The Billboard Hot 100 chart is getting another makeover. Yesterday afternoon, Billboard announced that, starting in 2018, its premier chart will weigh paid streams (i.e. Apple Music, Tidal, Spotify’s subscription tier) higher than ad-supported streams (YouTube, Spotify and Soundcloud free tier). Stratifying streaming services is a significant shift for the charts and reveals part of Billboard’s own mission statement.
Billboard’s announcement acknowledged they’re constantly playing catch-up with the varying ways people consume music—but why penalize YouTube, which has over a billion users and is by far the biggest digital music platform, when compared to Spotify having 140 million users and Apple Music having 30 millions.
In their statement about the chart change, Billboard said that “assigning values to the levels of consumer engagement and access - along with the compensation derived from those options [emphasis Billboard]- better reflects the varied user activity occurring on these services.” So although a free service like YouTube does compensate artists on its platform, the trade publication is drawing a line in the sand, based on how much streaming revenues these services pay out to artists. According to research by The Trichordist, an artists’ rights blog, the per-stream average among the top companies in 2016 broke down as:
Apple Music: $0.00735
Their research showed that an Apple Music stream is potentially worth 10 times more than a YouTube stream, but the previous way Billboard calculated artist rankings flattened them out to be worth the same. That is why, in last month’s Billboard cover story, Jimmy Iovine spoke about how disproportionate streaming value hurts artists:
An artist will come into my office and say, “They have 500 million people on YouTube. [YouTube now counts more than 1 billion users.] I don’t want to have to give my music away, but I have to promote myself. [A YouTube stream] counts the same as your paid stream. And Spotify’s.” That’s disincentivizing for the musician. Musicians still believe that their money isn’t in recorded music. That’s not good. [We should] encourage them to say no and promote where music has value.
Billboard’s charts aim to reflect popularity, but by adding weight to services that pay more towards artists, they no longer pretend that every digital music stream is worth the same. To put it another way, the Hot 100 chart is now values listeners who participate in the music ecosystem by paying for their music more than those who passively engage. That’s why yesterday, Billboard introduced three tiers of streams: paid streams, ad-supported streams, and programmed streams (Pandora, Slacker Radio), where they give less weight to the methods that pay artists the least.
Though the announcement comes on the heels of Post Malone’s controversial rise to No. 1 with “Rockstar,” I’ve heard from a source close to the charts provider that this is a change Billboard has weighed for months.
Still, Post Malone’s brilliant yet sneaky YouTube hack illustrates a need for the change. Genius argued that the song would’ve been No. 1 even without that—but that misses the point of the controversy. These weren’t “fake” listens, or the label trying to push people to listen on Post Malone’s music towards a specific platform; it was Republic Records exploiting natural fan behavior online.
Here’s why: There is no official no music video or lyric video for “Rockstar” yet; instead, Republic posted some placeholder audio on YouTube, which effectively directed users who were searching for “Post Malone rockstar” to a three-minute loop of the song’s chorus. This didn’t give users access to the full song, but the views still counted towards “Rockstar”’s position on the charts. Potentially, what Billboard measured with those chorus-only plays isn’t how many fans listened to the song, but how many people had heard of the song and searched for it on YouTube, potentially trying to listen to it for the first time.
Billboard’s new changes suggest that the company does not want measure blanket awareness of a song. Instead, Billboard, a self-proclaimed “unbiased” force of measurement, reveals that they favor those who pay and participate in the music ecosystem over passive consumers—at least with the Hot 100 chart. We reached out to Billboard for comment on these updated changes, but haven’t heard back yet.
The charts aim to measure popularity, but it’s becoming clear that Billboard is constantly recreating their definition of “popularity,” which has more to do with the financial gain derived from one’s work than how well-known it is.