The Hot 100 – A Hot Mess

Streaming made a mess of the Billboard Hot 100. Once a simple way to measure popularity by album sales and radio plays, now the chart must contend with a third unit of measurement: digital streaming. 1500 streams are currently considered equal to an album purchase, and an album is assumed to be 10 tracks in length. This means that, for the average Spotify user, you would have to hear a song 150 times for Billboard to consider your listens a ‘purchase.’ For a four-minute song, this is 10 hours of straight listening. Though it’s difficult to measure how many plays a physical purchase would actually get, it would be a far cry to assume that each purchased song is played 150 times by the consumer who chose it. The charts are thus skewed in favor of purchases.

Let’s complicate that formula even further. How does one account for pirating? Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo was pirated over million times in its first week of release: ‘a million illegally downloaded, my truth over the drums,’ West raps in his ‘Saint Pablo.’ Should these count for sales? How can we accurately measure them? And what about Twitter, non-official YouTube streams, or free downloads from mixtape websites? Should DatPiff be sending its download data to Billboard for analysis? Should YouTube have to consider the stream numbers for all ten different videos of Lil Uzi Vert’s ‘XO TOUR LIF3’? What about snippets of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ showing up in Vines and Tweets, do they count as portions of streams?

Ultimately, the point is that the system doesn’t work, and it’s hurting the way we measure musical popularity. Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper’s critically acclaimed, stream-only mixtape failed to chart a song in the top 40 of the Hot 100. This is despite reaching number 8 on the album charts through album-equivalent sales. Yet Keith Urban’s ‘Blue Ain’t Your Color’ sure as hell did, the same week ‘No Problem’ peaked at 43. It certainly looks suspicious when ‘Blue Ain’t Your Color’ can have 100 million less Spotify streams and somehow be considered a more popular hit. Surely ‘No Problem’ is more ‘popular,’ by any fair standard.

On the other hand, when commercial behemoths like Drake or Ed Sheeran drop an album (or playlist), it’s like waging scorched earth warfare on the charts. Views charted 19/20 tracks on the Hot 100, matching the success of Drake’s previous releases. What A Time To Be Alive, for example, charted every song, while If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late charted at least half its tracklisting. This total domination model leads widely popular artists to release albums with lengthy tracklists (Pitchfork), taking advantage of Internet dissemination. It’s unsurprising that streaming influences the way these albums commercially succeed.

If you have 20 highly-anticipated tracks, for example, that you release via a service that allows for instant listening, embedding and recording, you suddenly create an ‘event.’ When Drake releases an album, hundreds of news websites repost it, thousands of fans retweet it, and millions have instant listening access via the immediately available use of any electronic device that has a streaming application. By dominating the social media and the digital audio space, Drake may not earn many album-equivalent purchases, but he does create a culture whereby many fans and casual listeners alike must engage with his content. This increases the likelihood of a physical or digital purchase; something one could never achieve by simply stocking shelves and hoping for the best.

Views was streamed over 245 million times in its first week (HNHH), which only makes up about 163,000 of its 1.4 million first week album-equivalent sales (Billboard). In this context, it makes sense for Billboard to undervalue the weight of streams, to skew sales results away from the total domination model. Let’s say we make a less outlandish assumption about listens-per-purchase, and assume most people listen to a song around 50 times when they buy a physical or digital album. Streaming equivalent-album sales for Views should thus equal triple what Billboard currently measures them by (if we count an album as ten tracks). This would allow Drake to dominate the charts even further, pushing more artists out of the spotlight, and making the charts more monochromatic. That’s bad for Billboard’s business, and for a diverse scope of popular music.

Yet, the flip side is that we allow songs that are physically purchased to outweigh music that is streaming focused, often delaying or preventing success for less popular artists. This is because the Billboard Hot 100 helps inform what is played on the radio, and thus what informs the Hot 100 itself. Further than just dominating the digital audio space, when a track gains popularity on the charts, it’s more likely to be picked up by commercial pop radio stations, and thus played. This radio play data feeds back into Billboard, affecting which songs chart further. The self-perpetuating cycle essentially locks out stream-only releases, relegating them to the corner of the Internet where you succeed only by name recognition or massive viral success.

An even large issue is that there are little measurement alternatives to Billboard. YouTube’s top tracks section bases itself only on YouTube streams: something far more likely to happen on music videos than simple audio tracks. Spotify’s charts aren’t much better, a reflection of the streaming service alone. Yet, at least the playing field is equal: only single plays count. One play equals one play, and the global total for plays establishes the chart position. The album itself is not considered, nor is the radio play counted differently (Spotify radio play is essentially the same as standard streaming). One might, therefore, assume that this is where the solution lies.

Billboard is built around the idea of the ‘sale,’ an arbitrary concept that only worked when sales were the only thing possible. Yet, the album sale continues to be used as the base measurement of popularity, in an age where listeners can focus on individual songs, in playlist format. It seems pertinent, therefore, to change the unit of measurement to a single play, rather than a single sale. The album sale would be made to equal a certain number of plays, thus allowing more accurate measurement. Though this solution may mitigate some of the issues currently experienced, it is still essentially what is already happening, but in reverse. It may work in terms of de-skewing the charts, but it ignores the largest issue with charting Internet musical popularity: how do you measure the mixtapes, pirates and memes?

The simple answer is that you can’t, and that is perhaps the most important thing to realize. Music is not always presented in a static medium; it was never meant to only be available in .mp3 format (or.wav if you’re an audiophile). How do you measure the number of times the local State College bars play ‘Panda’? How do you measure someone playing their music too loud on the bus, so that everyone can hear? Do we have to count every single crowd member when they sing the national anthem at a football game? It’s impossible to measure music’s popularity in its entirety, and a display of hubris to even try. If nothing else, this proves that the Hot 100 is broken. You can’t put music in a box.

Graphic: Adriana Lacy | The Underground