Who’s on top in music? It’s gotten hard to say
By Chris Richards,
In pop music, being No. 1 doesn’t always mean you’re on top.
Earlier this year, the Oregon rock band the Decemberists reached the summit of the Billboard 200 albums chart with “The King Is Dead.” By selling a measly 94,000 copies of the album in its first week, the band snatched the top spot from the veteran California band Cake, whose “Showroom of Compassion” had sold an even measlier 44,000 copies the week before.
If seeing these two bands atop the Billboard 200 gave you the impression that they were the biggest names in music, you got the wrong impression.
In an era of iTunes and Amazon, Spotify and Pandora, album sales don’t tell you what they used to. With so many routes to our eardrums, how do we measure the actual popularity of pop music? It’s something various companies are scrambling to figure out.
“Album sales as representative of the success of artists is a failing metric,” says Eric Garland, chief executive of Big Champagne, a media marketing company that has aimed to track music’s popularity in the digital age for more than a decade. “It no longer adequately explains or offers real insight into the market dynamics.”
And those dynamics are still important. Even if albums aren’t selling, an artist’s popularity can still be monetized. With sponsorship opportunities and licensing deals on the line, managers need to know how much their acts are worth. Concert promoters need to know what venues an artist can fill and how much to charge for tickets. Labels need to know whether the money they’ve spent on marketing and promotion has been effective.
For the rest of us, the charts mean something else. “A chart provides a venue for fans to talk about who’s winning,” says Jeff Leeds, editor in chief of Buzzmedia Music, which runs a network of music blogs that include Stereogum and Idolator. “It’s not that different from the way polls in politics provide a venue for pundits and talking heads to talk about who’s winning or losing and why. . . . But like a poll, a chart is merely a snapshot, and is only as accurate as the methodology behind it allows.”
Last July, Big Champagne launched the Ultimate Chart in hopes of tracking the popularity of songs and artists across an array of platforms. Next Big Sound, a Colorado-based company founded in 2008, ranks popularity in the digital realm with two charts that are geared toward the industry. We Are Hunted, a Web site launched in Australia in 2009, aims to measure fan engagement by ranking the 99 most popular songs on Earth based on global impressions online and the “enthusiasm and sentiment” behind them.
The charts are free for all to see, but the data that drive them come at a price. Big Champagne and Next Big Sound make money by selling the data to managers, companies, promoters and record labels.
Rich Westover, vice president for promotion research and information systems at Island/Def Jam records, says he uses Big Champagne’s data to see whether the label’s artists are resonating with fans across demographic and geographic boundaries.
“When people ask us in a meeting, ‘What’s going on with these records?’ I know that I’m going to be using more of the Ultimate Chart information to really give the most accurate gauge I can give on how these songs and how our artists are performing,” Westover says. He says the data can help land an artist a sponsorship or a booking on Letterman.
Rishi Mirchandani, vice president of marketing and operations at RCA/Jive records, uses Next Big Sound’s data to help shape his company’s marketing approach. “What we’re using Next Big Sound to do is to evaluate the growth and the engagement of an artist’s online community and fan base,” he says. “The goal is to really translate those metrics into actionable marketing insights that can inform our decision making.”
The future of these emerging charts may hinge on whether they can draw a meaningful line between buzz and commerce. “It’s really difficult today because there’s a significant gap between Internet fame and Internet commercial success,” says Leeds of Buzzmedia Music. “We’re still in pursuit of the perfect chart.”
Billboard might not be perfect, but it isn’t ready to cede its dominance. “Billboard is a 116-year-old brand, and we’ve been innovating for most of that time,” says Bill Werde, editorial director at Billboard Magazine. “If you look at what we’ve charted and how we’ve charted over the past 50 years, it’s a study in the changes that have gone on in the music business.”
Billboard hasn’t faced many challengers over the years. Competing trade magazines published charts, but in the ’80s they either lost clout (Cash Box magazine) or went out of business (Record World magazine). Now, as weak album sales bring the Billboard 200 closer to obsolescence, Werde touts the Hot 100 singles chart as Billboard’s signature and most enduring chart.
“Singles culture has come and gone and come and gone. And it’s come again now,” he says of the Hot 100, which ranks the popularity of songs based on sales, radio airplay, and online streams on certain platforms.
Billboard began ranking songs in 1940 and began tracking album sales in 1945. Its albums chart was branded the Billboard 200 in 1992 and has since served as the last word on what’s popular. A chart-topping album still makes more headlines than a chart-topping single.
When No. 1 is No. 6 (or 25)
But when Amos Lee — a singer who straddles folk and jazz — topped the Billboard 200 in February, the headlines weren’t favorable. His “Mission Bell” album moved just 40,000 units, making it the lowest-selling No. 1 album since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales and supplying data to Billboard in 1991.
That same week, Lee was only at No. 6 on Big Champagne’s Ultimate Chart, trailing bigger names: Pink, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry. During Cake’s stay at the top of the Billboard 200 in January, the group stood at No. 25 on the Ultimate Chart, lagging behind Britney Spears, Eminem, Lil Wayne and the Black Eyed Peas.
The Ultimate Chart tracks how music is shared, streamed and purchased across more than 100 different platforms, with each outlet weighted by its perceived importance. Sales matter the most. Buying a full album on iTunes or in physical form affects the Ultimate Chart much more dramatically than streaming a song on Pandora.
That means the Billboard 200 chart and the the Ultimate Chart’s artist rankings can sometimes look similar. Beyonce has topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks this month with the lowest-selling album of her career. But it was still enough for her to land on the top of this week’s Ultimate Chart, too.
Split between offices in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Big Champagne’s staff of 25 generates revenue through subscriptions and syndication, providing data to industry professionals, trade organizations, radio networks, retailers, online music companies and others.
Garland says one of the chart’s goals is to feel authoritative in an popscape overcrowded with charts: College Music Journal, better known as CMJ, has tracked the most popular acts on college and public radio since 1978; the Hype Machine, a popular MP3 blog aggregator, ranks songs and artists based on blog activity; iTunes offers various sales charts that constantly churn in real time; and Billboard maintains more than 50 individual charts, measuring artists, albums and songs by genre and format.
“No one has a way of absolutely tracking every time a song hits an eardrum,” says Werde at Billboard. “But are we constantly looking at the different ways that music is hitting eardrums and deciding if it’s worth putting a Billboard chart behind? Absolutely.”
We Are Hunted’s 10-person staff measures the excitement of music fans by tracking “blog posts, news articles, comments, likes, tweets, shouts” and other online fan activity, general manager Richard Slatter said via e-mail. He said the company generates revenue by licensing technology and providing media marketing and development services to various companies in Australia and the United States.
Next Big Sound’s Social50 chart measures activity across major social networking sites — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, about 10 in all — and tallies a weekly weighted total of plays, views and fan activity. The company’s 10-person staff also produces another chart, the NBS25, which monitors which artists are creating the most online activity the fastest.
Billboard liked Next Big Sound’s two charts so much, it decided to license them late last year. Big Champagne, meantime, says that We Are Hunted’s rankings factor into the algorithm of the Ultimate Chart.
There’s a lot of data out there. Is it possible to surface meaning from it?
“That’s what’s cleverly referred to as ‘analysis paralysis,’ ” says Garland. “There’s too much data, unless you have good curators who are helping you make sense of the data and make it manageable.”
The popularity contest — and the race to accurately measure, analyze and monetize that popularity — continues.