Ultimate Chart: Looking Behind the Curtain

Ultimate Chart, MTV Music Meter, BillboardWith online file-sharing, streaming cloud services, YouTube videos etc., physical record sales have been falling for the past decade- dropping more than 8% each year.  Ironically, because of these same services the overall consumption of music is at an all time high.  In addition, the rise of social media and Internet technology has allowed many artists to find ways to monetize their art without the need to sell recorded music at all.

Unfortunately, advancements like these have made it increasingly difficult to gauge a particular artist, album, or song’s success in relation to the rest of the music market.  With charting services like Nielsen SoundScan and the Billboard Top 200 that base their numbers solely on album sales, overall accuracy is questionable at best.  How is it that Lady GaGa can have over a billion views on YouTube and not even make the Top 50 on Billboard last week?  She is indisputably one of the most successful artists in the business right now, but the numbers aren’t really doing her justice.

We’ve written about the “Ultimate Chart” that Internet research company BigChampagne is currently developing in the past (which pulls data from numerous online sources like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, YouTube, etc. and aggregates them together with physical sales to form a more accurate picture of a given artist’s success), but this month’s issue of the Berklee Music Business Journal features a more detailed analysis of the new service we thought we should pass along.  On the same note, MTV just launched a social chart powered by Boston-based music data superstars Echonest. Dubbed the MTV Music Meter, it’s another take on how the social rankings line up.  Only time will tell if these new charts step in and become industry staples like Billboard.


(Berklee MBJ) BigChampagne: The Meaning of Success

Credit: Amy Mantis

With the advent of online marketing, social media platforms, music streaming services, and music piracy, it has become increasingly difficult to track the consumption of music. Falling record sales in conjunction with the explosion of new media delivery has made the task of monitoring an artist’s progress far more complicated than it used to be. For the past decade, BigChampagne has quietly operated behind the scenes, tracking how consumers find, acquire, and listen to music on the Internet. Throughout, the company has taken some big steps towards redefining the way the music industry measures success.

The Back Story
Founded in 2000 by Zachary Allison, Eric Garland, and Adam Toll, BigChampagne’s first venture was tracking what songs people were downloading at Napster and the various other file-sharing programs that followed.1

Garland and Allison hired coders to build software capable of tracking and archiving the contents of shared folders and up to fifty million daily search queries with the intent of selling the service to major record labels.2 Amidst the copyright infringement lawsuits that labels filed in conjunction with the RIAA, the companies resisted the idea at first—figuring the courts were about to solve the problem. But as other P2P networks began surfacing, it became evident that file sharing was there to stay. NPD Group research estimates that 31 million Americans shared music from a P2P service in September 2002.3

BigChampagne got its first big break when the popular punk rock band the Offspring came forward in support of file sharing networks. According to Garland, “[Offspring] knew this was more an opportunity than a threat.”4 He and his team immediately began tracking and reporting the band’s progress on P2P websites. Through the band’s management, Garland contacted Offspring’s attorney, Peter Peterno, whose roster included a number of other well established acts like, Destiny’s Child and Will Smith. Seeing the potential in Garland’s new service, Peterno promptly signed his other acts to be tracked as well, thus opening the floodgates for BigChampagne.5

In the early 2000’s, there were no experts in the arena of tracking digital consumption. The only companies doing any sort of music ranking were the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Nielsen SoundScan, which compiles data on all kinds of consumption ranging from album sales to terrestrial radio play. SoundScan has been significant since its 1991 inception because of its accurate representation of legitimate sales figures taken directly from retailers.6 These numbers are then aggregated and used by numerous data tracking companies, and, most notably, Billboard.

While known for its Top 200 Chart, Billboard offers clear and comprehensive weekly rating reports for all individual genres, albums, digital tracks, radio, video sales, and the Internet. In addition, album sales are separated by format and compared with previous weekly, monthly, and annual figures. While Billboard’s reporting is second to none (along with SoundScan’s), the drastic decline in physical sales has spurred some skepticism amongst those who heavily rely on the charts to conduct their business. How relevant is it to consider only physical album sales when tracking an artist’s success anymore? In this evolving musical age where new acts have traded radio play and record label support for things like YouTube and social media, how accurately can one expect Billboard’s rankings to be?

A Chart of Charts
In recent years, accurately defining a universally accepted standard of artist-success has frustrated industry professionals. “All this time, there’s always been a single indicator of success: album sales”, says Garland.
“It used to be you were selling CDs or you weren’t. But we transitioned quickly from one business indicator of health to many. You’re no longer judged by one number.”7

This past July, at the New Music Seminar, BigChampagne announced the release of its (so-called) Ultimate Chart, an “an unprecedented aggregation of timely and relevant metrics.” The chart measures music’s popularity counting not only sales and airplay, as Billboard does, but also online streams and an array of social-networking services such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Last.fm, and YouTube.8 It also gathers information from Pandora, AOL, Yahoo, Amazon and Clear Channel. Not excluding the sales of physical albums, the new service appears to be pioneering a new method of ranking that goes above and beyond traditional measurements.

