2013 Was the Year That... Streaming Officially Became Unignorable

To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we continue with 2013, the year where streaming services like YouTube and Spotify began to have a profound impact on the charts and the industry that would last the rest of the decade. 

In the summer of 2012, veteran South Korean pop personality Psy released a semi-satirical dance-pop single called "Gangnam Style." The song was like a '90s jock jam amped to fit the EDM era, absolutely massive-sounding and easily accessible to all on first listen. It had everything you could ask for in a viral hit -- an absurdly catchy chorus, a hilarious and cameo-strewn music video, and even a silly accompanying dance for listeners to attempt to co-opt -- and the fact that it was mostly sung and rapped in a foreign language couldn't have mattered less to American listeners. As a cultural phenomenon, it quickly reached a velocity the decade hadn't seen before, breaking records on a weekly basis and infiltrating all corners of the entertainment world.

"Gangnam Style" was unquestionably one of the biggest hits of the 2010s. But on the Billboard Hot 100, it could only reach a peak of No. 2 -- stuck for seven weeks behind Maroon 5's "One More Night," a single the band didn't even bother to include in their six-song set at their Super Bowl LIII halftime performance in 2019.

2010 Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011 Adele Revived the Music Industry | 2012: EDM Infiltrated Everything | 2014: Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Discussion 20152015 Was the Year That... Canadians Ran Pop Music | 2016Every Major Album Release Was an Event | 2017Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2018Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap 2019Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' Put a Bow on the Decade

How did that happen? Well, the simple answer is YouTube, the video-sharing platform, which had grown into an increasingly popular and influential branch of the music biz since its 2005 debut -- but which as of 2012, Billboard had not yet begun to count in its chart calculations. For as big as "Gangnam" was on YouTube, where the video became the first on the platform to break the billion-view mark that December, Psy's breakthrough hit wasn't nearly so omnipresent on radio, reaching a peak of just No. 12 on Billboard's Radio Songs airplay listing. "Gangnam" was a strong seller, topping Billboard's Digital Song Sales ranking for six non-consecutive weeks in late 2012, but the airplay gulf between it and "One More Night" (an eight-week Radio Songs No. 1) was just too wide for it to overcome. And so the one song of the early 2010s that even your grandparents knew was all but guaranteed to top out as a runner-up on the Hot 100.

The examples of "Gangnam Style" and other viral hits whose popularity was not being reflected on pop's most important songs chart led to Billboard making the game-changing decision in February 2013 to alter its Hot 100 formula to include YouTube video streaming totals. The impact on the chart was immediate and unmistakable. Baauer's "Harlem Shake," which had recently become the soundtrack to countless viral clips based on a video meme format pioneered by YouTube personality Filthy Frank, entered the revamped chart at No. 1. Despite the song being a grimy, abrasive dance instrumental by a Brooklyn DJ with zero chart history -- and despite it having next to no presence on radio, and rarely even being featured for more than a half-minute at a time in these clips -- for the week dated March 2, 2013 (and the four weeks after that), Billboard rated "Harlem Shake" as the biggest song in the country.

The impact of YouTube in recalibrating the Hot 100's barometer was felt throughout 2013. Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis' surreal dance-pop novelty song "The Fox" rode a brief period of Internet embrace to a No. 6 ranking on the Hot 100. Psy's "Gangnam Style" follow-up "Gentleman" garnered only a small fraction of the stateside attention of its predecessor, but due to it coming after the introduction of YouTube data to the Hot 100 calculation, it peaked only three spots lower on the Hot 100, hitting No. 5. Even Kanye West's "Gone" -- a deep cut off his 2005 album Late Registration -- made its first-ever appearance on the Hot 100, debuting at No. 18 after video of a woman filming herself dancing in her office as she announced to her boss that she was quitting rapidly went viral.

But as obvious an effect as YouTube was having on the charts (and pop's center as a whole in 2013), a much deeper sea change was brewing among on-demand audio streaming services -- particularly one that had just arrived on U.S. shores. Three years after launching in Europe, Swedish-born streaming service Spotify first came to the States in July 2011. It offered a musical library of unprecedented size and accessibility, and unlimited listening to paying subscribers, of which it claimed a million in the U.S. by the end of 2012. The service was faced with serious questions about whether it could be particularly profitable, either for its shareholders or for the artists whose music it featured, but its rapid spread throughout the States showed that regardless of how difficult the answers to those questions were, it was in the industry's best interests to find them.

Back in 2012, iTunes was still a massive enough part of the music industry that it could essentially mint hits through weekly sales spikes. A left-field pop single like Fun.'s alternative anthem "We Are Young" essentially became a smash through digital retailers, as audiences discovered the song via primetime showcases on Glee and in Super Bowl commercials, and immediately went to Apple to purchase it. The song sold over 300,000 digital copies for seven consecutive weeks at its peak, helping it top the Hot 100 for six frames. Singer-songwriters Gotye and Kimbra's prickly breakup collaboration "Somebody That I Used to Know" had a similar story, landing at No. 1 after a week where it had been featured in a live performance on Saturday Night Live and (again) remade on Glee, leading to a landmark sales period of 542,000 downloads. Though radio ultimately embraced both songs, it was only after the songs had already proven best-sellers on iTunes and other digital stores that stations relented to their obvious power, with each spending six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Radio Songs chart.

