Since the mid 1950s, Billboard has been providing a weekly tally of the top 100 pop singles in the United States. Over the years, the chart has undergone name changes, used various methods of data collection and adjusted the criteria used to formulate this list when needed—all in a bid to stay relevant and be the most reflective of the state of music consumption across the United States at any given time.
For the most part, this has worked. And throughout all these changes, the charts did manage to stay more or less relevant. They could still be used as bars of reasonable comparison across the years, even when marketing trends affected chart trends (for example, the very quick turnover of hit singles at retail and radio during the 50s and 60s, compared to the longer, more natural chart runs of the hits of the 90s and 00s).
Then along came iTunes, YouTube, and music streaming services, and in its frenzied attempt to accurately reflect how music is being consumed in the digital era, Billboard dropped the ball. Not because they drastically changed the criteria for ranking the top 100 songs (they had to do something) but because after they made such drastic changes, they still maintained that the new-methodology-based Hot 100 chart could still be used as a bar of comparison for all previous eras of the Hot 100 (which it cannot).
To explain, for decades the Billboard Hot 100 singles were calculated based on a combination of radio airplay and sales figures. So essentially, only songs that were being promoted as singles to radio or at retail could chart. Then, the business model introduced via iTunes, where consumers could purchase any individual tracks from an album that they wanted (and not just the tracks being promoted as singles), increased the potential for tracks that were not and were never meant to be singles to make the Hot 100. And now, Billboard factors in free streaming and subscription-based streaming data along with the airplay and sales figures.
And what this has resulted in are situations like what happened on May 12 when Post Malone had all 18 tracks of his latest album beerbongs & bentleys chart on the Hot 100. A seemingly unheard of feat in the history of the Hot 100, it’s one that has now already happened to multiple artists in recent years. But that’s not the most troublesome part. That would be the part where Billboard then touted this feat as “breaking the Beatles’ record for most simultaneous singles in the top 20” (which was “6”, a record that had, in fact, held for 50+ years, until it was “matched” just a week prior to Post Malone, by J. Cole, who had just released HIS latest album that saw a bunch of his tracks all land on the Hot 100 as well).
I mean, COME ON, Billboard. The Beatles accomplished their feat with 6 individual singles that were pressed and issued individually, bought by consumers AND received radio airplay. And you’re trying to say that a bunch of album tracks downloaded and streamed by J. Cole and Post Malone fans, using a content and delivery system that didn’t even exist over a decade ago) be used as a proper comparison. No. A Hot 100 ranking used to mean the average music listener would be more familiar with a song the higher in the charts it was placed. Not so much anymore.
It’s one thing to try and make the charts relevant to today’s manner of music consumption, it’s another to try and do so while maintaining that the chart feats of today are still comparable to those of the past.
Sure, it’s a great way to drive site traffic and page clicks by announcing what latest long-standing record has just been broken, but it’s not an honest comparison, it minimizes the feats of the artists who established the chart records in the first place and it exaggerates the relevance of the newer artists.
The solution though, is simple. Billboard needs to bite the bullet and “retire” the pre-download/streaming era of the Hot 100, and establish that this is now a new chart era and begin referring to any record-breaking chart feats with an asterisk indicating as such (I would actually go so far as to relegating tracks that were not being promoted as singles to a “Top Downloaded Album Tracks” chart, keeping them off the Hot 100 completely, but I’m sure that would cause a whole mess of other problems). It will mean there will be less attention-grabbing, click-baity headlines, but on the upside, it might just restore some integrity back to the charts.