BigChampagne has been following unofficial music data for quite some time, tracking Facebook and MySpace long before they became social networking giants. Their desire to “define what the next [leading music] indicator will be”, seems to have kept them focused on new consumption trends. As Garland puts it, the Ultimate Chart illustrates the “multidimensional picture of an artist” and their career.9

The Ultimate Chart Compared
As of now, The Ultimate Chart compiles its data into two reports, the Ultimate 100 songs and the Ultimate 100 artists. However, when comparing the top ten songs on the Ultimate 100 chart with the top ten singles on iTunes and the Billboard Hot 100, some differences become apparent. For example, in the week starting December 4th, the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 was Rihanna’s Only Girl. In contrast, at the Ultimate Chart, it was Ke$ha’s We R Who We R. iTunes ranked the two songs at no. 4 and no. 9 respectively, while Katy Perry’s Firework (ranked no. 6 on Billboard) held the top position. In terms of The Ultimate Chart, We R Who We R most likely had more combined YouTube views (there is no video for it yet, but people have uploaded their own versions), more plays on streaming websites, and was probably talked about more on Facebook than Only Girl or Firework.

The Ultimate Chart contains graphic information beneath each song that shows how the song’s ranking was determined. Each song is rated on a score out of 100, while the graph shows the song’s progress throughout the last five weeks. Even if the accuracy of the four-month-old service is still questionable, the concept behind BigChampagne’s data aggregation is not. The challenge posed to SoundScan, and the more traditional reporting methods, is apparent.

YouTube & Lady Gaga
Last month, for instance, Lady GaGa was the first artist to receive one billion views on YouTube. In addition, she has also sold over 15 million albums and is currently on one of the highest grossing tours of 2010. Moreover, Lady GaGa has more followers on Twitter than any other artist. Yet, she hasn’t been on any chart—including the Ultimate Chart—for months. Does that mean her music isn’t as popular as that of the Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s, currently holding the top positions on iTunes and Billboard?

“When you look at Lady Gaga hitting a billion views, I think that’s a very positive wake-up call for the industry–we need to think about the metrics of success differently,” says Joe Fleischer, the CMO of BigChampagne.10 Fleischer continues, “The right way to understand success is to include all of those points of contact that are meaningful into the charting environment. Just look at gold and platinum awards from the RIAA. When an artist like Disturbed reaches Number One, are they now bigger than Taylor Swift? No. It means for just that one week they’ve sold more albums. It’s one component of success, but it does not give a consistent, undistorted view of the market.”11

The point is that Lady GaGa is arguably the biggest contemporary act in the world right now–yet if one allowed the Billboard charting system to make the call, she would be relatively inconsequential. While she has completely fallen off the top half of the Top 100 Charts, her music has global impact and reflects poorly on the traditional charting system. Lady GaGa is currently ranked at #18 on the Ultimate Chart. While she may not be number one –Rihanna has that spot– she tracks better (like Billboard and iTunes, Lady Gaga’s current standings reflect time elapsed while fans wait for a follow-up to her debut release).

Billboard under Scrutiny
The progression of technology has opened countless doors for musicians to better build fan bases. Moreover, physical sales are now far from being the only medium with which to measure success, as artists are constantly finding other ways to further their careers and monetize their work. Therefore, the obsolescence of Billboard’s current chart reporting appears somewhat inevitable. BigChampagne’s Ultimate Chart may be the most serious threat yet to the existing industry standard.

[1-3] Howe, Jeff. “BigChampagne is Watching You.” Wired. Wired Magazing, Oct 2003. Web. 25 Nov 2010. .
[4-7] Dansby, Andrew. “Rice grad keeps track of what we’re downloading.”
Houston Chronicle. Houstin Chronicle, 25 Apr 2008. Web. 26 Nov 2010. .
[8] Sisaro, Ben. “A Pop Chart for Web Era Challenges Billboard.” The New York Times. New York Times, 21 Jul 2010. Web. 27 Nov 2010..
[9] Dansby, Andrew. “Rice grad keeps track of what we’re downloading.”
Houston Chronicle. Houstin Chronicle, 25 Apr 2008. Web. 26 Nov 2010. .
[10-11] Carr, Austin. “How Lady GaGa’s One Billion YouTube Views Changes the Music Industry.” Fast Company. Fast Company, 27 Oct 2010. Web. 27 Nov 2010 .

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