Digital sales numbers remained high for the best-selling songs in 2013, but now the online retailers had competition. A month before Billboard announced the introduction of YouTube data to its marquee songs chart, it also introduced a new chart altogether: Streaming Songs, aggregating data from all relevant streaming services (including Spotify and YouTube) into one easily understood chart listing the most-played songs on the Internet that week. Hot 100 calculations could now essentially be boiled down to three separate component charts: Radio Songs, Digital Song Sales and Streaming Songs.

For most of 2013, Streaming Songs remained the little brother of the three in determining No. 1s, as airplay numbers and digital sales remained robust and "Harlem Shake"-sized anomalies proved rare. But the influence of streaming could be felt in the year's second half, through the pop ascendance of the rebranded former Disney star Miley Cyrus. Adopting more adult lyrical themes and a more hip-hop-influenced sound and style (co-piloted by rap producer of the moment Mike Will Made-It), the new Miley wasn't necessarily as safe a radio bet as she had been with the Dr. Luke-produced "Party in the U.S.A.," and lead single "We Can't Stop" peaked at No. 15 on Radio Songs, while proving unable to unseat Robin Thicke's massive "Blurred Lines" on Digital Song Sales.

But on Streaming Songs, "Stop" was an 11-week No. 1 -- thanks in large part to its edgy Diane Martel-directed party visual, and to its genre-blurring sound, which would soon prove to be streaming catnip -- which helped prop the song up to a No. 2 peak on the Hot 100. Power ballad follow-up "Wrecking Ball," with its headline-capturing, Terry Richardson-helmed video, fared even better. It topped Streaming Songs for 13 weeks, scoring the highest non-Baauer single-week stream total of the year with over 36.5 million plays, which propelled the song to No. 1 on the overall Hot 100, where it reigned for three total weeks. While the overwhelming majority of its streams came from YouTube, 2.8 million of them also came that week from on-demand streaming services like Spotify -- then a single-week record (as reflected on Billboard's On-Demand Streaming Songs chart), and over twice as many as, for instance, the 1.1 million that Carly Rae Jepsen's pop sensation "Call Me Maybe" had in its first week at No. 1 about a year before.

As the calendar turned on 2013, Nielsen Music reported that for the first time since it had started measuring digital downloads in 2003, song sales were down for the year in the U.S., dropping 6% -- while internationally, the IFPI music report in March revealed a 2.1% dip in overall download revenues. However, digital revenues for the year were still up globally, thanks to a tremendous 51% increase in revenues from subscription- and ad-supported streaming services, which in total passed the $1 billion mark for the first time. "The digital revolution in music is moving to the next phase," proclaimed Edgar Berger, then-chairman and CEO International of Sony Music Entertainment, at the report's London launch. "Today we have 28 million paying subscribers on a monthly basis paying for music subscriptions, up from 8 million just three years ago. I don’t see any reason why this won’t be more than 100 million in the near future.”

Time would certainly validate Berger's predictions, as more and more listeners flocked to subscription services in the years to come. In 2013, a credible rival to Spotify was announced in the form of Beats Music, from Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine's Beats Electronics brand -- though just months after its 2014 debut, it was bought by Apple, who would replace it in 2015 with the even more-hyped Apple Music. That same year, a cadre of high-profile artists would memorably declare their allegiance to the lofty new Tidal subscription service, and the streaming wars were officially underway. But no matter who was winning in that fight, the larger music industry was unquestionably profiting, as the decade-plus worth of losses it had experienced with the slow decline of physical media were finally starting to be turned around by streaming subscription and ad-based revenue.

Meanwhile, download sales -- which had never quite been able to turn a flailing music business all the way around as hoped -- continued to slide. In 2013, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop," a 10-week Digital Song Sales No. 1, enjoyed eight consecutive weeks of sales over 300,000, but by 2016, only two songs (Adele's "Hello" and Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling!") had a single top 300,000 for even one week -- and in 2019, a single song even cracking six digits for a week is rare. Digital song sales on the whole were down a whopping 27.2% in 2018, having fallen every year since they first began slipping in 2013, with only three songs selling a million copies total in '18, down from 106 in '13.

However, even with those digital numbers continuing to drop, and physical sales also plummeting for the eighth consecutive year, overall album equivalent audio consumption was up a hearty 23%, thanks to a robust 49% gain in on-demand audio streams, to 611 billion. And this November, history was made as for the first time in history, U.S. streams of combined on-demand audio and video passed the mind-boggling one trillion mark for the year. Berger's claims of 100 million streaming subscribers proved more than prophetic; by April 2019, Spotify alone claimed that many paid users.

With the rising numbers has come validation for genres not often properly represented on Top 40 radio, as worldwide audiences are able to bypass gatekeepers and let the industry know what they're really listening to -- leading to surges in consumption of hip-hop, dance, Latin pop, and of course, K-pop, the genre that launched the decade's defining viral streaming hit. “YouTube has not only become a big deal for K-pop but also for pop culture worldwide,” Psy commented to Billboard this year, remembering the days of "Gangnam Style" making history by becoming, until 2017, the most-viewed video in the platform's history. "Its legacy lives on in the form of a figurative trophy the world has gifted me, displayed right here in my living room... I glance at it every so often, and it fills me with pride.”

Next, in 2014: The dominance of white artists in the pop space leads to uncomfortable-but-necessary questions about when musical influence becomes cultural appropriation.