This is a guest editorial by Mark Tavern, an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than 20 years of music business experience.
There was a time in the record business when we could easily quantify success by tracking sales. Whether singles, albums, tickets, or t-shirts, each transaction represented a straightforward way for marketers to understand an artist’s popularity. The format constrained the content of albums and singles, ticket counts remain consistent by the venue, and everybody sells the same merch. These factors allowed for easy comparison between acts, even if they offered a simplistic view of the marketplace.
However, in today’s fragmented record business, these numbers mean less and less. At the same time, the migration to streaming as consumers’ primary consumption method implies that marketers are now awash in data, struggling to define consumer engagement. Legacy systems, processes, and mindsets prevent flexibility in terms of analyzing consumer behavior. Artists and their teams routinely game the system. All have made it nearly impossible to understand what’s happening.
Why track sales in the first place?
Billboard launched on November 1, 1894. Devoted initially to tracking advertising, the trade magazine eventually settled on the entertainment industry with music as its focus. It introduced a chart in 1940 to track retail sales (the precursor to today’s Billboard 200) and another in 1958 to track the most popular songs (the precursor to today’s Hot 100). Together, these two charts became the industry bible, chronicling album sales, and single sales. Over time, their methodologies changed to reflect consumer habits but remained the best way to track trends and understand the popularity of a particular album or single.
Sales are easy to define, simple to track, and strong indicators of consumer behavior. They demonstrate a real interest in a particular product, as fans are making a conscious decision and essentially voting with their money. Tracking sales shows what consumers want, and for years, the Billboard charts were known for it.
But in our social media-dominated world, sales no longer accurately reflect consumer habits—changes to the Hot 100 are an example. As radio became more prevalent in determining listening habits, the chart began to use a mix of sales and airplay. As record companies discontinued releasing commercial singles (to drive album sales), the chart had to change again; as digital downloads displaced physical sales, they tweaked the methodology; as streaming became more prevalent, the chart changed to include a mix of sales, airplay, and streaming. In the current version, Billboard has decided on new ways to weigh streaming from paid versus free services. Given how all charts struggle with adapting to the marketplace, and the speed by which consumption patterns are changing, how much faith should we put in any attempts at accuracy?
Does anybody buy albums anymore?
When Billboard launched its first retail chart, it was able to track consumer behavior fully. The dominant format was the vinyl LP record, and sales could be used to track what was popular. As singles gained importance, Billboard’s songs chart could be used to track them at retail, and a competitor, Cashbox, emerged to track them as well. Later on, record companies, seeing their highest margin coming from album sales, discontinued selling low-margin singles, and the Billboard 200—an album chart—became the primary way by which purchases were tracked.
But in the era of albums, could it have been possible for a consumer to want only one song? Could they have been forced into purchasing an album because a hit single was not made available? Given the dramatic change in consumption patterns that occurred as soon as singles became unbundled from albums in the digital era, it was clear consumers wanted something they couldn’t get previously.
As download speeds increased, Apple launched its iTunes music store, and an easy way to purchase singles returned. This change coincided with the rise of file sharing and the scourge of piracy—all factors in the decline of the recorded music business from its height in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And as streaming became prevalent, Billboard changed, too, incorporating streams into the Billboard 200 and introducing a Top Albums Sales chart designed to only track album sales.
Today, with streaming becoming the primary consumption method for recorded music, album charts are increasingly outdated. Bundling different products with one price dilutes sales data. Track and sales equivalents, questions surrounding the weighing of free versus paid streams, and even the behavior of consumers in different genres dilute chart positioning. Consumers of pop and hip-hip quickly adopted streaming; consumers of jazz and country have been much slower. Given all these changes, how can one chart accurately reflect anything?
Sales Equivalents: what makes something equal?
Along the way, charts began to use stopgap measures to remain relevant. They introduced TEAs, or track equivalent albums (10 track sales equal one album), and SEAs, or streaming equivalent albums (1500 track streams equal one album). By creating these units of measurement, individual track sales and streams could be used to help draw comparisons between different albums on the same chart. Yet, these numbers are arbitrary, and this methodology creates other potential problems. For example, a single that becomes a viral hit can artificially drive “sales” of the album it comes from. Does it make sense that an album can chart if most of its streams come from only one track? See Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” from his album Astroworld, or Drake tacking “Hotline Bling” to the end of VIEWS to take advantage of its streams.
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Free vs. Paid: which carries more weight?
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), an international record business trade group, published a 2018 report stating that YouTube accounts for 47% of all on-demand music streaming [PDF]. We know YouTube lags other streaming services in its payouts to creators, but how do you value a stream when some people choose to use YouTube for free, while others pay for Spotify or Apple Music? Billboard thinks so and gives more weight to paid streaming tiers as a result. But if YouTube is the dominant streaming method (in the aggregate), does it make sense that streams on its service have less impact than those on others?
