I've got good news, I've got bad news, and I've got news that will render both of those things essentially meaningless.
The good news is that according to estimates from Hits Daily Double, Chance the Rapper's new free mixtape album, Coloring Book, is slated to debut in the top-ten of the Billboard charts, which would make Coloring Book the first top-ten charting album that was truly stream-only. (Kanye's TLOP did have a direct purchase option when it first charted).
The bad news is that the sales number attached to Coloring Book is in the 30-40K range, a number that at first glance is disappointing for those who thought this album would show Chance ascending to music-elite categories. 40K is a certainly respectable number, but isn't particularly impressive. For comparison purposes, Drake's Views just did over 850K in sales first week, and Joey Bada$$ B4.DA.$$ album debuted on the charts with 54K.
Using the charts as a reflection of popularity, that would make Chance not just less popular than Drake but exponentially less popular, and less popular than Joey Bada$$, which just doesn't feel exactly right. Sweet baby Jesus knows he's not on international superstar Drizzy's level, but still. Could I have been over-estimating how popular Chano truly is? Maybe, but the third piece of news is that the way charts are structured in 2016 are fundamentally broken and do a particularly bad job of measuring who the most popular artists in music really are.
Let's walk through this. Under the new charting system:
- 1,500 streams of a song from an album are equivalent to one album sale.
- Those streams could come from anywhere: YouTube, AppleMusic, Spotify, etc.
- It could be any song from that album. You could listen to "No Problem" 1,500 times and nothing else off Coloring Book, that's the same thing as walking into a store and buying a physical copy of Adele's album.
- Why 1,500? Why not 1,499? Or 1,000? Or 2,000? Or 12? Or 747.59? Because given streaming revenue rates, 1,500 streams would generate about $10 in revenue, approximately the same amount as an album costs.
If it seems like that formula doesn't actually describe what albums are the most popular in 2016, I feel you. Equating song streams with album sales based on revenue is inherently flawed in an age where downloading may soon cease to exist entirely. And regardless, attempting to translate streams into album sales is a broken idea from the start. It's like mating a zebra and a horse and then being like, "Hey look everyone, it's totally still a horse!" Just how nonsensical the current "equivalent album sales" model is has been somewhat hidden by albums that are still also sold traditionally, but it looks particularly egregious when applied to an album that's stream-only, like Coloring Book.
Thinking that a stream of a single song says anything about the album's popularity as a total body of work no longer makes any sense. My 6-year-old daughter's listened to Katy Perry's "Roar" at least 200 times on Spotify (our house is lit) and now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure she doesn't even know what an album is, let alone what album that song is attached to. And yet she's accounted for a slice of Katy Perry's "equivalent album sales."
And it's not like album sales ever did a particularly accurate job of describing an album's impact either. In the pre-internet days, there were plenty of albums that did huge numbers because they were the only way people could cop a massive hit single but had very little impact as entire bodies of musical work. Shout out to Milli Vanilli going 6 times platinum, and with all due respect to Black Rob, there's no way his Life Story album would have gone platinum if peope could just individually stream "Woah" whenever they wanted.
Pure streaming - not streaming cross-bred with album sales like some sort of musical Sharktopus - actually gives us the best chance at accurately measuring what music people are truly listening to right now. That's how we know that Eminem and Kanye were actually two of the top-five most listened to artists in the country in 2015 despite not releasing an album at all last year.
I don't know if there's any way to combine streams and traditional sales in a way that actually describes an album's true popularity. They may just have to exist as completely separate entities so we can at least compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges (instead of comparing apples to orapples). Maybe then we'll be able to get a quantifiable reading on how big Chance's movement is, but until then we'll just have to watch him continue to run ahead of a music industry that's trying to keep pace on two broken legs.