Making a Living Selling Buggy Whips, Part 8: A New Chart Frontier

So someone wants to unseat Billboard, primary longtime maker of charts, as the primary maker of charts. This is very exciting to those of us that have blogs focused on things that are popular, and why.

Taking an interest in what’s popular took the form, for me, of an early obsession with the charts. It started out as just a generalized sort of fascination – knowing what was listened to alongside what the things I liked were listened to. Eventually, as I got older and realized that most of what what makes such charts is there because of concentrated marketing efforts, and only in the most tangential way represented what people actually wanted to listen to 1, it became a sort of exercise in trying to see what the marketing “handle” was.

As time has gone by, the record-selling industry has become less able to manufacture things directly, and while the charts themselves are still more or less a function of people being marketed to, there’s a much more accurate sort of idea about what is actually liked, since instead of the radio creating a sort of captive audience in terms of the casual listener, the existence of whatever given streaming service makes it possible for them to avoid the stuff they don’t want to hear while they’re driving to work, and therefore makes it more difficult for something to be “good enough” 2 for someone to listen to it a bunch of times.

In light of all this, charts are still something I have a passing interest in (if not with the fervor I had for them when I was a kid), but more as an empathy exercise. I can’t, for example, imagine listening willingly to an Ed Sheeran song even one time, but I do enjoy considering what it is that the people that listen to his songs many millions of times (collectively) are getting out of them. Non-focused, algorithm-abetted music listening, generally, is a pretty foreign notion to me 3, and so while the answer is sometimes apparent, it’s still worthwhile to me to get into the mindset of another person (a trait I think is valuable) and consider what it is that they are into. There are plenty of things I’m a casual fan of, so I get the idea that not everyone is specifically-directed about everything all the time as a general idea, but seeing a list of what is made popular by people who are doing something for a different reason than me is an interesting way of seeing what I could have in common with them as a listener.

So it comes as some interest that one of the reflexes of a record-selling industry that is painstakingly making its way into some kind of “progress” in terms of evolving to fit the times is that one long-running magazine (Rolling Stone) is currently taking on the current standard-bearing long-running magazine (Billboard) in terms of assembling music charts.

An editorial aside: I know that Rolling Stone comes up a disproportionate amount here, and I have no real reason for this, other than that their attempts to reframe their magazine repeatedly over the course of the last decade has meant that they do a bunch of weird shit, and I love when old-guard popular stuff does weird shit. Plus, I like Matt Taibbi, so I pay attention to it generally.

Anyway, the Variety article linked above cites the press release, which takes specific swings at Billboard, and positions it as a specific attempt to take on the role of chart-purveyor. It’s an interesting move, to say the least, given Billboard’s synonymy with the music charts in general – when people talk in terms of “hits” and “#1s” and whatnot, they are talking, generally, about the position inside the Billboard apparatus.

This is not something that is, inherently, a bad idea. Billboard itself is a pretty different animal from the one that was originally founded 4. At the outset of their chart-delineating (ca. 1940) they were just tracking sales of records, as well as records that appeared in jukeboxes. In the eighties they started to variegate their chart-making, but the data gathered was from self-reporting record-store folks. In the nineties, they partnered with the company SoundScan (a part of the Nielsen conglomerate), which tracked actual point-of-sale numbers. I jumped on shortly after here, but what this notably did was made just about any pre-SoundScan numbers somewhat suspect, as it was immediately apparent that certain things were being over- or under-reported, whether through malfeasance, marketing hijinx, or sheer memory loss 5. As streaming has become the dominant form of consumption, they’ve done some weird patched-in counting measures (“album equivalent streams” operating on a multi-tiered level and not taking YouTube into account at all) that make the whole new thing seem as unreliable as the whole old thing.

What all of this says, then, is that it seems perfectly reasonable that someone who wants to make better, more accurate charts would be able to see an opportunity to do so. To their credit, Rolling Stone has advertised their “transparency”, which is another major failing of the Billboard folks – nobody really knows how the things are counted, such as it is, despite it seeming to be pretty straightforward. They’re also going to update daily, which seems more of a canard than anything else – the week-to-week charts change precious little, and it’s unlikely to matter that the interval in between chart publication dates is getting smaller. But the point is that RS is willing to position themselves as a “real” chart that makes sense and is responsive to the audience as it exists. Or so they say.

