On paper, the Billboard Top 200 charts should be easier to understand than the Hot 100 because it’s simply a record of the most popular album, not an intentionally nebulous formula to craft the most popular song in the country. Well, that’s what one would think… however, the truth is far more convoluted.
Over the last couple of decades, there have been so many articles written
about the death of the album
that it’s almost comical how much existential hand wringing was committed to a rather arbitrary musical form. Musical works pre-dated the album and single binary, so this peculiar hangup on the format speaks more to a clinging nostalgia for a simpler time within the music industry amongst label people, rather than any attachment toward an ideal musical state. (See Billboard’s cover story
on Billie Eilish that frames her as showing that there is still power in the album that was under threat by who exactly??)
In 2019, while traditional album sales continue to sink, the record industry is weirdly obsessed with propping up the idea of the album
. This resulted in some peculiar changes to the Top 200 chart
The Billboard 200 will now include two tiers of on-demand audio streams. TIER 1: paid subscription audio streams (equating 1,250 streams to 1 album unit) and TIER 2: ad-supported audio streams (equating 3,750 streams to 1 album unit)…the Billboard 200 will continue to not incorporate video streams.
The subtext here is similar to the Hot 100 in that people paying into subscriptions is better than people consuming music sandwiched between McDonald’s ads. I wrote last week that subscriptions are a fairly fuzzy metric
with all kinds of loopholes for people to avoid paying the $9.99-month fee. If charts reflected this data properly, it’d probably make negligible changes to charts. But this highlights how streaming services with ad-supported streams would rather eliminate that distinction and I’m not even sure that Billboard
would want to slice between ad-support streams, programmed streams, $9.99 subscriber streams, student-discounted streams, free premium streams, family bundle streams, etc. Billboard
’s charts are for record label lobbies and wannabe data-driven nerds, so maybe it doesn’t require such a level of economic analysis.
Instead, the weird question of the Top 200 is: if no one is buying albums, then what is to be done with the album? Billboard
first addressed this by allowing 10 song downloads from an album to be an album equivalent, then it allowed for 1,500 streams to equal an album stream. (Side note: Music video streams still don’t count towards such a total, which in 2019 doesn’t at all reflect how much people consume music but rather calls back to an idea of music videos being purely advertising…which happily ignores years of the record industry repackaging music videos into VHS and DVD collections.) Those obtuse categorizations are at least within the spirit of “the album”, while what’s really saved the Top 200 is bundling albums with tickets. Prince did this in the early 2000s and the charts negated his effort but now it’s a standard record label trade. It’s taken near absurdist forms by attaching the album into just about any product that can be for sale. That’s how Travis Scott’s Astroworld
found such immense chart success—the single “Sicko Mode” was streamed an absurd amount, but it was a Fortnite-like merch drop campaign
that was designed explicitly to boost album sales.
None of these efforts are done in a manner to preserve “the album”. Rather, it’s a needless competition amongst record labels to see who can out-game the system to say its artist went no. 1 and ride that proclamation into additional press cycles of prestige. I’ll admit I find all of this so inside baseball that I don’t hold a strong grudge against such chicanery. The desire to know the most popular song in the country is a fun pursuit but maybe there are other options than relying on the industry’s biggest trade publication that’ll always privilege what makes money over sheer popularity.