Most Popular Music? Nobody Knows!

We used to know what music was the most popular.  It was easy.  The most popular singles and albums were simply the ones that sold the most copies.  That’s not the way it is anymore.

The time of selling albums and singles is fading fast.  In fact, for years Billboard Magazine, and other companies that measure the popularity of music, have been messing with the formula to figure out what music is most popular.  They’ve used various percentages of physical sales, downloads, radio airplay, and streaming, but in reality, it’s impossible…and has been for decades.

Album sales (both physical and downloads) have dwindled drastically since their peak in the ’70’s and ’80’s.  It used to be a #1 debut album would sell a million copies the first week.  These days an album can be #1 by selling 75,000 or fewer.

Sheryl Crow announced yesterday that she has recorded her final album, and will only be recording singles from time to time.  Most other artists are releasing singles or EP’s, (Extended Play singles) which normally contain about 4 songs.  Update:  (2024)  Established artists are still recording albums (even Sheryl Crow changed her mind), but streaming is much more popular than the sale of physical vinyl or CD’s.

There was a news story recently that Apple would stop selling albums.  That’s not true.  In reality, they are going to stop selling the “iTunes Albums” that included extra content provided by the labels.  They plan to continue selling whatever albums, EP’s, and singles artists release.  But…the overriding aspect of today’s music consumption is that people are switching to streaming services, rather than buying songs.  It makes sense.  You can have access to 70-million songs for $10 a month or so.  Of course you can only listen to one song at a time, and you might only like a relatively small portion of what’s available.  Still, for most people, it’s more practical to stream than to buy.

So, why don’t we just count the number of times a song is streamed to determine what’s most popular?

First of all, a large portion of consumers have not yet subscribed to streaming services.  Secondly, just because a song is streamed doesn’t mean someone actually requested it.  Listeners often simply ask their service to play a certain style of music, or they listen to playlists that are made by algorithms or by programmers.  If it’s decided to include a certain song on playlists, that song is going to get more streams.  When a major artist does release an album, It might be that all of the album’s cuts lead streaming as if they had released 17 singles.  That certainly doesn’t mean anyone would have bought all 17 if they really were singles.  It just means that people want to check them out “free” as part of their streaming charge.  The truth is, they might not even like most of the songs.

Just yesterday there was a report that Spotify came up with a big push to help Drake set a new 3-day streaming record, and hoped to force his new album to the top of the Billboard chart.  The ploy included putting Drake on playlists that would not normally include his type of music.  That shows how popularity can be faked.

We also can’t turn to radio airplay to find out which songs and artists are most popular.  There was a news story yesterday that Taylor Swift (the one artist who this year actually sold over a million albums the first week with Reputation) has topped the Adult Pop chart with her song “Delicate”.  The important part of the story is just how small the sample was to make that determination.  The report said Nielsen Music had surveyed 87 Adult Top-40 radio stations to get that result.  Even their regular Pop Chart only surveys 169 stations (to represent the entire U.S.).  The impact of radio airplay is still strong for artists, but it’s dwindling while streaming grows.  It’s also splintered into so many formats, no one really knows which songs are the most popular.  Is an Adult Pop hit more popular than a Country hit, an Adult Contemporary hit, a Mainstream hit, a Pop hit, a Hot Rock hit, or songs on any of Billboard’s 42 American charts?  No one knows!   The measurement methods vary, so they can’t be compared.

The bottom line is that Billboard and other companies have to have something to report, or they go out of business.  So, they all just come up with some formula…hoping to reflect some measure of popularity.  There is simply no way to compare today’s charts with those of the ’50’s, ’60’s, ’70’s, or 80’s, but Billboard pretends they can.  In the ’90’s, we were already having major problems with too many charts and formats to accurately compare back to the era of a few charts and actual sales.  By the ’90’s, the majority of Americans couldn’t tell you what song was considered #1, and quite possibly they hadn’t even heard it.

(From the 1950’s to today…so much changed in how we consume music.)

When you hear about some amazing number of streams, or that so-and-so is the most popular because he has the top 17 songs, or that an artist has almost as many #1’s as The Beatles…you can just smile…and know it’s basically made up.

Update:  And now it’s happened.  Today (7/10/18) it was announced that Drake has broken The Beatles record of 5 songs in the top 10.  Drake had 7, although not the top 5 like The Beatles.  We know Drake didn’t actually break the record, because there’s simply no way to measure the two feats equally.  In fact, if 7 of Drake’s songs are so popular, why is only 1 of those songs in the top 10 purchased songs on iTunes?  No one can say it’s because his fans don’t purchase his songs, because they do…in this case 1.  If streaming had existed in 1967, it’s possible the songs from Sgt. Pepper would have filled all top 10 positions…but, we can never know.  (Update:  Taylor Swift had the entire Top 10 when she released her album Midnights.)

It’s okay for records to be broken, but to be legitimate, there has to be a consistent form of measurement.  Maybe Billboard should just divide what used to be called sales records into two eras…pre-streaming and post-streaming…because there is no way to compare them fairly.

One Reply to “Most Popular Music? Nobody Knows!”

  1. I think artists write songs because they have to. It’s inside and has to come out whether they get famous or not (likely). Recording has become easy and affordable so many tunes come out that haven’t been filtered by opinion. So there are more songs to choose from. Listen to more new music and let your friends know when you find something you like.

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