All that fanfare, and Taylor Swift is still No. 1?!
That’s an understandable reaction to the new Billboard 200 album chart, the first under the new Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan rules that now count streaming and digital tracks alongside traditional album sales. When Billboard announced the changes a couple of weeks ago, the magazine billed them as the flagship album chart’s “biggest upgrade in more than 23 years, transforming from a pure sales-based ranking to one measuring multi-metric consumption.”
In particular, the chart’s new streaming rule is mostly driven by Spotify—a service that Swift is quite famously boycotting. And yet, ironically, her 1989 album spends its fourth week atop the chart. So much for the overhaul, right? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
Not really—it’s best to judge chart changes like this by what’s below the No. 1 spot. After all, 23 years ago, when the album chart underwent its biggest change ever as Billboard incorporated SoundScan data for the first time, the new No. 1 album that week was by…um, Michael Bolton. That didn’t feel much like a revolution, either.
Any change this significant is going to produce winners and losers. When the SoundScan Era began in 1991, famously, country music and hip-hop were given a huge boost. The very first week the chart was transformed in May ’91, the New Jack City soundtrack reached a new No. 2 peak, and current albums by Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton leapt a dozen or more spots. Before the year was out, N.W.A and Brooks both scored their first No. 1 albums (in Garth’s case, the first of many).
What’s less talked about now are the album-chart losers from 1991, acts that were shoved out of the way on the new, more data-accurate chart. Stalwart rockers fared particularly badly that week in May ’91: Sting’s The Soul Cages, hanging around the Top 30 since its winter ’91 release, tumbled out of the Top 50 and never came back. So did the Rolling Stones’ then-current live album Flashback. Newer hard-rock acts didn’t do much better: Great White’s Hooked fell out of the Top 40 (and this was a half-year before Nevermind harpooned hair-metal). Even current rock that sounded old took it on the chin: Lenny Kravitz’s Mama Said plummeted 43 spots to No. 90. Basically, any album likely to have been given an artificial boost by store-manager dudes who looked like these guys took a hit.
Nearly a quarter-century later, we have a new album chart formula and a corresponding set of new winners and losers—although the effects are subtler this time. When I spoke to Billboard and Nielsen in late November, they told me the new changes would be less dramatic than in 1991. That’s basically because the chart isn’t switching methodologies entirely, as it did back then (from a manual system of polling retailers by phone, to a computerized system based on scanned barcodes).
By contrast, this week’s changes feel more like new ingredients mixed into Classic Coke. In sum, the chart is adding streamed tracks from on-demand services like Spotify and Beats (1,500 streams equals one album sale), and purchased tracks from services like iTunes (10 track purchases equals a sale). But these metrics are being added to a Billboard 200 formula that’s still fundamentally weighted toward traditional album sales, which explains why tonnage-shifter Taylor is still tops.
Actually, the similarities go beyond Swift. If you compare the new Billboard 200 with the old pure-sales methodology, which Billboard has helpfully kept intact and renamed Top Album Sales, you see very little change at the top; the top six spots of both lists are the same. Here’s what the Top 10 of each chart looks like this week—the new formula on the left, and the old pure-sales formula on the right:
However, look more closely at a couple of those top-ranked albums—streaming and tracks really provide a wallop. No. 5–ranked Sam Smith leaps from 97,000 pure sales to 123,000 in sales-plus-equivalents, a 27% boost. Smith is currently riding a couple of big radio hits, his current smash “I’m Not the Only One” and last summer’s still-lingering “Stay with Me”. Those two hits, plus his smaller album cuts, generated more than 10 million streams and nearly 200,000 tracks sales for the week; divide the former number by 1,500 and the latter by 10, and that’s 26,000 units added to Smith’s total. Another act getting a huge percentage boost is boy band One Direction, whose No. 4–ranked album jumps 20,000 units when streams and tracks are factored in, a 19% boost; they, too, are riding multiple hits. Even Taylor, whose 281,000 in pure sales is more than enough to make her tops for the week, gets a 21% boost from the new formula. Since she’s off Spotify, the overwhelming bulk of that boost comes from track sales of her hits, including the current No. 1 song in America. For comparison, I’ve provided each album’s total sales. Actually, “sales” is a misnomer for the chart on the left: The new Billboard 200 now measures something called “album-equivalent units,” adding up pure sales with streams and downloads as described above—the former divided by 1,500, the latter by 10. As you see, from Rick Ross at No. 6 to Taylor Swift at No. 1, streams and tracks add anywhere from 5,000 to 58,000 “units” to these albums’ totals, but their rankings stay the same.
And these are the albums whose positions aren’t changed by the new Billboard formula. Right below them are two albums, by Ariana Grande and Beyoncé, that wouldn’t be in the Top 10 right now if not for the new math. Streams and tracks boost Grande’s album by a big 55% and put her back in the Top 10 (at No. 7) for the first time in three months; under the old formula, she ranks 16th. As for Queen Bey, her new More Only EP (part of the special “Platinum Edition” rerelease of her blockbuster Beyoncé album) ranks 17th under the old formula, but streaming and tracks provide a huge 65% boost and push her into the Top 10, right behind Grande.
