Billboard and Nielsen announced this week that YouTube views will now be factored into their formula determining the ranking of the Hot 100 singles chart. The impact on the chart was immediate, with Baauer’s song “Harlem Shake” debuting on the chart at No. 1 after appearing in thousands of viral videos. This change is both radical and sensible, given that YouTube has become by far the dominant mode of music consumption in recent years, with views far surpassing sales, and in most cases, radio airplay. But it’s going to change the Hot 100 significantly, in ways that are both awesome and potentially awful.
1. It Balances Out The Corporate Influence On Radio
Up until recently, the charts were fairly predictable and stagnant, with only artists with the greatest amount of money and promotional muscle behind them rising to the top. Radio airplay, a chief component of Billboard’s formula, is very difficult to crack without a huge amount of promo money, and even if you gain some leverage there, songs can get sunk based on the findings of radio research firms who help stations develop strategies to keep listeners from turning the dial. Billboard has been steadily adjusting their charts over the past two years to reflect major shifts in music consumption – digital sales, on-demand play from services like Spotify – and the result has destabilized chart data in both obvious and subtle ways, with left field artists like Gotye and Macklemore hitting No. 1 and album tracks by Mumford & Sons and Kendrick Lamar crowding out the Hot 100 and genre charts.
2. It Introduces An Element Of Chaos
Bringing YouTube into the equation makes the chart far more chaotic. An artist doesn’t need to be signed to a label or officially release music to be eligible for the chart, though it will be hard to get to the upper reaches without sales, on-demand play, or airplay adding to the overall tally. Artists don’t even need to try for a hit – Baauer and Psy’s songs broke through to the mainstream entirely on the enthusiasm of fans and would not have been pushed to pop radio under normal circumstances. If “Gangnam Style” didn’t break through as a meme, there’s a very good chance that Psy would have never been marketed in the U.S. at all. Both artists essentially won some kind of cosmic pop lottery, and the culture is now primed for this to happen on a regular basis. The Hot 100 can now more accurately reflect this change in culture.
3. Independent Labels Have A Fighting Chance
The two most recent No. 1 singles on the Hot 100, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” are the first songs released by independent labels to hit the top of the chart in two decades. “Thrift Shop” made it to No. 1 without the new rules taking effect, but probably would have hit the top much sooner if they were already in place, since it’s a been a major viral hit on YouTube for months. These are extreme examples, but plenty of indie acts with strong followings and popular videos now have a solid chance at cracking the Hot 100. It’s not a level playing field now, but artists now have the opportunity to break big without having to work with a major label. Think of it as the pop chart equivalent of asymmetrical warfare.
4. Established Stars Get A Boost Too
Though the new rules open the door for total randos to score huge hits with viral videos, they also serve to enhance the chart placement of established artists with large major label budgets. Artists like Justin Bieber, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and One Direction do big business on YouTube, and Drake’s new single “Started at the Bottom” leaped from 63 to 10 on the Hot 100 after the new rules went into effect this week. This rule is nothing but a boon to pop stars who prioritize videos.
5. Big Labels Will Try To Game The System
It seems like a given that corporate labels and marketers will attempt to game the system and manufacture “viral” hits. That’s not impossible, but it’s an uphill battle for sure, especially if this trick is attached to a known artist. Part of what drives viral pop is a sense, at least early on, that everyone who is getting involved is in on a secret, and that they’re taking part in a wave of authentic creativity. “Harlem Shake” is notable in that it’s not about a single video, but thousands of them. Since the new Billboard Hot 100 formula includes user-generated clips that utilize authorized audio, everyone who has made their own “Harlem Shake” video has some stake in the track hitting No. 1 – it’s the first song to ever reach the top of the chart in aggregate.
6. The New System May Be Biased Against Poor And Minority Audiences
Billboard’s embrace of digital sales, on-demand services, and YouTube views over the past seven years has coincided with a shift on the charts away from rap and R&B. To some extent this could just be a matter of a change in zeitgeist, but the shift in favor of pop, alternative music, and viral hits suggests that the new emphasis on digital media privileges the tastes of relatively affluent white listeners who are more likely to buy mp3s from the iTunes store or spend a lot of time online. Rap critics have been particularly sore about these changes, especially as viral artists like Baauer and Psy, who are inspired by hip-hop but do not come directly from hip-hop culture - displace traditional rap artists, even on Billboard’s hip-hop charts. There’s a legitimate fear that black culture is being slowly marginalized in the mainstream charts, and replaced by rap and R&B-influenced music made by outsiders that is more palatable to a broad audience.
7. Viral Songs May Warp The Intention Of The Chart
Part of the appeal of having a Hot 100 in the first place is that it’s a useful way of gauging the actual popularity of music from week to week. YouTube data threatens to warp this by favoring a lot of songs that are arguably just the soundtrack to a visual meme, like “Harlem Shake,” or spread because the public at large actually hated the song and wanted to make fun of it, like with Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Both of these songs have sold very, very well at digital retail, so it’s not as if people did not have an actual interest in the music, but the dynamic of this is a lot more complicated than, say, someone just earnestly loving a Rihanna song that gets played on the radio all the time. But then again, the public value of the chart and the actual utility of it are somewhat different things – Billboard is, after all, a trade publication and YouTube revenue has become a crucial aspect of the music business. They need to include this data in order to present an accurate picture of the most successful songs of the moment.