The Problem with the Billboard Music Awards

Quick, what was the top song of 2011, according to Billboard? Go on, think back to where you were three years ago now, and what was pumping out of your radio.

Did you say Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”? Good memory—congrats!

Or…sorry, you over there—did you say LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem,” featuring Lauren Bennett and GoonRock? You are also right!

Wait…I said according to Billboard, right? So which is the correct answer? There can be only one, right? Yyyyyeah…about that…

If you’re going to be home Sunday night, you’re confident the DVR is set for Mad Men, and you’re the sort of music geek who enjoys a televised spectacle, I heartily encourage you to tune into the 22nd edition of the Billboard Music Awards. Over the past few years, the BBMAs have emerged as a fairly entertaining pop showcase, at a time of year relatively devoid of awards shows. This year’s edition promises to be reliably starry and slick—with events ranging from a pair of rising pop starlets performing a probable future No. 1 single; to that “Blurred Lines” guy who dominated the radio last summer begging for his estranged wife to come back on live TV.

But if there’s one thing I, as a chart analyst, don’t encourage you to do, it’s pay any attention at all to who wins.

This is not because Billboard’s prizes are based on non–Ernst & Young–worthy voting procedures, or on a shadowy cabal. Indeed, compared with virtually any televised awards show, the BBMAs are determined by rock-solid numbers: the purchases, radio plays and online streams of actual American music fans. The Grammys depend on the inscrutable tastes of the Recording Academy, the MTV Video Music Awards on an opaque combination of MTV producers and web-addled voters. But the BBMAs, admirably, are “voted” on by people who aren’t trying to vote—ordinary music consumers. Billboard uses the same formulas for its awards that it uses to calculate its charts for the weekly magazine; for example, the formula for its televised Top Hot 100 Song prize is the same as the formula for the Hot 100 itself.

The problem isn’t with Billboard’s formula, it’s with Billboard’s calendar. You might think that an awards show crowning the biggest music of the year would define “the year” from January to December, or something close to it. Think again. For the BBMAs, Billboard defines its tracking year as March to February—a quarter-year off from the 12-month period it uses to determine its own year-end charts.

This all might sound like the quibbliest of quibbles. But that three-month temporal skew has a huge impact on who walks away with prizes on the TV show.

Music awards shows are notorious for having odd boundaries for their eligibility years. The Grammy eligibility year runs from October to September, for example; the MTV VMA year, from July to June. But you can forgive an awards show its quirky rules if it follows them consistently—there’s only one Grammy per year for Album of the Year or Record of the Year; only one Video of the Year VMA per year.

What’s crazy-making about Billboard is that it effectively rewards artists, songs and albums twice per year—once in print, once on TV—under two different eligibility periods, and the results often don’t line up. In the three years since the BBMAs returned to television after a four-year hiatus (more on that in a moment), at least one of Billboard’s two marquee prizes—the Hot 100 song of the year or Billboard 200 album of the year—has diverged from the winners the magazine announced in print just months earlier.

In 2010, Billboard, the magazine, named Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” the No. 1 Hot 100 song of the year; the following May, live on TV, the Billboard Music Awards named Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” the Top Hot 100 Song. For 2011, the magazine named Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” the year’s top song; five months later, the TV show named LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” the top song. (Hence my trick question at the top of this article.) And for 2012, Billboard magazine named Adele’s 21 the year’s top album; five months later, the BBMA show gave the prize to Taylor Swift’s Red.

Imagine if the Baseball Hall of Fame announced one set of inductees in a news release and then—months later, when everybody showed up at Cooperstown for the in-person ceremony—swapped a few of the Hall of Famers it just announced for some other dudes. This is basically what Billboard now does every year. This prompts two questions: Why Billboard does this, and why a three-month skew has such an outsize impact on the final result.

The reason Billboard uses a different eligibility year for its televised awards has more to do with television than music. The Billboard Music Awards launched on TV in the early ’90s and aired for roughly a decade and a half on the Fox network, in December. That time of year made a lot of sense in terms of music-tabulating—every December Billboard closes its chart year, tallies the year’s top music and publishes its big year-end issue—but it wasn’t great for television. December is a spotty month for TV ratings, pockmarked with holiday specials and lower viewership by distracted shoppers; and the winter is already lousy with movie– and music-themed awards shows. After the 2006 BBMAs, Fox quietly allowed the show to go dormant, likely prompted by erratic ratings (and, possibly, the overhang from an FCC lawsuit over BBMA attendees with potty mouths at the podium). The BBMAs stayed off the air for four years.

In 2011, ABC contracted with Billboard to revive the BBMAs, for one main reason: to fill a gap for live awards shows in the spring. They settled on May, a sweeps month largely devoid of glittery TV events. It was at this point that Billboard chose a new eligibility year for the awards, running from the first week of the prior March until the last week of the subsequent February.

This eligibility year skews the music that’s eligible for prizes, leaning toward albums and singles that came out a bit closer to the show’s airdate, not the ones crowned in the magazine the previous December. For example, when the 2012 show aired, the late 2011 albums Take Care by Drake and Christmas by Michael Bublé were both up for Billboard 200 Album of the Year, despite having come out barely half a year before the telecast. Neither album placed high in the magazine’s year-end 2011 albums list.

