Hit & Myth: What Gaga gaming the system means for chart positions
Determining the impact of streaming, radio play and downloading
By Ken Barnes
Special to MSN Music
Lady Gaga’s crass attempt to rig Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in favor of her new “Applause” single is pretty amusing on its own … merits. Video views now count toward a song’s chart ranking, just like downloads, retail sales (if there are any), radio airplay, streams – they’re probably working on a way to count the number of times you inadvertently whistle the chorus. So Gaga, quite logically, sought to mobilize her devoted fan base by tweeting them a link that would allow them to register 150 views of the video – presumably without actually having to watch it 150 times, which might test the patience of even the most committed Monster.
Anyway, Billboard sternly admonished the singer, claiming her influence ploy would not count toward the chart ranking. But the mini-scandal brings to mind a few issues. One, of course, is that this won’t be the last attempt to cook the books (it certainly wasn’t the first, as the ghosts of various much more serious payola furors remind us) – and with more ways to earn Hot 100 points, there will be more scams to float.
The other main issue is more weighty. When you’re measuring the hits and their relative rankings, what is a video view worth? How do you weight it compared to a stream, or a play on the radio? All those things are cost-free, but a video view comes as the result of a conscious decision to watch. A stream may also come from a conscious decision to hear a song, or it may be a consequence of the way you programmed your Spotify/Rhapsody/Pandora/whatever streaming service you use – which involves varying degrees of decisiveness, depending on how broadly you cast your sonic net.
Hearing a song on the radio is an entirely passive experience – the only decision you made is to listen to the kind of station that’s likely to play a particular song. But a single radio play can reach millions of people, so it should count for a lot more than a video view or song stream, shouldn’t it? But a single play on a station in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, reaches vastly fewer listeners than a play on a New York station that reaches 20 million people. So the size of the potential audience should be taken into account – airplay on major-market stations should count more than plays on stations that reach more cattle than humans. Makes sense, right?
And then consider sales. Buying a song is a voluntary decision to spend money to own it. (You can’t count album purchases when trying to rank an individual song, because there’s no way to tell whether someone bought the album for that particular song, or for another song entirely, or partially for that song.) So, logically, a sale – the most active possible demonstration of liking for a song – should count more than “free” exposure to a song: airplay, streams, video views, etc. (A stream usually has a slight cost attached to it, but subscription fees paid to a streaming service can’t be taken into account for the same reason you can’t use album sales – presumably the subscription was purchased to hear a lot of songs, not just one.)
So how much more should a sale count than a free exposure? Well, that’s where chart construction starts to resemble mixing voodoo potions. I say “starts” because the sale-to-free-exposure ratio is the most difficult to figure out. But establishing point values for any of the ingredients in the Hot 100 recipe is strictly arbitrary. It can be done, but there’s no guarantee the result will be a fair method of devising song rankings. It’s not so much apples and oranges as onions and dragon fruit.
That’s why the “pure” charts – the ones that rank just one measure of popularity – seem a lot more reliable for determining hits. Among the bewildering welter of Billboard charts, that would include the album chart (aka “The Billboard 200,” totally sales-based) and, for songs, “Hot Digital Songs” (sales, meaning downloads), “Streaming Songs” and the YouTube list. “Hot 100 Airplay” is Billboard’s best measure of radio airplay, utilizing all formats, but it’s not ideal because all plays are ranked equally, leaving out the actual total of listeners who actually hear each play (which can be estimated fairly accurately and, as explained above, produces much more useful data).
By comparison, the Hot 100 chart itself, the one that lumps together all these essentially unlumpable quantities, is something of a mess – and, as Lady Gaga has blatantly shown us, it’s a more inviting target for manipulation than ever. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the idea of the One Chart That Rules Them All and look to more specific measurements.
By the way, “Applause” is a pretty good song – a dullish beginning that almost sounds like a lecture, but building to the kind of catchy Madonna-style chorus that made Gaga’s reputation. But any time an artist mentions critics, it’s a sure sign that she needs to get over herself. And, while she’s at it, stop trying to rig the charts.
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