The shift to incorporate digital downloads and streams could have major implications for how hits are calculated in the music industry.

Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)

Yesterday, Billboard unveiled radical new changes to their chart methodology. The R&B/hip-hop, country, rock, pop, latin, and rap charts, which previously relied on terrestrial radio and sales figures, will now start incorporating both digital downloads and digital streaming services into their calculations. (This formula was already in use on the Hot 100 chart, which measures the popularity of songs across all genres.)

The shift made for some sudden major changes.

On the R&B/Hip-Hop song charts, Miguel’s “Adorn” was dropped from No. 1 to No. 4, while Rihanna’s “Diamonds” jumped to No. 1. (By the old chart’s R&B airplay-based standards, it would have slotted in at No. 61.)

Other beneficiaries of the change include Taylor Swift and Mumford and Sons, who rocketed up the Country and Rock charts, respectively. The new formula also makes for some unusual placements. Because individual tracks streamed through services like Spotify are now being incorporated, Mumford and Sons’ entire new album takes up 12 spots on the Hot Rock Songs chart.

At one time, Billboard charts relied heavily upon demographics. The R&B/Hip-Hop charts were based upon the relationship between radio play and singles sales in particular markets. In this way, new songs could be tested in a market via radio, and fans could provide feedback through singles sales. But with the decimation of the music industry’s sales of physical product and the increase in digital downloads and streaming services, the songs charts had begun to reflect only what radio and labels dictated.

Without the feedback loop between fans and radio, the charts no longer reflected how people experience music, according to Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde in a post on his Tumblr.

But the improvements to the new system are controversial.

Streams and iTunes downloads have no way of measuring demographic information. Historically, R&B/Hip-Hop charts measured the music culture of particularly urban, African-American communities. