Essays

The Charts Made No Goddamn Sense in 2017

In both the US and UK they suffered identity crises, tweaking their rules in a bid to keep up with streaming.

by Tshepo Mokoena
27 December 2017, 11:00am

At some point in 2016, Drake fucked it. Sure, he released the hugely successful Views, went on a joint summer tour with Future and for about 19 minutes dated inventor of cheekbone highlight Jennifer Lopez, but he also camped out on top of the UK singles charts for so long it set a new record. “One Dance,” with all of its Kyla and Crazy Cousinz-sampling, thumping ba-doom-doom syncopated rhythms, swelled into a mega-hit. It became the sort of song that quickly flips from fun to unstoppable to ‘someone please turn this off, I’ve heard it too many times this week already and it’s only Wednesday’ ubiquity.

And that mostly came down to streaming. In the BPI’s annual All About the Music report – made with the people behind the UK’s Billboard equivalent, the Official Charts Company – Drake was pegged as the most streamed artist of 2016. Spotify named “One Dance” the most-streamed song of all time with almost 970 million plays, nudging past Major Lazer’s “Lean On” featuring MØ and DJ Snake. Drake was the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s global recording artist of the year, when you took into account his global popularity across streams, downloads, actual physical purchases, whatever.

This would all be lovely stuff for his mum’s round robin email to the family if it didn’t also turn the UK singles charts methodology on its head, and hint at similarly sweaty-palmed shifts that would take place on the US Hot 100 and Billboard 200 charts in 2017. If you’ve been paying attention, both the US and UK charts have struggled to measure popularity this year. They’ve suffered low-key identity crises, chopping and changing their rules every few months, and introducing new measures to try and stop streaming’s frequently undulating patterns from setting themselves into concrete. It has been a weird and silly year for the charts. And there’s the sense, going into 2018, that we won’t quickly settle the question of what makes a song “big”.

"How you measure the biggest has become very, very complicated," Matthew Adell, ex-Beatport CEO told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “‘Do people spend money on it?’ is one way. ‘Do people spend time with it?’ is another way." And this is the crux of the issue. Back when the recording industry was centred on physical product – ie: like, 15 years ago – it was pretty easy to discern what constituted a banger. Was it getting loads of radio play? Were people going to HMV or Sam Goody to pay for a CD single? If yes to both then good, it’s a banger. Now, though, enough repeat streams can push a song into the chart when it hasn’t even been released as a traditional single – and that’s where Ed Sheeran picked up the baseball bat that Drake swung through the charts last year.

Sheeran’s ‘I discovered loop pedals in sixth-form and never looked back’ pop earned him another hugely successful year. The release of his third album ÷ (Divide) did all the things it does when Sheeran makes music: break records, shift loads of copies, cough up a few songs that straight couples who met as teenagers will be using to soundtrack their first dances at many a wedding to come. But, in the first week of its release, ÷ also spammed the UK singles chart, with every one of the album’s 16 songs appearing somewhere in the top 40. And, obviously, that came down to streaming again.

The way our on-demand listening habits have unbundled the album into its individual components thus inspired the first of this year’s major chart changes: in the UK, only the three most popular tracks from an artist’s album can be in the top 100 at any one time. This was designed to ensure “new hits and artists to feature in the chart by preventing multiple tracks from popular artists dominating the singles chart,” according to the OCC. “The move will minimise double-counting of album tracks between the Official Singles and Albums Charts and make the two charts more distinct,” and their hopes were to boost the number of chart hits each year – for context, just 11 songs hit number 1 in 2016. Whichever way you read it, that doesn’t seem to signify a healthy variety of songs piquing the public’s interest.

But that may just come down to the way that popularity is measured in the UK. It took until 2014 for streaming to factor into chart data here – which only looks at sales – while in the US there’s the added element of radio play to grapple with. And just as the OCC have been wringing their hands trying to make sense of The Internet’s Impact on Music, so too have have Billboard. In October, they announced chart adjustments due to start in 2018. That sounds so vague because, to date, their publicly announced plans have been very loose. Here’s what we do know: the Billboard Hot 100 (for singles) and 200 (for albums) are going to give paid-for streams more weight than free ones. In translation, that Spotify account you’ve not paid for since 2013 will make your listening habits worth less in the US charts than the paid Tidal one you’ve been sharing with your five flatmates.

Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal and premium Spotify and Soundcloud (honestly, who is paying for Soundcloud?) accounts will be considered as more “proper” purchases than YouTube streams or non-paid Spotify subscriptions. Obviously, this could spell disaster for the genres and artists who tend to perform better on free services (and the massive companies who’d want to play a role in their chart impact). Or, as a YouTube spokesperson put it in that Rolling Stone piece, “Billboard transformed the industry by recognising YouTube is where music is discovered, hits are created and music pop culture is made. Unfortunately, with these changes, Billboard is essentially saying the only music fans that count are those with credit cards." *turns directly to camera sipping unnamed soft drink through a jumbo straw*

What this really seems to mean is that hip-hop, trap, all the Latin genres quietly blowing up on YouTube – and probably every viral hit – may have a quieter 2018 than they’ve enjoyed this year. “Despacito” blew up on Youtube, gaining further traction when Bieber jumped on the Spanglish remix. If YouTube’s impact is downgraded, we might not see a proper Latin sweep through the English-language charts. The same goes for whatever may be left of Soundcloud rap that hasn’t been snapped up by major labels in 2018, and acts like Lil Pump or Playboi Carti whose appeal rests more in their singles being replayed on YouTube than full albums on iTunes. We’ve come a long way since no black artists topped the Billboard Hot 100 at all in 2013, but may risk slipping back into the clutches of blue-eyed soul – essentially, Sam Smith and Post Malone facsimiles of black culture gaining the most traction – with these new changes.

In a sense, Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart – made of audio and video streams – or even On-Demand Songs charts (streams only) are more like what the Hot 100 would be like if it were future-facing. Instead, as American charts expert Chris Molanphy put it in a 2015 NPR piece, the Hot 100 in the digital age is more “like a martini, a three-ingredient cocktail. If radio is still the gin, and digital sales are the vermouth, the totally new ingredient – the olive – is streaming.” When you compare all three charts, you can pick out subtle differences among very similar lists. For the week ending 23 December, Imagine Dragons make the Hot 100 top 5; they just squeak into the Streaming Songs top 20 and are at number 40 on the On-Demand Songs chart. Bands like that, mediocre as all hell and playing music for people who don’t really care about music, have radio to thank for their Hot 100 success.

You can feel a bit like you’re living in a parallel universe to the one depicted in the charts. That’s why someone like Beyoncé, whose fame has reached such ridiculous levels that it’s a never ending meme, could seem like pop’s biggest star yet have failed to top the Hot 100 in a decade until this week. Now that acts are playing with format – Bey-inspired visual albums, holding out on streaming services like Taylor Swift, looping 30 seconds of a chorus for three dumb minutes on YouTube, as Post Malone’s label did with his 21 Savage duet “Rockstar” – the industry is out of breath playing catchup. The metrics don’t make as much sense as they did in the good ole days, and they probably never will. But that’s more a stress for the people who make the charts, than for people who actually listen to music. 2018 could get interesting for all of us. Thanks, Drake.

You can find Tshepo on Twitter.