How should we measure the charts in a digital world? | Features | MN2S

The charts have always played an important part in music culture. A big-selling artist setting a new record with their latest album, an indie artist breaking the Top Ten for the first time, the Christmas number one. The charts are how we measure musical milestones. In the UK, the chart has traditionally been based on physical sales of singles and albums. In the US, where radio airplay has always played a part, things are slightly different. But whatever the case, music consumption is more varied and complicated than ever. With countless subscription-based streaming services and other digital platforms, how can we really tell which songs and albums are the most popular?

Billboard and the UK Official Chart Company (UKOCC) are both trying to keep up with the modern music landscape, but their efforts are not without some issues.

Moving with the times

The charts managed to do a pretty good job of catching up with digital distribution services when digital downloads first took off. But things became complicated when, in Summer 2014, the UKOCC announced that it would include streaming in its Top 40 singles chart data for the first time. Billboard did the same thing at a similar time. This change helped artists such as Ariana Grande and Mark Ronson, whose songs were streamed more than they were downloaded. It also helped Hip Hop songs reach the top of the charts more frequently, with the remarkably un-mainstream ‘Trap Queen’ by Fetty Wap reaching number one in the US.

So how did chart compilers go about including streams in their statistics? Billboard’s approach was to count 1500 streams from the same album as one album sale. The UKOCC counts 100 streams of a song as one single purchase. But does this really make the charts more accurate?

The Problems

Digital Music News’ Paul Reskinoff says Billboard’s decision to count streaming the way they have means their chart makes “even less sense.” The Billboard chart has always included radio airplay alongside purchases, so adding streaming data to it doesn’t really change what it means too much. This is still a chart that tries to reflect the songs that are being played the most around the country. Whether or not you think that’s what a chart should be tracking is a different story.

The UK Top 40 has always worked differently. Tracking ownership over listenership, the Top 40 looked at which songs people liked enough to go out and buy from record stores. Streaming a song shows much less listener investment than streaming one. A chart that includes streaming says much less about the music collections that are being formed by consumers.


Even if you accept that counting streams is something charts need to do, there are major problems with Billboard and the UKOCC’s methods. The numbers they have chosen to equate to a sale seem arbitrary at worst, and based only in money at best. If a song gets 1500 streams on Spotify, it brings in around £10 for the record label. By this logic, 1500 streams could be seen as equal to an album sale. But really, 1500 streams of an album’s hit lead single should not be counted as one album sale. Under this method they would be.

There is an even bigger problem with recent move to include streaming in the charts though. If a chart is going to measure streams, all the most important streaming services need to be taken into account. The UKOCC profess to include all the major on-demand streaming platforms in their statistics, but this doesn’t count streaming services that do not charge subscription fees. Among these services, crucially, is YouTube.

It was announced earlier this year that YouTube is the biggest music streaming platform on the planet, and it is growing faster than Spotify, TIDAL, or any of its subscription-based rivals. Billboard does take YouTube videos into account, but the UKOCC does not. This values less popular streaming services in the UK over the much more popular YouTube.

Another music platform that is not included in the UK or US charts is SoundCloud. The social components of YouTube and SoundCloud make them hugely popular with music fans of all ages and tastes. Yet there are artists that have huge SoundCloud followings, particularly in more niche genres, that will never make the charts. If the charts are trying to reflect overall popularity, this is clearly a problem.

What can we do?

The answer to this is difficult. The UKOCC needs to figure out what it is trying to represent. If it still wants to represent ownership, it could look more at how many times individual users are streaming songs, or ignore streaming whatsoever. If it wants to reflect the musical zeitgeist, it could look at including YouTube viewership in its statistics. If Billboard wants to continue with its current approach to chart data, it really needs to include SoundCloud, and every digital music platform, not just the “major” ones.
Whatever the case, it is good to see that these organisations recognise the changing nature of the music industry, whether their attempts to change with it are successful or not.

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