In pop music, being No. 1 doesn't always mean you're on top.
Earlier this year, the Oregon rock band the Decemberists reached the summit of the Billboard 200 albums chart with "The King Is Dead." By selling a measly 94,000 copies of the album in its first week, the band snatched the top spot from the veteran California band Cake, whose "Showroom of Compassion" had sold an even measlier 44,000 copies the week before.
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If seeing these two bands atop the Billboard 200 gave you the impression that they were the biggest names in music, you got the wrong impression.
In an era of iTunes and Amazon, Spotify and Pandora, album sales don't tell you what they used to. With so many routes to our eardrums, how do we measure the actual popularity of pop music? Various companies are scrambling to figure out.
"Album sales as representative of the success of artists is a failing metric," said Eric Garland, chief executive of Big Champagne, a media marketing company that has aimed to track music's popularity in the digital age for more than a decade. "It no longer adequately explains or offers real insight into the market dynamics."
And those dynamics are still important. Even if albums aren't selling, an artist's popularity can still be monetized. With sponsorship opportunities and licensing deals on the line, managers need to know how much their acts are worth. Concert promoters need to know what venues an artist can fill and how much to charge for tickets. Labels need to know whether the money they've spent on marketing and promotion has been effective.
For the rest of us, the charts mean something else. "A chart provides a venue for fans to talk about who's winning," said Jeff Leeds, editor-in-chief of Buzzmedia Music, which runs a network of music blogs that include Stereogum and Idolator. "It's not that different from the way polls in politics provide a venue for pundits and talking heads to talk about who's winning or losing and why ... But, like a poll, a chart is merely a snapshot, and is only as accurate as the methodology behind it allows."
Last July, Big Champagne launched the Ultimate Chart to track song and artist popularity across an array of platforms. Next Big Sound, a Colorado-based company founded in 2008, ranks popularity in the digital realm with two charts geared toward the industry. We Are Hunted, a website launched in Australia in 2009, aims to measure fan engagement by ranking the 99 most popular songs on Earth based on global impressions online and the "enthusiasm and sentiment" behind them.
The charts are free for all to see, but the data that drive them come at a price. Big Champagne and Next Big Sound sell the data to managers, companies, promoters and record labels.
Rich Westover, vice president for promotion research and information systems at Island/Def Jam records, said he uses Big Champagne's data to see whether the label's artists are resonating with fans across demographic and geographic boundaries.
"When people ask us in a meeting, 'What's going on with these records?' I know that I'm going to be using more of the Ultimate Chart information to really give the most accurate gauge I can give on how these songs and how our artists are performing," said Westover, noting that the data can help land an artist a sponsorship or a TV booking.
Rishi Mirchandani, vice president of marketing and operations at RCA/Jive records, said: "What we're using Next Big Sound to do is to evaluate the growth and the engagement of an artist's online community and fan base ... to really translate those metrics into actually marketing insights that can inform our decision making."
The future of these emerging charts may hinge on whether they can draw a meaningful line between buzz and commerce. "It's really difficult today because there's a significant gap between Internet fame and Internet commercial success," Leeds said. "We're still in pursuit of the perfect chart."
Meanwhile, Billboard isn't ready to cede its dominance. "Billboard is a 116-year-old brand, and we've been innovating for most of that time," said Bill Werde, editorial director at Billboard Magazine. "If you look at what we've charted and how we've charted over the past 50 years, it's a study in the changes that have gone on in the music business."
Historically, Billboard has faced few challengers. Competing trade magazines published charts, but in the '80s they either lost clout or went out of business. Now, as weak album sales bring the Billboard 200 closer to obsolescence, Werde touts the Hot 100 singles chart as Billboard's signature and most enduring chart.
"Singles culture has come and gone and come and gone. And it's come again now," he said of the Hot 100, which ranks the popularity of songs based on sales, radio airplay, and online streams on certain platforms.
Billboard began ranking songs in 1940 and tracking album sales in 1945. Its albums chart was branded the Billboard 200 in 1992 and has since served as the last word on what's popular.
But when Amos Lee -- a singer who straddles folk and jazz -- topped the Billboard 200 in February, the headlines weren't favorable. His "Mission Bell" album moved just 40,000 units, making it the lowest-selling No. 1 album since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales and supplying data to Billboard in 1991.
That same week, Lee was only at No. 6 on Big Champagne's Ultimate Chart, trailing bigger names: Pink, Bruno Mars and Katy Perry. During Cake's stay at the top of the Billboard 200 in January, the group stood at No. 25 on the Ultimate Chart, behind Britney Spears, Eminem, Lil Wayne and the Black Eyed Peas.
The Ultimate Chart tracks how music is shared, streamed and purchased across more than 100 different platforms, with each outlet weighted by its perceived importance. Sales matter the most: Buying a full album on iTunes or in physical form affects the Ultimate Chart much more dramatically than streaming a song on Pandora.
That means the Billboard 200 chart and the Ultimate Chart's artist rankings can sometimes look similar. Beyoncé has topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks this month with the lowest-selling album of her career. But it was still enough for her to top this week's Ultimate Chart, too.
Big Champagne's staff of 25, in Los Angeles and Atlanta, generates revenue through subscriptions and syndication, providing data to industry professionals, trade organizations, radio networks, retailers, online music companies and others.
Garland said one of the chart's goals is to feel authoritative in an popscape overcrowded with charts: College Music Journal, or CMJ, has tracked the most popular acts on college and public radio since 1978; the Hype Machine, a popular MP3 blog aggregator, ranks songs and artists based on blog activity; iTunes offers various sales charts that constantly churn in real time; and Billboard maintains more than 50 individual charts, measuring artists, albums and songs by genre and format.
We Are Hunted's 10-person staff measures the excitement of music fans by tracking "blog posts, news articles, comments, likes, tweets, shouts" and other online activity, general manager Richard Slatter said. The company generates revenue by licensing technology and providing media marketing and development services to companies in Australia and the United States.
Next Big Sound's Social50 chart measures activity across about 10 major social networking sites and tallies a weekly weighted total of plays, views and fan activity. The 10-person staff also produces the NBS25, a chart monitoring which artists are creating the most online activity the fastest.
There's a lot of data out there. Is it possible to forge meaning from it?
"That's what's cleverly referred to as 'analysis paralysis,'" Big Champagne's Garland said. "There's too much data, unless you have good curators who are helping you make sense of the data and make it manageable."