of times back in 2017 is that the Billboard charts are conceived to be charts that measure how much money is being made on a song, not simply the reach of the music. Billboard explicitly never says this, but it’s effectively what the new policy introduced last year admits because otherwise a stream would equal a stream and there wouldn’t be a need to draw lines between a paid, ad-supported, and programmed subscription stream. There is a rather obvious bias as this privileges those that can afford to pay for a music streaming platform, which is likely to exclude lower class music fans, and due to centuries of racism that does likely impact black and brown listeners. This is a strong point, but one that I think overlooks the intended audience of the Billboard charts: The Record Industry.

If fans are consuming music in a way that isn’t properly monetized, then why one put their trust in a publication that is centered not simply on what is popular but in what brings in money into the industry? I do think there is value in desiring a music chart that more accurately reflects the tastes and interests of music fans, but I’m not sure it’s a battle to be fought on the turf of an industry trade publication. Now let’s look at the Top 200 where this tension is even more heightened.

The Top 200

On paper, the Billboard Top 200 charts should be easier to understand than the Hot 100 because it’s simply a record of the most popular album, not an intentionally nebulous formula to craft the most popular song in the country. Well, that’s what one would think… however, the truth is far more convoluted.

Over the last couple of decades, there have been so many articles written about the death of the album that it’s almost comical how much existential hand wringing was committed to a rather arbitrary musical form. Musical works pre-dated the album and single binary, so this peculiar hangup on the format speaks more to a clinging nostalgia for a simpler time within the music industry amongst label people, rather than any attachment toward an ideal musical state. (See Billboard’s cover story on Billie Eilish that frames her as showing that there is still power in the album that was under threat by who exactly??)

In 2019, while traditional album sales continue to sink, the record industry is weirdly obsessed with propping up the idea of the album. This resulted in some peculiar changes to the Top 200 chart:

The Billboard 200 will now include two tiers of on-demand audio streams. TIER 1: paid subscription audio streams (equating 1,250 streams to 1 album unit) and TIER 2: ad-supported audio streams (equating 3,750 streams to 1 album unit)...the Billboard 200 will continue to not incorporate video streams.

The subtext here is similar to the Hot 100 in that people paying into subscriptions is better than people consuming music sandwiched between McDonald’s ads. I wrote last week that subscriptions are a fairly fuzzy metric with all kinds of loopholes for people to avoid paying the $9.99-month fee. If charts reflected this data properly, it’d probably make negligible changes to charts. But this highlights how streaming services with ad-supported streams would rather eliminate that distinction and I’m not even sure that Billboard would want to slice between ad-support streams, programmed streams, $9.99 subscriber streams, student-discounted streams, free premium streams, family bundle streams, etc. Billboard’s charts are for record label lobbies and wannabe data-driven nerds, so maybe it doesn’t require such a level of economic analysis.

Instead, the weird question of the Top 200 is: if no one is buying albums, then what is to be done with the album? Billboard first addressed this by allowing 10 song downloads from an album to be an album equivalent, then it allowed for 1,500 streams to equal an album stream. (Side note: Music video streams still don’t count towards such a total, which in 2019 doesn’t at all reflect how much people consume music but rather calls back to an idea of music videos being purely advertising...which happily ignores years of the record industry repackaging music videos into VHS and DVD collections.) Those obtuse categorizations are at least within the spirit of “the album”, while what’s really saved the Top 200 is bundling albums with tickets. Prince did this in the early 2000s and the charts negated his effort but now it’s a standard record label trade. It’s taken near absurdist forms by attaching the album into just about any product that can be for sale. That’s how Travis Scott’s Astroworld found such immense chart success—the single “Sicko Mode” was streamed an absurd amount, but it was a Fortnite-like merch drop campaign that was designed explicitly to boost album sales.

None of these efforts are done in a manner to preserve “the album”. Rather, it’s a needless competition amongst record labels to see who can out-game the system to say its artist went no. 1 and ride that proclamation into additional press cycles of prestige. I’ll admit I find all of this so inside baseball that I don’t hold a strong grudge against such chicanery. The desire to know the most popular song in the country is a fun pursuit but maybe there are other options than relying on the industry’s biggest trade publication that’ll always privilege what makes money over sheer popularity.

What’s Next Then…

Last month, Rolling Stone announced that it was going to be entering into the charts space by partnering with the analytics company BuzzAngle Music (now named Alpha Delta) instead of using Nielsen (the company that powers the Billboard charts). (The fact that Rolling Stone is owned by Penske Media, which last year invested into BuzzAngle, shows at least some corporate synergy in action.) The charts were set for a public beta on May 13th, but weeks later they’ve yet to launch. Still, the only hint towards what these charts might look like is this little self-reported snippet: “Rolling Stone Charts, which will offer an in-depth and in-the-moment view of the biggest songs, albums and artists in music.” This implies the creation of a chart that might be less rigid than what currently defines the Billboard charts.

My personal feeling is that such exact information may be useful in the business sense, but misses why fans obsess over charts. Fans and artists are fairly crafty to adjust their chart expectations to their own ends. (See any artist that cites the iTunes charts in 2019.) Still, my thought is that with nearly every streaming service already providing semi-real time charts, the move here would be to make the charts a spectacle, create a live countdown, hand out awards, etc. If a chart is going to act like it really does represent the entire music industry, then do enough to make fans tune in each week a new song that hits no. 1. Obviously, most media companies are cash-strapped and simply couldn’t afford such a project, but if we’re going to continue obsessing over what’s always been shady chart machinations, then make it more fun than refreshing a website.

Unheard Labor

A short, but unfortunate update for you. Last week, The American Federation of Musicians announced pension cuts that could hit 20,000 union members. The dire situation of the pension program goes back to the late 2000s recession. However, the larger existential crisis within the union of an aging population without any meaningful youthful growth is something that’s plagued the union for decades.

Apple is Finally Killing iTunes - Rolling Stone

While this headline is correct, this death of iTunes is much exaggerated. The app is going away to be replaced by a Music app that rumors are saying will hold many of the same features. So the post-download music listening experience, thankfully to my MP3-loving self, isn’t here yet.

Metadata is the biggest little problem plaguing the music industry - The Verge

I’ll be honest, I don’t love this piece, even if the topic is fascinating. My issue is that “metadata” as a topic obscures the fact that this is a century-old broken system that was originally created by greedy music publishers to profit off of the labor of early songwriters. We’ve long crossed the point where simply technological reform can be the answer.

What if Instagram Got Rid of Likes? - The New York Times

As a user, I wish numbers and metrics didn’t exist across any social media, but as an active observer of social media culture, such metrics are extremely useful. Though this essay makes an excellent point about how these numbers were always there to the benefit of these companies, not the actual consumers, so seeing them disappear is an issue of the bottom line, not user feedback.

Return of the Muzak: With Apple Music, B2B is back in business - Cherie Hu

Cherie wrote a lot of words about an aspect of the music industry I don’t think a ton about, which is B2B music experiences.

The Record Industry Expects a Windfall. Where Will the Money Go? - Pitchfork

Marc Hogan, one of Pitchfork’s truly great reporters, followed the money within the music industry because suddenly everyone is swimming in cash… or that’s what the headlines want us to believe.

Can the Major Labels Overcome these 5 Threats in the Years Ahead? - Music Business Worldwide

Though an interesting exercise, the direst concern presented here is the looming increase of corporate consolidation happening inside and outside of the industry. I don’t think people are gaming out the real potential issues over this fact, but a sudden rise of interest in antitrust is exciting.