BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 11/19/14
Streaming music services like Spotify have brought big changes to the music industry. But one important part of the business has not kept up: Billboard’s album chart.
Now Billboard and Nielsen SoundScan, the agency that supplies its data, will start adding streams and downloads of tracks to the formula behind the Billboard 200, which, since 1956 has functioned as the music world’s weekly scorecard. It is the biggest change since 1991, when the magazine began using hard sales data from SoundScan, a revolutionary change in a music industry that had long based its charts on highly fudgeable surveys of record stores.
The new chart, covering sales and listening from Monday to Nov. 30, will be revealed on Billboard’s website on Dec. 4 and published in print in its Dec. 13 issue. Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s director of charts, said that by looking at streams as well as sales, the new chart will more accurately reflect how people listen to music these days.
“We were always limited to the initial impulse, when somebody purchased an album,” Mr. Pietroluongo said in an interview. “Now we have the ability to look at that engagement and gauge the popularity of an album over time.”
One expected result is that albums by big pop stars — which tend to open high on the chart and then plunge after just a few weeks — should linger longer in the upper rungs. Ariana Grande’s “My Everything,” for example, which opened at No. 1 in September, was No. 36 on last week’s chart, with 10,000 sales. Under the new formula, it would have been No. 9.
SoundScan and Billboard will count 1,500 song streams from services like Spotify, Beats Music, Rdio, Rhapsody and Google Play as equivalent to an album sale. For the first time, they will also count “track equivalent albums” — a common industry yardstick of 10 downloads of individual tracks — as part of the formula for album rankings on the Billboard 200.
The change is to some degree a sign of a broad reconsideration of media measurement in the digital age, as television studios, magazine publishers and others push companies like Nielsen to account for the changes in how people consume media.
It is also being welcomed by record companies that have been frustrated with the old chart’s blind spots. Daniel Glass, the founder of Glassnote Records, an independent label whose acts include Mumford & Sons and Chvrches, said that Billboard’s charts play a vital role in the industry by demonstrating the success of a new act. These days the fans of those acts may stream more albums than they buy.
“It’s been very difficult over the last two or three years to communicate the charts to radio stations,” Mr. Glass said. “I’ve been Scotch taping and Band-Aiding Shazam and Spotify, bringing in all this data for them. Now with this all-in-one streaming chart, it’s a much truer reflection of how much is being consumed.”
Album sales in the first half of the year declined 15 percent from the same period in 2013, according to SoundScan, as downloads have now joined CDs as a declining sales format. Yet streaming from so-called on-demand services like Spotify — which let people pick exactly what songs to listen to, unlike radio services — was up 42 percent in the same period.
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“Album sales have become a smaller and smaller part of the industry,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “To just look at album sales and say this is how we measure success is really leaving out that half of the business that is coming from streams and song sales.”
With each tweak Billboard makes to its charts, there is often a corresponding uproar. Last year, Billboard began counting YouTube views for the Hot 100, its pop singles chart. Critics worried at the time that the practice would reward novelty viral videos, and indeed the first beneficiary of the change was Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” a song with modest sales but huge exposure through dance-along videos online.
For the most part, the Hot 100 has remained the dominion of the same pop hits that rule radio and download sales, although there have been exceptions. Last year, for example, a popular parody video on YouTube helped Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” return to No. 1 after a nine-week absence.
The change may hurt artists whose albums are not on streaming services, or are mostly consumed through sales. Barbra Streisand’s “Partners,” for example, opened at No. 1 in September, and on last week’s chart it was still at No. 7, with 28,000 sales. But under Billboard’s new chart rules, it would have fallen to No. 13.
Taylor Swift’s “1989,” the biggest hit album of the year, was withheld from Spotify and other streaming outlets, and two weeks ago, it still opened at No. 1 with nearly 1.3 million sales, the biggest weekly total for any album in 12 years. On the latest chart, released by Billboard on Wednesday, “1989” holds at No. 1 for a third week, with 312,000.
“No amount of streaming in the world,” Mr. Bakula said, “could keep Taylor from No. 1.”