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How Epic Records is Using Digital Playlists to Manipulate the Charts

Thanks to the manipulation of the streaming system, Epic Records landed a Top 10 record on Billboard without releasing an album.
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Streaming is changing the way music is consumed, and the effects of those changes have rewritten rules and restructured systems. But single and album certifications and placements on the charts is the biggest change to come.

Drake’s legendary summer streak at the top of the charts was made possible by the incredible volume of streams that Views accumulated week after week. Surprisingly, it was DJ Khaled who would dethrone him from the top of both Billboard’s album and singles charts. Khaled’s album sale success can be attributed to his newfound fame and social media expertise, but also the fact he released two big singles this summer. Both “For Free,” which features Drake, and “I Got The Keys,” with Jay Z and Future, did very well when they were released, and those streaming totals counted toward his overall album sales. In a way, Drake helped to bring his own downfall by giving Khaled a song for the summer.

The rollover of single streams counting toward album sales is puzzling. “Hotline Bling” was only on Views as a bonus song because of its massive online reign. If “Hotline Bling” had the temporary lifespan of “Right Hand” it wouldn’t exist within the promotional cycle of the album. There’s an obvious loophole that can be exploited to inflate album sale numbers.

Quietly, labels have found ways to use the new streaming rules to their advantage. Earlier today, the New York Times published an article about Epic Records and their compilation, Epic AF. The release is digital-only, you won’t find it in any retailers, but you will find it on the charts. A playlist of moderately big records, including Travis Scott and Young Thug’s “Pick Up The Phone,” Future’s “Wicked” and Kent Jones' “Don’t Mind,” along with French Montana’s “Lockjaw” and “No Shopping,” has helped the compilation chart in the Top 10 for the last four weeks. Without a major push and minor promotion, Epic found a way to enter the charts by taking the popular, homeless songs and packaging the music together.

Now, when Billboard counts the weekly plays for “Don’t Mind,” which has 139 million Spotify streams to date, they are attached to the album, catapulting the digital compilation over traditional albums from artists on competing major labels. Chart position equals bragging rights — and its own form of marketing via brand visibility. - Epic Records Whips Up Hit Album Out of Thin Air (and Online Streams)

In the NYT article, Dave Bakula, a senior analyst for Nielsen Music, the company that supplies Billboard with the data used for the charts, acknowledged how the tactic is exploitative, but also admitted it’s well within the rules to compile a playlist of popular songs, give it a title with cover art that can be made in Microsoft Paint, and call it an album. He related the tactic to the Now That's What I Call Music! compilation albums, which began in the UK but were later popularized in the U.S. The first stateside release, in 1998, was certified Platinum thanks to songs by K-Ci & JoJo, Brian McKnight and Janet Jackson.

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Call it creative manipulation, but it’s still manipulation, and Epic is working the system.

The same system can also work against the label, though. Epic AF dropped from #5 to #32 after the release of Major Key; before Khaled’s album was made available to the public the label benefited from the streaming numbers of “For Free” and “I Got The Keys,” but once the album was officially released the stream numbers shifted to Khaled’s own release. It is a strange, strange system.

“It did what it was supposed to do,” said Celine Joshua, a senior vice president for commerce at Epic and its parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, who oversaw the project. “It was born out of a need and a problem,” she said. “I was thinking about our hot roster and the cycles of which content was coming out when, albums that were around the corner and how young fans on these platforms are behaving — consuming in the playlist manner.” - Epic Records Whips Up Hit Album Out of Thin Air (and Online Streams)

What a time to be alive when a digital playlist is able to be on the Billboard charts. At least Now was a physical CD that people could purchase in stores --  this tactic doesn’t require people to do anything. Just by playing a song over and over you are unknowingly tallying up “sales” for an album you didn’t even know existed. It wouldn’t surprise me if labels found a way to allow artists to regularly go Gold using this method.

The numbers aren’t lying like men and women, but they have long stopped telling the complete truth. Despite its evolution, streaming is a broken system, one that now impacts the charts, making what appears on them less credible by the day.

By Yoh, aka Now That's What I Call Yoh, aka @Yoh31.

Photo Credit: Instagram

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