In America, the most efficient way to learn about the popularity of a song or album is to check out the Billboard charts—but the truth is, they’re not terribly accurate.
The math behind the charts is constantly in flux, in an attempt to catch up with an ever-shifting music industry. Over the last decade, the rise of digital music and streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music has forced the charts to alter how they’re calculated—it’s no longer a simple equation of radio play added to physical/digital song purchases, compiled by Nielsen Soundscan and given to Billboard. In 2013, streaming was introduced into the charts makeup (right now, 1,500 streams of a song on an album holds the same value as one album purchase.) It’s a complicated process, and Billboard keeps their ever-changing formula a secret. That might change.
Last year, Billboard announced they would alter how they calculate streams. In 2018, they assured, the charts would begin to place more value on streams from subscription services (like Apple Music, Tidal, Spotify’s paid tier) and less on ad-supported services (like Spotify’s free tier or YouTube.)
The result is that if you can’t afford (or choose not to pay for) a subscription service, each time you play a song, your stream counts less towards the charts than plays from users who subscribed to those same services. So, same song, same stream, different paid experience, different value in chart calculation.
Artists and labels make more money on subscription streams compared to ad-supported ones (if you’re a subscriber, your favorite act makes more money from your streams than someone who isn’t) so Billboard’s decision is a concerted effort to support the higher paying model. Despite their big announcement, it has yet to be implemented—an anonymous source at Billboard confirmed to TrackRecord that the chart changes are on hold.
If the Billboard charts attempt to best reflect what music is popular, then introducing this new, weighted, streaming information makes it much more difficult to determine. So what is Billboard trying to do? Is the goal really just to measure popularity? Or is it used to determine how much money is being made?
On Tuesday, Hits Daily Double, a music business gossip site, alleged that Spotify threatened to withdraw their data from Nielsen Soundscan if Billboard went forward with their plan to degrade the value of ad-supported streams on albums too much. (The rumor proposed a raise from 1500 streams = one album to a whopping 5000 or 3750 streams = one album.) This certainly seems like something Spotify has motive to do—the streaming platform is undeniably invested in advertising money. When asked for comment, Spotify’s spokesperson said they had “no info” on the rumor.
All of this speaks to the larger issue of Billboard just not quite knowing how to account for music streaming on their charts. Should music fans, if they want to up their favorite artist’s spot on the charts, buy an album? Should they download an album, then stream the music on a subscription service? Should they forgo paying any money directly to the artist and just stream a particular track 100,000 times on YouTube?
Who really knows? Billboard certainly doesn’t.