You can find even more remarkable new-formula winners if you venture below the Top 40. Unsurprisingly, electronic artists, whose streaming and download numbers are perennially stronger than their album sales, show major improvements. If you’ve been wondering when EDM was going to make a serious commercial impact as an album medium, the turnaround may be at hand—even if it’s a mirage, as the acts are getting artificial boosts from their single hits.
For instance, Calvin Harris—the Scottish producer’s album Motion debuted in the Top Five a month ago from traditional album sales, but then he plummeted as low as No. 108. He’s now back up to No. 79, but with his anemic album sales of under 4,000, under the old formula he’d have fallen off the Billboard 200 entirely this week. What keeps Harris afloat is his more than 5 million streams; combine that with track downloads of 55,000 (mostly his current, John Newman–fronted radio hit “Blame”), and the album equivalents give him a nearly 9,000-unit boost, more than double his old-school album total. At least Harris has some album sales—consider Robin Schulz, the German deejay/producer behind the smash remix of Mr. Probz’s song “Waves”. Schulz’s album Prayer debuts on the Billboard 200 at No. 74, but again, he wouldn’t be on the chart at all without streaming and tracks; Prayer sold less than 1,000 copies as an album. Throw in some 3.9 million streams, however, and nearly 100,000 track downloads, and Schulz’s disc gets a 12,000 unit boost—a 1-to-12 ratio of album sales to digital tracks.
So who loses under this new methodology? Unlike the 1991 formula, which seemed to torpedo rock acts like a guitar-seeking missile, no particular genre takes an outsize hit. The effect of the new formula is pretty much a wash for rock acts, who generate solid streaming traffic and decent, if unspectacular, track downloads. For example, Arctic Monkeys’ year-old album AM ranks at No. 75 on the new Billboard 200, and it would have ranked at No. 76 under the old formula. Foo Fighters’ latest, Sonic Highways, winds up at No. 16 on the big chart, No. 15 on the old-school. No news is good news for rock combos this time.
Rather, the new formula is kind of ageist—as predicted, older artists, who are unlikely to generate Spotify or iTunes traffic, see the biggest negative impact. That includes the country superstar who got the biggest boost from SoundScan in 1991, Garth Brooks, who refuses to play ball with either streaming or download services (that he can’t control). Hence his current album Man Against Machine is evicted from the Top 10 by the new math—it’s No. 11 on the official Billboard 200 but would have ranked No. 9 under the old formula (a small difference in chart position but a big difference in status). It’s a similar situation for Barbra Streisand, whose Partners falls out of the Top 20 (new formula No. 25, old formula No. 19); it’s been a strong seller since its September release and is available on digital services, but it’s generating little activity there. As you get further down the chart, the differences between old-formula and new-formula ranks get more stark: Neil Diamond’s Melody Road lands at No. 87 on the official Billboard 200 but ranks No. 66 under the old formula. According to SoundScan, Neil’s total this week includes streaming- and track-equivalent-albums totaling 31 units—that’s 31, not 31,000, and not a typo. Older artists with a good hustle will likely still have big opening weeks—they just won’t linger on the Billboard 200’s upper reaches very long.
So what are we to make of all this mathematical manipulation? The new album chart is designed to make the music industry happy, by reflecting where their revenue’s coming from. But with its multiplication of single tracks—as if 10 downloads or 1,500 streams of “Waves” equals a Robin Schulz album—does it muddy the status of what a “hit album” means?
The short answer is yeah, sure—but album sales have been driven by hit singles and bonus tracks for years. For some time now, albums have been less like indivisible works and more like projects—the hip-hop album that spawns a year’s worth of extra tracks, the electronic album that’s remixed. Artists themselves started pulling albums apart some time ago.
Besides, if we’re talking scale, other album-sales factors have arguably gotten more hype than they deserved. Like vinyl: For years now, much has been made about the comeback of vinyl as an X-factor helping to boost album sales and keep the music business afloat. But look at the numbers—to date, in the SoundScan era, no vinyl album has sold more copies in a week than Jack White’s latest, Lazaretto—six months ago it made headlines by setting a record for most vinyl copies sold in a week, shifting 40,000 copies on wax in its debut. (Most weeks, the top-selling LP might sell one-fifth or even one-tenth that number; so White’s vinyl total was massive.) Hungrily snapped up by thousands of rock fans enticed by the disc’s clever gimmicks like a playable label and a backward groove, Jack’s platter wound up doing 29% of the album’s 138,000 first-week sales. Vinyl was a sizable X-factor boosting White’s numbers.
But you want to talk X-factors? Using Billboard’s new math, in its fifth chart week, Taylor Swift’s 1989 sold 58,000 album-equivalents (and that was without Spotify). Her X-factor dwarfed Jack’s X-factor—and Swift’s album wasn’t even released on vinyl until this week. Another 17 albums on this week’s chart got a five-figure boost from digital album-equivalents—in the ballpark of Jack’s gimmicky LP.
So go ahead and look askance at Ariana Grande’s Top 10 placement this week with My Everything. That chart rank indeed reflects a whole lot of Everything: 47,000 people who bought the album, 194,000 who bought songs from it and 9.2 million people who streamed parts of it (total “album-equivalent units”: 72,000). That might not be a hit album the way we once knew it. But it represents engagement with the totality of the My Everything project, no less than the 40,000 last June who wanted to own—and the smaller number of people who actually played—Jack White’s runout groove.