In 2015, the Billboard chart lurches along like an oblivious dinosaur, unaware of its impending irrelevance.
It measures increasingly unimportant sales in a shrinking marketplace. It attempts to equate streams to downloads and physicals with inscrutable ratios. It doesn’t seem capable of properly appraising an album’s long term success, let alone its reach. Billboard measures streaming as a sort of bastard cousin to sales, minimizing the importance of audience size and longevity in the process.
The Billboard charts do a poor job of accomplishing the same goal as a close entertainment relative. The Hollywood box office has long been beautifully simple: How many theaters screened a movie? How many tickets were sold? How much did it gross? How did it do in these three categories week after week?
Of course, ticket prices have been inflated over time and box office obsessives know the back of the envelope calculation necessary for seeing if a movie made money—take the budget and double it to account for marketing, and you get a loose sense of how much it cost to make and bring to the public. Still, the box office chart comes with the bluntness of sports statistics. It approximates reach. It shows gross haul. Even if it conceals things (there’s always the chance some nefarious executive is buying all the tickets), it relies on concrete, real-world returns.
In 2015, an album’s lifespan has to be measured beyond its viability as a product in the iTunes store.
The current Billboard chart is the fog of war personified, an attempt at self-congratulation and obfuscation in an age when first-week sales can amount to a blue ribbon but still mean a failed album. There seems to be little connection between what the chart weighs most heavily—sales—and the reality of the new listening landscape. In 2015, an album’s lifespan has to be measured beyond its viability as a product in the iTunes store. iTunes can still be used to measure the efficacy of radio and Vine in driving purchases, but it feels less equipped appraise an album’s true reach.
Streaming activity reveals a different view of the musical landscape from the messily combined “sales plus streaming” model that currently exists. Future’s Dirty Sprite 2 has been in excess of 15 million streams every week since its release in July (totaling over 112 million streams, according to Nielsen Soundscan, the reporting system on which Billboard bases its charts). In terms of streaming, hip-hop dominates the landscape, with electronic and pop coming in a distant second (according to Billboard genre classifications). This summer, hip-hop albums comprised as much as 60% of the 25 most streamed albums in the Top 200, averaging around 40% each week. That number hovers around 16% when sales alone are taken into account, and fluctuates between 12% and 25% when accounting for “total activity.”
An important example to this end: Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album good kid, M.A.A.D city remains a streaming favorite. Since the start of 2015, GKMC has sold roughly 2,000 to 6,000 copies a week (according to Nielsen Soundscan). Its streaming activity—nearly three years since its release—remains impressive, averaging between 3 million and 6 million streams per week in the same timeframe. It is an album whose cultural power can be roughly measured in its continued pull.
The shift in the business’ cornerstone income should be undeniable to anyone looking for signs in the smoke.
In spite of Billboard’s financial obscurity in comparison to the Box Office, numbers are, to an extent, available. Recent mid-year reports put streaming revenue at $1.03 billion, propping up rapidly deflating CD sales (41 million CDs sold in the first half of 2015, as opposed to 56 million in the same period in 2014) and steadily declining digital sales ($1.3 billion in the first half of 2015, down 4%). It’s worth noting that digital download revenue still tops streaming revenue, but streaming revenue rose 23% compared to the same time a year ago. The shift in the business’ cornerstone income should be undeniable to anyone looking for signs in the smoke.
In the age of digital, everything is traceable, measurable, quantifiable. It takes more effort to obscure things than to simply aggregate and measure them. Streaming activity may point more accurately to audience size, a truer barometer of potential concertgoers, TV watchers, and merch buyers than the rapidly ossifying metric of album sales or faulty social statistics like Facebook likes and Twitter followers.
The current Billboard model puts an undue premium on first-week sales in a world where scarcity has been eliminated and the album is forever accessible. Film and music sales have long been front-loaded in the land of blockbusters, but the new listening ecosystem may demand a reappraisal that properly gauges and places value on longer term success.
A better system might steal a page from Hollywood and also force a bit more transparency. Potential exists to demystify streaming payouts on the whole (to say nothing of the deals brokered between labels, publishers, and artists).
Adopting a model similar to the Box Office earnings, reports could give a sense of each week’s total haul, more accurately depicting what streams are worth as a pool.
Report total sales. Report total streams. Report earnings across both. Do away with streaming/sales equivalency, a concept that pretends the old way of selling music is still the most viable unit for measuring the impact of a song or album.
Using these figures, add a new metric: reach.
Roughly quantify audience. If you can count streams and subscribers, you can estimate audience to an extent far more accurately than you can based on the sale of music alone.
The way we consume music is changing, and the idea of music simply as a product subject to a final transaction is fading. Based on sales statistics alone, the music industry as a whole is in decline, but maybe we’re just looking at it wrong. We may need to change our focus to the right numbers and recalibrate our conception of success.