Why Charts Matter, and What It Means When Drake Dominates Them.December 10, 2018
“The latest edition of the Hot 100 is overrun by Drake: Thanks to a bonanza of streaming, the star has 27 different songs on the chart. His streamers are impressively committed, fervent enough in their fandom that Drake single-handedly accounts for more than 50 percent of the Top 40. It’s a display of commercial dominance so emphatic, it’s almost cruel.
But Drake’s record-breaking feat forces a question: How do we track music consumption in the streaming era? The Hot 100 promises to capture “the week’s most popular current songs across all genres,” but “all” has shrunk to one – Drake. If the goal of a chart is strictly to reflect what’s popular, the fact that a single artist accounts for half of the Top 40 makes sense. But if a chart like the Hot 100 has other functions, like boosting young artists and promoting diverse listening habits, simply counting up Scorpion‘s streams and calling it a day prevents it from achieving them.
“If the chart is supposed to reflect reality, this is reality,” says Randall Grass, GM and A&R for long-running indie label Shanachie Entertainment. “But it’s a symptom of the rich getting richer. It is a push towards a monoculture. That’s not healthy for music, and it leaves less room for artists of all types.”
There is a common perception that charts like the Hot 100 – which measures total consumption by tallying streaming activity, traditional sales and airplay – don’t matter. “To think that a chart is going to affect a customer, except if you’re Number One, is pretty naive,” Apple Music’s Jimmy Iovine told Rolling Stone last year.
“For a younger artist who’s developing, it can be career-changing to get on the chart early on” – Matt McNeal, Dreamville Records
Let’s dispense with that notion quickly. Charts are important – whether or not artists want them to be or casual listeners even bother to view them. Most “customers” don’t invest much time in hunting for music; songs are filtered for them ahead of time by an assortment of gatekeepers at labels, radio, streaming services, TV shows and movie studios. And in the streaming age, with far more music available than anyone could consume, those gatekeepers are more dependent on ways of aggregating popularity information – i.e., charts – than ever.
Take the A&Rs who sign artists to major labels, impacting the direction of popular music for the next decade. “Nowadays, A&Rs wake up every morning and check their Shazams to see what’s trending,” says Julian Jones-Griffith, who’s been managing dancehall singers for over two decades. “When they see something trending, everyone’s trying to sign the record – they don’t have a clue about the artist or how to market it. They’re just working off analytics.”
A similar dynamic plays out with the Hot 100, which reaches far more gatekeepers than Shazam’s rankings. “Once you have that [chart spot], you’re going to get more radio shows, more TV bookings,” says Matt McNeal, who does A&R for J. Cole’s Dreamville Records in addition to managing rappers and producers. “Your song may get synced and licensed for shows and movies; it may go viral in the way that Ella Mai has with all these remixes of ‘Boo’d Up’ being done. For a younger, developing artist, it can be career-changing to get on the chart early on.” “Boo’d Up” was released in February 2017, yet it did not start getting remixes until it reached the charts this spring.
Charting can have other ripple effects as well. “Where [getting on the Hot 100] opens up doors is when trying to get gigs, trying to get some press – it’s an extra hook that gets people interested,” adds Kevin Breuner, VP of Marketing for CD Baby, which bills itself as “the largest global digital distributor of independent music.” “[Charting] is a filter that people use in order to say, ‘this is something I should pay attention to more.’”
So when Drake takes up more than a quarter of the Hot 100, these opportunities likely shrink for other artists. But he’s not the first act to commandeer a major chunk of real estate at the top of the charts. “The funny part is, it’s kind of always been that way,” says Theron Thomas, who has produced for Rihanna and Beyoncé as one half of the duo R. City. The Beatles famously hijacked half of the Top Ten in 1964. If artists released music the way they do now back in the 1980s, acts like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Michael Jackson would probably have matched the Beatles’ total – Janet scored seven separate Top 5 hits off Rhythm Nation 1814, an accomplishment that remains unequaled.
But Janet Jackson achieved that between October 1989 and January 1991; in the 1980s, artists tended to milk each single. And when stars released albums, deep cuts were not counted on the Hot 100 – it was truly a singles chart, meaning that the songs that appeared on it were released and promoted individually. That began to change when iTunes came along and popularized the lone download, meaning that that any song could effectively serve as a single.
