Pop analyst Chris Molanphy remembers the skepticism that followed when a-ha‘s “Take On Me” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1985, a feat largely fueled by MTV’s support for its creative, pencil-sketch music video
“Everyone is always going to be cynical that [the charts] don’t mean anything anymore, but there’s no such thing as a perfect chart,” he said. “You’re always making a judgement call.”
As artists today climb the rankings with the help of merch bundles, memes, dance challenges and fan armies galvanized to stream albums on loop, skeptics have plenty of new targets. But at a Mondo.NYC conference panel in partnership with Rolling Stone in Brooklyn on Thursday (Oct. 17), Molanphy, along with fellow panelists Hugh McIntyre, a Forbes contributor, and Alphadata managing director Stephen Blackwell, agreed that music charts have overall become more fair and accurate in the streaming era.
Billboard began counting streams toward chart rankings in 2014. Since, “You’ve seen a wholesale shift in the music business and the charts from a top-down approach to a bottom-up approach,” Molanphy said. “Radio now follows what the consumer does.”
By adding streaming to calculations, the Billboard charts also made a crucial shift from sales-based to consumption-based. “In the old system, all they captured was the moment you went into the store and purchased the [CD],” Molanphy said. “[They] weren’t capturing whether you took it home and played it 100 times. Now, we have a metric for consumption.”
Still, radio play isn’t yet obsolete. Molanphy argued that the charts should measure both what proactive fans are seeking out through streaming as well as what passive fans listen to casually on the radio. “I want to know, even if it’s Maroon 5 for the 18th time,” he joked, adding that the yearly “Song of the Summer” is more often than not also a song that’s ubiquitous on the radio.
Panelists also discussed what several called the “wild west” of chart rankings: Merchandise bundles, whereby artists bundle T-shirts, posters and other goodies with digital album downloads to drive first-week sales. Artists who bundle can reap huge rewards: Tyler, the Creator, for example, edged out DJ Khaled to earn his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in May with his IGOR album, in a race that saw a significant number and variety of merch bundles on both sides. But it’s a murky realm and it doesn’t always pay off for artists. That same week, some sales of DJ Khaled’s Father of Asahd album bundle deal with an energy drink brand ultimately did not count toward the producer’s chart standing (it debuted at No. 2).
Panelists agreed that merchandise bundles aren’t inherently bad, as long as there are rules in place for what counts toward the charts, and what doesn’t. Plus, “the intent of the sale has to be clear to the consumer — that they’re paying additional for the music,” said Blackwell, whose music analytics service AlphaData (formerly BuzzAngle) powers the new Rolling Stone charts. (Blackwell previously worked for Billboard.)
And there are still forms of listening that the charts can’t parse. As Blackwell noted, if a band’s new album reaches No. 1 on the Billboard 200, is that because every die-hard fan of that band bought the album, or because the album is the most popular across America? And does it matter? Perhaps technically, he went on, if a film with a score composed by Hans Zimmer becomes a box office smash on opening weekend, “At that moment in time, Hans Zimmer is the most popular artist in America.”
Amid all these considerations, panelists agreed that the charts must continue to evolve. But they also said the rankings will likely never lose their influence — for artists, music industry folk, or fans.
“Stans always want to say, ‘my favorite is No. 1,'” McIntyre said. Added Molanphy: “It’s why DJ Khaled gets angry when something about his merch doesn’t allow Father of Asahd to go No. 1. The bragging rights matter.”