So why does moving the end of the yearly chart window just three months bollix the year-end results so much? The key word is in the previous paragraph, thanks to Mr. Bublé: Christmas. Where the holidays fall has a huge impact on what Billboard crowns as its song and album of the year.

For decades, Billboard has defined its “chart year” in the magazine as December to November. The reason they don’t use a straight January-to-December calendar year is a relic of the dead-tree economy, publication schedule: The magazine’s big year-end double issue comes out a couple of weeks before Christmas, and so Billboard has to close the books around December 1 to get the issue out.

This one-month temporal skew, which have I long called the “Last Christmas effect,” is annoying enough for chart nerds. It gives a huge leg up to songs and albums that peaked the previous holiday season. So we often wind up with Hot 100 songs of the year that are more than 12 months old, like Whitney Houston’s 1992 smash “I Will Always Love You,” Billboard’s top song of 1993; or Nickelback’s 2001 smash “How You Remind Me,” the top song of 2002. Still, given Billboard’s understandable desire to close out its year-end charts before Santa comes down the chimney—a phenomenon that hasn’t gone away, even in the digital era—this one-month skew is something chart geeks live with, and it’s been with us since the days of the Archies.*

The Last Christmas effect is still having a decisive impact on the year-end charts. This past December, Billboard named the late-2012 hit “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis the top song of 2013. This despite the fact that “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, the year’s No. 2 single, outsold the Macklemore track in calendar 2013 by about 350,000 copies and scored record radio airplay. What gave Macklemore and Lewis the edge at year’s end were the sales and airplay it was piling up in December 2012; that activity counted for 2013, under Billboard’s December-to-November formula. Tough break for Thicke. But in terms of legacy and the official record books, “Thrift Shop” is 2013’s top hit—Billboard said so.

Except they won’t be saying so on the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, when the statue for Top Hot 100 Song of the year is presented—“Thrift Shop” isn’t even one of the five nominees. The five eligible songs are Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive,” Lorde’s “Royals” and Katy Perry’s “Roar.” (Thicke’s track is a favorite to take home the statue—talk about karmic revenge!—but the Dragons have a strong shot as well, having recently set a Hot 100 longevity record.)

No matter who takes home the statue, the Macklemore song stands literally no chance of repeating its status as 2013’s top song—a designation Billboard made in its pages just five months ago. It’s not hard to figure out how “Thrift Shop” got dropped from the running—the BBMAs’ March-to-February timeframe is the culprit. By March 1 of last year, “Thrift Shop” had spent all but two of its six weeks at No. 1 already, and it had been purchased 4 million times, out of its ultimate 7 million–plus in online sales; none of that early 4 million counts for the BBMAs’ 2013 tally.

Given how over-rewarded Macklemore and Lewis have been over the past year, it’s hard to feel aggrieved for them not getting another tchotchke this weekend. More seriously, while it’s understandable that Billboard doesn’t want to give out prizes each May to songs that are up to a year and a half old, I fail to see how giving prizes to songs as overplayed as “Blurred Lines” or the positively ancient “Radioactive” improves the situation—in all cases, the pop fan watching the telecast is likely to say, “Oh, that old thing?”

Perhaps suspense is a factor—if the Top Hot 100 Song of the year is previewed in a magazine in December, its win will no longer be news in May. But every other music awards show on television, including the Grammys and the VMAs, have come to treat the prize-giving as a sideshow to the performances—the real gooser of TV ratings. The suspense over the winners is minimal to all but the geekiest among us. Why not be accurate and consistent, for those of us who care?

I’m sure Macklemore is fine not taking home more hardware this weekend. The biggest losers in all this are we chart historians, the folks who regard Billboard as our Cooperstown. It’s annoying that the magazine is confusing the public and diluting the record books, and grating for those of us who want the question, “What was the top song of 2013, according to Billboard?” to have only one answer.

*Don’t even get me started on another layer of chart-year confusion caused by Nielsen Soundscan. Since its sales-tracking technology launched in 1991, it has become possible to get a precise, January 1–December 31 ranking of the top-selling albums of the year—a list Nielsen reports every January, separately from Billboard, that differs from the Top Billboard 200 Albums list published in December. In the 23 years since the accurate sales technology debuted, the No. 1 SoundScan album of the year (measuring from January to December) has differed from the top Billboard album of the year (measuring from December to November) a total of nine times, or almost 40% of the time. Many chart analysts now use SoundScan’s data, not Billboard’s, when referring to the last two decades of top-selling albums. (So when you’re discussing, say, 2005, there is a discrepancy between Billboard’s top album, which was 50 Cent’s The Massacre, and SoundScan’s, which was Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi—Christmas sales boosted her that year.) This is what made the BBMAs’ March-to-February calendar even more infuriating for chart analysts when it materialized in 2011—it’s actually yet a third set of data. It hasn’t happened yet in the three years since Billboard brought back the televised awards, but it is easy to envision a scenario where one year Billboard magazine, Soundscan and the Billboard Music Awards will each name a different album of the year. Repeat after me, fellow geeks: ARGH.

Content retrieved from: https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/347-the-problem-with-the-billboard-music-awards/.