It’s also impossible (for me anyway) not to notice that this comes after two things: the first is the news that the profitability of the record-selling industry is on the upswing, thanks largely to streaming, which is the thing that Billboard does the worst job (or the weirdest job, anyway) of tracking. This, presumptively, would make the idea of being a new chart-making service appeal to the parts of that industry who use said charts as a metric of their own efficacy – agents, publicists, label people, that kind of thing. These are the people whose jobs/livelihoods are most at stake, and being able to point to something and say “no see, we are actually more effective than it appeared previously” is probably a real boost to those folks. Since those are the people that also provide much of the grist that is milled in RS’s pages, it’s appears that it would be in everyone’s best interest to go along with it.

It’s also right after the Lil Nas X controversy, which the rapper released a song that was largely perceived, by the audience for it, to be a country song, and which Billboard removed from the “country” charts, proclaiming it not actually a country song 6. This was an unprecedented display of editorial shutting-out, and does leave a lot of us wondering just what, exactly, the role of the magazine that makes the charts thinks it should be exhibiting in terms of gatekeeping (i.e. it seems pretty obvious that the answer to the question “How much gatekeeping?” should be “None.” None gatekeeping.) So a new purveyor that says “we are transparent and daily and just reporting things as they are” would help the people that consume, or are interested in, such charts feel that they were looking at more “pure” data, rather than at a curated form of said data. Whether that’s true or not is up to the individual chart-gazer, and remains to be seen in any event.

What makes it more interesting, however, is that it marks a major philosophical 7 shift: the Billboard charts used to be an abstraction that was useful for the business. “These are the records that are selling,” they say, “so if you are someone that is involved in an aspect of the business for whom this data is useful – a record store owner, say, or a bar-owner who’s stocking a jukebox or something like that – you have this information now.” It’s a guide of sorts. Now, charts are more of a confirmation. Without the hidebound nature of radio playlisting and stuff like that, there’s a degree of remove between the direct application of the data (i.e. stocking the jukebox from earlier in the paragraph) and the assumptive application of the data (i.e. trying to figure out to whom you should point the “Ariana Grande singles-release cannon”).

All of this must be considered, also, alongside the knowledge that this isn’t being done altruistically for the health of the record-selling industry, this is a move by a magazine that’s currently trying to position itself as a greater cultural force in the name of profitability 8. I’m not a board-room dude, and I’d love to know what the general endgame goal here is, but it appears to be pretty directly trying to eliminate a competitor in a way that seems inefficient.

Of course, that’s all based on an assumption that I’m unsure if it could possibly be effective. I have no idea what part of the business is based on chart-gazing, and even though I can see (as detailed above) ways in which this could turn out well for many of the people involved, it all rests on some other portion of the record-selling industry adopting Rolling Stone’s charts as the new industry-standard ones. I guess we’ll see how it all shakes out.

Me, I’m just hoping that they get enough traction that I can start writing about the Rolling Stone Music Awards television broadcast. That’d be a real interesting one. Maybe I’ll start idly looking forward to it anyway.

  1.  that is to say, while it’s true that the things at the top of the charts are there because they are the most popular of the things that are on the charts, or that are attempted to be (pardon this verb construction, I’m thinking of taking lessons) on the charts, they are still of an available pool that is the direct result of the marketing concerns that put them there, rather than a stock of all available things, about which continue reading. 
  2. as it is, then, the marketing abilities that used to cause something to become a successful hit or what have you are now more likely to help someone hear about something in the first place, rather than just drill it into people by sheer numerical repetition. There’s a lot of things that come as a result of this shift in the causal music-listening fandom (such as it is), and I’m probably not going to get into them here. Maybe next time. 
  3.  i.e. I’m a pretty obsessive person, and I can’t imagine giving over my listening experience to someone else’s taste generally, outside of certain fairly-specific parameters. 
  4. of interest is the fact that Billboard stopped covering movies because Variety, whose link is above and who provides much of the information found herein, was too hard to compete with on that front. 
  5. Frederic Dannen’s excellent Hit Men isn’t specifically about the charts, but would give you an idea of the kinds of things people used to be willing to get into in order to make something a “hit”. 
  6. without getting into the muddy waters of intent or whatnot, I’m of two minds here – the first is that it probably isn’t a country song, as it appears to actually have its roots in playing Red Dead Redemption rather than in making country music. The second, however, is that the decision is much bullshit, since the dominant paradigm in country music is the “bro-country” nonsense that makes constant feints at appearing to be more hip-hop-ish with every passing year, which is made different by….well, it’s pretty obvious what makes it different, and it’s pretty obvious what Lil Nas X doesn’t have in common with, say, Florida-Georgia Line. 
  7. that’s not really the right word for it, but there isn’t a better one. I guess maybe “intentional”. 
  8. which is, of course, also what Billboard was doing. 

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