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is a trade group that pursues the interests of the major labels in the US. As a way to celebrate popular releases, honor the artists and labels and tout the health of the recorded music industry, they have long issued sales-based awards. These Gold®, Platinum®, Multi-Platinum™, and Diamond® awards represent sales of 500k, 1M, 2M (or more), and 10M units, sold or streamed. But they are awarded only for US sales; other countries have similar awards, but the thresholds are different. Furthermore, they are tracking shipments, and while there are stringent audit requirements, such shipments reflect product moving from labels to retailers, and not necessarily from retailers to fans.
Merch bundles and other games
The RIAA’s certification methods reflect an old-fashioned mentality, one that record companies used to game all the time by shipping tons of records to try and goose sales figures, only to have to accept returns of those records at a later date should the record stiff. (Thus, the age-old industry joke about flops that shipped “gold” but returned “platinum.”)
Attempts to game the system never go out of style. Today’s most common method involves the merch bundle. If an album gets sold as part of a bundle, should it still count as an album sale?
Many artists have used this tactic to increase their sales, but does it unfairly affect the charts? Two famous examples involve Prince, who gave away his 2004 album, Musicology, to those who purchased concert tickets and gave away his 2007 album, Planet Earth, to those who purchased a copy of the British newspaper, The Mail. Both of those examples caused an outcry in the industry and prompted companies like Billboard and SoundScan to change the way they tabulate sales. Many stars have used similar promotions; JAY-Z even bundled The Black Album with a Nokia phone.
More recently, Nicki Minaj accused Travis Scott of gaming the album chart when her album failed to reach the number one position in August 2018. (Interestingly, she was attempting to game the system herself, offering her album at a deep discount to help drive sales.) Earlier this year, DJ Khaled reportedly threw a temper tantrum in the Epic Records offices when his album got beat out of the top spot by Tyler, the Creator (IGOR) after Nielsen disqualified 100k units over how Khaled’s merch bundles were handled.
Chris Brown’s 2017 album, Heartbreak on a Full Moon, demonstrates another trick, with its 45 tracks and two-plus-hours of playing time. Looking at the math, should purchasing all those tracks individually give him credit for 4.5 track-equivalent albums? Should one listen of his album account for approximately 78% more streams than a listen of an album that clocks in at a more reasonable length? Should there be stricter rules about what defines an album in terms of price, number of tracks, and length?
Some attempts to game the system are legit. Remixes, for example, can be used to drive chart position—something many artists have done—even before Lil Nas X got everybody on a different version of “Old Town Road.” (While some may say this is unfair, his track seems to have gotten a pass because the ever-multiplying remixes are the whole point.)
You can’t track an audience you don’t know about.
What about other services and platforms, like Shazam, SoundCloud or Audiomack? Artists and fans are using them, but are they being reflected in the charts? Regional Shazam data is incredibly insightful, as it reflects what consumers in what markets have heard and are reacting to in real-time. Where is that data being used outside of Shazam? As for platforms, how do the artists, genres, and communities achieving growth on SoundCloud or Audiomack enter the picture? And how does the ability of consumers to pay affect the charts?
The most popular artist over the past two years on Audiomack is YoungBoy Never Broke Again, but he’s yet to chart a top-thirty record on the Hot 100. His fans are young and don’t yet have access to disposable income, so they use free platforms to hear his music. Consequently, his overall impact is reduced, as streams on such services are either more lightly weighted, or do not factor in the charts at all.
If everyone has a chart, do charts mean nothing?
Spotify has charts. iTunes has charts. Rolling Stone magazine now has charts. Is our current obsession with data driving this chart frenzy? Consumption patterns have indeed shifted so dramatically that no single chart can capture consumer behavior, but do more of these charts only add to our confusion? If each tracks slightly different metrics, is it possible to learn anything from them? If everybody has a chart, how can there be a standard?
Takeaways for artists
Where the current charts are meant to make comparisons, their varying methodologies and constant changes only make it more challenging to conclude. Where the current charts would typically be used to provide answers, they only create more questions. The data is available, but will only be useful if artists take control of it. In the end, all of these questions can be answered the same way: individual artists must own their marketing efforts and determine which metrics to track based on their individual goals. The charts are about comparisons to everybody else; artists need data that matters solely to them.
Mark Tavern is an artist manager, consultant, educator, administrator, and arts advocate with more than twenty years of music business experience. In addition to running his own management company, he currently teaches music business at LaGuardia Community College and before that at the Institute of Audio Research. Prior to 2012, Tavern worked at major record companies including Universal Music Group, SONY Music Entertainment, and BMG Entertainment. As an A&R Administrator with such labels as Island, Def Jam, RCA, and RCA Victor, he took part in more than 200 recordings, a dozen Broadway cast albums, and numerous reissue projects, including the GRAMMY®-winning 24-CD box set The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition. Visit his website for insider tips about the music business, and subscribe to his newsletter to get a free ebook: Listen Up! A Simple Guide To Getting Heard On Spotify.