In two of the biggest music markets in the world, getting a Number One record is not merely about the quantity of plays and sales now – but the quality of the play. Earlier this year, Billboard, which publishes the definitive album and song charts for the U.S. music industry, revamped its chart formulas, giving more weight to paid streams than free ones. Now, the UK’s Official Charts Company says it is following suit.
Starting Friday, UK charts will count streams from premium subscribers (e.g. those on Apple Music or Spotify’s paid tier) six times more than streams from users on an ad-supported platform (e.g. Spotify’s free tier).
The Official Charts Company said supporting paid streaming over free streaming will benefit the music industry. The latter makes significantly less money for artists and songwriters than the former – and because premium subscribers supposedly “tend to access new music quicker,” trending songs will enter the charts a little higher than before.
Under the current system, it takes 150 streams of a song to count as the equivalent of a traditional, old-school sale. Under the new one, that number is 100 for paid streams and 600 for free streams. That discrepancy is much higher than what it is under Billboard’s changes in the U.S., which gives free streams two-thirds the weight of paid streams.
Critics worry that disfavoring free streams will lower representation of younger listeners, but the UK’s chart organization says it hasn’t seen a major upheaval in the tests it ran before announcing the changes. “It’s not like suddenly there will be loads of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones in the chart,” Martin Talbot, chief executive of the Official Charts Company, said to the Guardian.
In Spain, Italy and France, free streams do not count at all toward music charts. Talbot said that some officials in the UK were in favor of adopting that policy, but the company did not want to go too far because it recognizes there are “younger fans who maybe don’t have access to credit cards, or low-income music fans who can’t afford a subscription but will still listen on legitimate, ad-funded streaming services.”
Other changes to the UK’s charts methodology include a measure that safeguards against “spamming” artists to Number One – once a user has played a song 10 times in 24 hours, streams after that are not counted – and the inclusion of music videos in its formula, which historically eschewed video streams and downloads until now.
But all of this reorganization stands against the fact that music charts, in the age of digital streaming, have still become both game-able and somewhat arbitrary. Last year, fans of pop star Harry Styles banded together to boost Styles’ chart position by setting up VPNs to fake the location of their streams. And putting streams alongside sales into one formula makes for a capricious comparison: While the UK now counts 100 to 600 song streams as one sale, Nielsen, which provides the data for Billboard’s charts, counts several thousand streams as one sale, and there’s no global entity to reconcile both sets of numbers into one coherent ranking.
That means determining the artist or song that is “Number One” at any given time depends on how and where people are listening.
Some companies, like YouTube, disagree with Billboard‘s take on free streams. In May, YouTube debuted its own trending-music chart. “Billboard is essentially saying the only music fans that count are music fans that have credit cards and are paying for subscriptions,” YouTube head of label relations Stephen Bryan told Rolling Stone.
But the company, catering to both industry demands and the new chart configuration, also recently launched YouTube Music – a paid subscription service of its own.