Now, in turn, streaming has come to drive music industry revenue and govern the Billboard charts. Prior to the rise of streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, the important thing was to buy an album or download a song; what you did with it afterwards did not matter – even if you took it out of the store and threw it directly in the garbage. For the first time, the amount listeners actually listen to a given track has become crucial. “In the streaming environment, you reflect the consumption of album tracks in the singles chart,” says Martin Talbot, CEO of the Official Charts Company, which administers the charts in the U.K. and Ireland. As a result, the every-song-is-a-potential-single mentality has gone into overdrive.
The poster boy for this moment is Drake: Scorpion was collectively streamed 746 million times in the U.S., and every one of its 25 songs appeared on the Hot 100. But Drake is not the only artist capable of an onslaught of this magnitude. The Weeknd and Post Malone have charted 18 tracks at once, Justin Bieber 17, Ed Sheeran 14 and Beyoncé 12.
“What we’re now finding [in the streaming era] is that a pure reflection of consumption does not surface new music as effectively as it used to” – Martin Talbot, Official Charts Company
In 2017, fearing that this class of uber-artists was beginning to take up so much oxygen that it was suffocating up-and-comers, the U.K. decided to cap every act’s number of charting singles at three. “The whole reason for doing this is to maximize plurality on the singles chart,” Talbot says. “For many years, a reflection of pure sales also served as an effective means of surfacing new music and new artists. What we’re now finding [in the streaming era] is that a pure reflection of consumption does not surface new music as effectively as it used to. That’s why we adjusted the methodology: to maximize the potential to support new music. Plurality is really important. This is the people’s chart. It needs to reflect a broad range of artists.”
It’s a bold attempt to solve a complex problem, and it fits with the U.K.’s long history of promoting musical diversity in the mainstream (you hear acts on radio that would never surface on U.S. airwaves). However, Talbot is quick to point out that this tactic may not work in the U.S.: “What might be the right solution in one market is not always the right solution in another market.”
In the U.K., music business institutions may value plurality, but in the U.S., they have long seemed more comfortable with a pop oligopoly, where a few stars battle for market control. “Is [putting so many tracks in the Hot 100 at once] unfair?” R. City’s Thomas asks. “A little bit. But [limiting the number of singles on the chart] is terrible. That’s like telling a motherfucker he can only win gold medals in up to three things at the Olympics – nah.”
“If there aren’t as many ways that unexpected things can [chart], the culture will be poorer,” Randall Grass, Shanachie Entertainment
Boi-1da, one of Drake’s go-to producers, offered a similar assessment to Rolling Stone in February – a version of, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” “If 16 Ed Sheeran songs are going crazy and people are loving ’em, it should be what it is,” the producer said. “It’s not Ed Sheeran’s fault that everybody loves Ed Sheeran.”
Another concern about capping charting singles in the U.S. is that it does not reflect the way radio operates. (Airplay does not factor into the U.K. singles chart.) “I’m OK with [a cap rule] if you’re telling me that the radio is only gonna play the three official singles,” Dreamville’s McNeal says. “But that’s not how radio is even working here these days.”
Case in point: Drake’s label tried to push “Free Smoke” as the single from 2017’s More Life, but many radio programmers rebuffed them, settling instead on “Passionfruit.” According to data from Mediabase, which tracks airwave spins in the U.S., five new songs from Scorpion earned the coveted “most added” distinction on mainstream R&B/hip-hop radio stations last week (“In My Feelings,” “Nonstop,” “Talk Up,” “Mob Ties” and “Don’t Matter to Me”). In New York, the radio station Hot 97 also tested the Scorpion cuts “8 out of 10,” “Blue Tint,” “Survival” and “Sandra’s Rose.” For good measure, rival Power 105 tried out “Can’t Take a Joke,” “Elevate,” “Emotionless” and “March 14.”
This makes a three-song cap stateside seem like a harmful constraint. Still, the ability of one artist to hijack the chart the way Drake has – and other artists will – remains a cause for concern. “Where do new things come from?” Shanachie’s Grass asks. “Unexpected places. If there aren’t as many ways that unexpected things can come, the culture will be poorer.”
Maybe that’s why McNeal chooses to focus on the flip side of Drake’s dominance: If streaming allows a few supremely dominant acts to conquer even more space on the charts, it’s also caused labels to invest heavily in new rappers and R&B singers, hoping that one day the youngsters will wield Drake’s influence. “[Ella Mai] is a person who didn’t have a hit last year that has a hit right now,” McNeal says. “We all need the one [hit]. And we’re in a day and age where everyone can get one.”