On Tuesday, Rolling Stone announced that it will launch its own music charts next week, ranking albums, artists, and songs by streams, downloads, and sales on a daily basis. “Rolling Stone is the most widely recognized brand in the music space, and we think it should be used in other ways to help people discover music,” Jay Penske, CEO of Rolling Stone’s parent company Penske Media Corporation (PMC), told Vanity Fair. The decision is an obvious attempt to compete with Billboard, which has monopolized the music charts since the 1940s, leading the conversation for what music is most consumed en masse. Today, streaming services like Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music all have their own charts with their own rankings based on their own site’s data, but Billboard is still the standard — “hitting the top of the charts” means Billboard, and nothing else.
Over the years, Billboard’s format has been tweaked for accuracy and modern trends. In its early days, radio broadcasting and vinyl records were the only way to consume music outside of a club or concert hall. Vinyl sales were often ranked by the amount sent from a record company to the store, rather than tracking actual sales. In 1991, Billboard introduced a new computerized system called SoundScan to accurately track music sales and radio airplay. In December 2014, Billboard began implementing streaming and digital sales data into its algorithmic ranking system. But as The Washington Post pointed out last year, streaming has become more difficult to accurately track, let alone rank, with artists like Drake and Kanye strategically releasing certain amounts of songs to gain a statistical advantage.
As Billboard has attempted to adapt, the rigidity and subjectivity of its ranking criteria has opened it up for criticism about its relevance. In March, Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” off of its country music charts. Lil Nas X, in response, recorded a remix of “Old Town Road” with country star Billy Ray Cyrus, which immediately shot to the No. 1 spot. It is, essentially, a massive hit about how Billboard’s rankings are stupid.
For now, Rolling Stone is promising greater accuracy, with relevance coming second. It plans to use Alpha Data (previously known as BuzzAngle Music), an analytics startup that PMC invested in last year. Alpha Data already has their music charts as well as an in-depth methodology laid out on their website, which accounts for streamed music videos, how to rank songs within atypical song packaging like compilation albums or soundtracks, and that the tracking period for songs and albums runs from Friday to Thursday every week. A comparison of where Alpha Data’s charts stand next to Billboard’s shows a slight discrepancy in the rankings. Last week, Post Malone’s “Wow” ranked third on the Billboard “Hot 100” but fifth on Alpha Data’s “Top Songs” list. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”is third on Alpha Data’s list but falls to ninth on Billboard. Top charts from both Amazon Music and Spotify include the same ten songs as Alpha Data and Billboard, but in a slightly skewed order.
These miniscule differences may give consumers a sense of what’s popular, but it’s difficult to see the added value for regular listeners. Penske cited the potential for the new charts to help fans “discover music,” but numbers-based charts are more for industry figures surveying the landscape, and the weirdo superfan citing the numbers of an artist they admire as a badge of honor. Billboard has its pitfalls, but it is generally interested in refining the imperfections of its system. Meanwhile, the regular listener will continue to gravitate to whatever music they enjoy, regardless of “objective” rank.
Moreover, the proposed charts confuse what Rolling Stone’s mission has always been. I, and millions of others, read Rolling Stone for its comprehensive yet subjective music opinions, which are most formally represented in its year end lists. Along with their lists, the magazine’s Q&As and profiles add color and insight to our understanding of these artists. This is the point of music journalism: opinions from passionate music nerds that can point us in a certain direction in an artful manner rather than simply spew statistical data. The numbers may be interesting, but they’ve never been the point — not in art, and certainly not for Rolling Stone.