Updated: May 6, 2019
Written by Sebastian Fernandez
On February 7th, 2015, Billboard reported that the album Now That’s What I Call Music!
53 had sold the most copies that week. However, 53 was not awarded the coveted position at the top of the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. Instead, emo-pop band Fall Out Boy topped the chart with their album American Beauty / American Psycho. The band found themselves atop the chart as a direct result of a recent change that Billboard had made to their method of
counting albums sales, a turn of events that would become indicative of future chart trends.
By 2014, it was clear that the album sales industry was undergoing significant changes.
From 1999 to 2009, album sales more than halved, cutting the industry from a net worth of $14.6 billion to $6.3 billion. A leading factor in the industry’s downfall was the introduction of music streaming, which was leaving many consumers who had easy access to streaming platforms like Pandora with little incentive to purchase albums–either physically or digitally. So, in December 2014, Billboard started factoring music streaming into their calculations of album sales.
To account for new methods of music consumption, Billboard introduced “Track
Equivalent Albums” and “Streaming Equivalent Albums” (TEAs and SEAs). For a TEA, ten
digitally purchased tracks would now count as one traditional (or “pure”) album sold. For a SEA,1,500 total streams of any track from album would now count as one pure album sold. The idea behind TEAs and SEAs was sound; the methods people were using to consume music were changing, so quantification of music sales needed to change as well. However, the new methods would prove to be inaccurate and exploitable.
The addition of streaming to Billboard’s equation carried befuddling consequences. By
taking user engagement with music into account for the first time ever, the question of what
determines the “popularity” of music arises; does it matter if people are actually listening to
albums and songs? Does how much money an artist makes define popularity? Billboard’s own
SVP of charts and data development, Silvio Pietroluongo, answered this debate at the time by
noting that “[A]lbum sales ... capture the initial impulse only, without indicating the depth of
consumption thereafter” as streams do. “Someone could listen to the album just once.”
Billboard’s chart, which factored for both streams and traditional sales, was therefore an
inaccurate method of measuring user engagement.
The Billboard Top 200 Albums chart also became less accurate in measuring the grossing of
albums, largely due to the fact that the monetary value associated with what Billboard defines as an “album” varies widely across music platforms. According to the Trichordist and Digital Music News, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube were the four most used methods of
streaming in 2018. However, while Apple Music paid artists approximately $0.00783 per single
stream in 2018, Spotify paid only $0.00397. Pandora paid $0.00134 per stream, and YouTube
paid the least, at less than one tenth of Apple’s rate, a meager $0.00074. This means that,
according to the 2014 guidelines, a SEA based on Spotify Premium streams for example would
be worth about $5.955, while a SEA from YouTube streams would only be worth $1.11.
Billboard updated the guidelines in 2018 so that now artists need 3,750 individual
streams for a SEA on ad-supported services like YouTube, which pay less per stream than
subscription-based services like Spotify Premium. And on these paid services, 1,250 streams
now count for a single SEA. From a monetary perspective, the change improved the accuracy of the chart, but Billboard’s methodology continues to be far from perfect, as these new guidelines still result in a significant difference in the value of, say, an Apple Music or a YouTube SEA.
Billboard’s “equivalent album” system has led to multiple trends within the music
industry that abuse the new guidelines to maximize chart position. One of these trends is the
bundling of free digital album copies with purchases of merchandise or concert tickets. Rap
group Brockhampton’s 2018 album Iridescence debuted at #1 on the top 200 albums chart,
selling 101,000 equivalent album units first week, of which 79,000 were traditional sales, the
category that includes digital download codes. Billboard reported that the numbers “were
supported heavily by an array of merchandise/album bundles.” The next week, as merchandise and ticket sales decreased significantly, the album experienced the third greatest drop from #1 of all time, falling to #88 on the chart, indicating that the first week sales were inflated by the sales of non-album products that happened to come bundled with free downloads of the album.
Artists also have profited off the SEA guidelines by extending the runtime of their
albums. By releasing albums with higher numbers of songs, artists accumulate higher stream
numbers (and, consequentially sales) from fans who listen through the full extent of the new
album. Chris Brown’s 45-song 2017 album, Heartbreak on a Full Moon, was certified gold by
the Recording Industry Association of America in 10 days despite not having any songs from the album on the charts. Malcolm Manswell, an Atlantic Records marketing manager, described the lengthening of albums as “a strategic way to achieve ... goals.”
While the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart has been a constant teller of success in the
music industry, recent changes to the consumption of music have been significant hits to the
accuracy of the chart. Furthermore, new specifications outlined by Billboard can be abused by
artists, making the chart even less accurate. Streaming has caused a significant decline in the
importance of the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.