Fans React as Billboard Changes Charts Formula

New criteria seem to favor crossover pop hits on genre rankings

October 19, 2012 5:25 PM ET
Don Arnold/WireImage

In an attempt to present more accurate data, Billboard recently shook up its rock, country, hip-hop and Latin charts, resulting in broad pop stars such as Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Psy suddenly having more juice than their competitors. Fans of artists such as Carrie Underwood and Beyoncé did not take the news well: "Shame on you, Billboard!" wrote one commenter on the influential music-business magazine's website. "These are not the pop charts and this completely skews the formula to favor pop crossover hits."

Billboard executives defend the new charts – which, as of last week, use Internet criteria such as download sales and streaming plays from Spotify, Rhapsody and others as well as traditional radio spins – as a broader picture of what makes a hit. "Are those of you upset about this rule change suggesting that what fans are streaming on Spotify or buying at iTunes doesn't count?" asked Bill Werde, the magazine's editorial director, via Tumblr. "Fans have the power today – more than they have ever had in the history of the recorded music business – and these chart changes honor that reality, above all else."

Music-business veterans observed that the changes weren't the first time Billboard has adjusted its charts to reflect music fans' consumption behaviors. "Fifty years ago, we were tracking jukebox selections and 45 sales. Now we have YouTube videos and Pandora and satellite radio – there's a lot of things," says Mike Brophey, program director of the Boston country station WKLB. "It tends to be more accurate."

Nonetheless, fans' complaints about the genre charts giving an advantage to broad pop stars are accurate. Rihanna, whom most fans perceive as a Top 40 artist rather than an R&B star, jumped abruptly from Number 66 to Number One with "Diamonds." Even more absurdly, Psy, who doesn't even rap on his K-pop smash "Gangnam Style," surged from Number 20 to Number One. The changes could ultimately lead to pressure from record labels on more niche-oriented artists to broaden their sound, Swift-style.

"Somebody at the label says, 'Alan Jackson, if you want to be on the country chart, you may want to put a little pop in that record,'" says Kyle Bylin, a former Billboard chart manager who works for Live Nation Labs and curates the music-and-tech think tank sidewinder.fm. "It's well-known that the record industry has a long tradition of that."

Still, Bylin says, charts should contain the most accurate and comprehensive possible data. "Popularity is popularity. If that song is the most popular song, then the chart should reflect that," he says. In his Tumblr post, Billboard's Werde was more sarcastic. Responding to the argument from Underwood fans that Swift disproportionately benefits from the chart changes, he wrote: "I suggest a deep breath and some therapy."

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