The New Pop Charts Know How You Listen To Music

The Atlantic Wire

Billboard is starting to fold YouTube views into their chart algorithms, meaning that the current No. 1 single on the Hot 100 is — you guessed it — Baauer's "Harlem Shake." As it should be. The track launched one of the biggest memes in recent history, exposed millions of listeners to new rumblings in electronic dance music, and gave us all a refresher course on debates surrounding race and musical appropriation. No other song has seeped into the collective consciousness more than "Harlem Shake" right now, so if we define pop music as music that's popular, it's got to be the biggest pop song out. So what if listeners access it primarily through YouTube videos? That medium is just as important in 2013 as iTunes downloads, terrestrial radio plays, and streaming figures on platforms like Spotify, and it's high time the Billboard charts reflect that.

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"The very definition of what it means to have a hit is ever-changing these days," said Bill Werde, Billboard’s editorial director, in a statement released last night. "When the charts launched over 70 years ago, a hit was defined as selling copies of a single or generating airplay. While those avenues are still viable, one needn't look any further than Cee Lo, Gotye, PSY or now Baauer to know that a song can be a massive hit on YouTube alone." 

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"Took ya long enough," replied the digital cognoscenti. 

This seems years behind: Billboard to finally factor YouTube in chart formula soup.ps/12RCxEw

— Anthony De Rosa (@AntDeRosa) February 21, 2013

Nielsen adding (some) digital to its #s, Billboard does same. Both many years late, but about as soon as expected. nytimes.com/2013/02/21/art…

— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) February 21, 2013

Well, better late then never. The new calculations should correct weird hiccups from the Billboard chart's recent history, such as the perplexing fact that PSY's "Gangnam Style" — the most-watched YouTube video ever and arguably the biggest pop song of 2012 — never reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 charts. The move builds on Billboard's more digital-friendly strategy, dating back to March of 2012 when they began incorporating data from Spotify, Rdio, and other streaming services into their charts. 

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But even with the new algorithms better reflecting how songs go pop today, many musicians are worried that this industry-wide shift toward streaming will slash their already meager paychecks. There's no reason to think musicians who score viral YouTube hits will end up in the poorhouse (let's remember that Rebecca Black earned hundreds of thousands of dollars on her popular-for-all-the-wrong-reasons smash "Friday"). YouTube pays content creators a sizable percentage of ad revenue, so the chart-toppers might not need to worry about going broke.

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But what about all those mid- to low-charting musicians? Many of them are saying payouts from streaming figures aren't anywhere near as lucrative as legal downloads or album sales. That argument stirred up some drama at this week's SF Music Tech summit, with Dead Kennedys guitarist East Bay Ray telling a crowd full of people working at the intersection of music and digital media that "opportunists on the Internet have taken advantage of the artists." His band's music has been viewed over 14 million times on YouTube, but he says they've only received "a few hundred dollars" in compensation. The band Grizzly Bear — who are about as successful as an indie band can be, cracking Billboard's top 10 albums chart last year — have been outspoken on this issue, saying that streaming isn't what keeps artists afloat. New York magazine calculates estimates that 20,000 streams on Spotify can earn bands a total of $100. Yet Spotify is currently negotiating a deal with labels to pay artists even less than what they're already getting. 

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On the one hand, Billboard needs to capture what's actually popular in pop music — and that means incorporating Youtube views and streaming numbers into their charts. But on the other hand, are they tacitly legitimizing a business model that many say is unsustainable for most musicians? Billboard's editorial director Bill Werde perhaps summed up the economics of today's music industry best when he told The New York Times' Ben Sisario, "The notion that a song has to sell in order to be a hit feels a little two or three years ago to me."

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