The future of music charts

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Up till now, judging who is top of the music game has been relatively simple. Music Award shows like the Grammy’s and the MTV Music Awards reward the top and popular artists through judges or votes. The Billboard chart shows us who the best-selling artists are, judged on CD sales and radio plays. MTV and VH1 have decided what the top videos are.

But things are changing.

In the last few years, music culture has transformed. CD sales are being usurped by digital sales, but even the latter are under pressure as music fans stream their favourite tracks through a host of web services.

Considering these changes, can we really judge how popular artists are by applying the same methods used in the 90s?

YouTube has, almost indisputably, become the king of video. With more than 100 million views a day, it trumps prime TV anywhere in the world. MTV is no longer an authority on music videos, with its play in digital rights confined to only one of the four major labels (Warner Music Group). VEVO has rights to the other three. But, even with its dominance in major label videos, VEVO is only a small part of the mass of music videos online.

The slipping influence of the major labels, and the increasing abilities of independent artists and fans to make their videos, means that Youtube has become the home of almost any and every music video. All roads lead to Youtube.

Capitalising on this, YouTube has recently created their top music-video chart. Youtube.com/music now shows you the top 100 music videos on Youtube for that week, based solely on views. These videos range from major label artists like Lady Gaga and Rihanna, to fan- and independent-made music videos that have gone viral. It is a simple and effective way to find out what the most popular music videos of the time are, based only on how many people are watching them. In the recent past, music videos have battled to find their new place in the industry, but this may make them as relevant as they were in early MTV days.

Music itself is a bit more tricky. While iTunes dominates online music sales by a huge margin, the great majority of music online is not bought and downloaded. Internet users listen to music via Youtube, Grooveshark, Hype Machine, Last.fm, Napster, Pandora, Bandcamp, Spotify as well as CDs, iTunes, MTV, Amazon, radio play and numerous other means. Judging these all against each other is difficult.

If a user downloads track surely implies they are going to listen to it more often than if they stream it once? What does liking a band on Facebook mean? And then there is piracy. The IFPI estimated in 2009 that 95% of downloaded music is pirated. Surely if we want to know how popular or influential an artist is, we should also look at that?

One of the most impressive all-inclusive charts is The Ultimate Chart. This aggregates information from many of the web services listed above and pops out its chart of the most popular music online. Owned by media measurement heavyweight Big Champagne, The Ultimate Chart has generated a lot of buzz since it was launched July this year, although so far it’s Top 10 has deviated only slightly from traditional billboard charts. This itself may indicate the continuing influence of the traditional music, much in the same way that the top videos on Youtube are usually major label.

One could expect that a more pronounced divergence as time goes by if label influence wanes as it is expected to. Once it separates its charts into genres, YouTube will more likely become more popular. Currently it is completely pop and hip hop dominated. Of course, even The Ultimate Chart is primarily influenced by the vast mass of American users, and the sites used in its algorithms are Western ones.

Alternatively Google Trends can give you an idea of how much buzz surrounds an artist. Remember though, that this is chatter, and not an indication of how much their music is being listened to.

iTunes Store charts are also a good measure, although only representative of online sales. The most difficult subsection to judge is pirated music. Every so often Big Champagne, or another media measurement company, does a report on what the most popular music is on P2P networks.

Interestingly it has become clear that music is diminishing as the focus of file-sharers, only making up 2.9% of files on BitTorrent, the most popular current method of piracy. Unsurprisingly, pornography makes up the most with 35.8%, feature films make up 35.2% and TV shows account for 12.7%. This is possibly because the mass of online music services available have made it more convenient to listen to music legally than illegally.

It is clear that the music industry is changing, and although it’s not yet time to throw out the old measures, they are clearly becoming less relevant. It’s not difficult to envision a future where sites like The Ultimate Chart are the go-to authorities for mass music popularity.

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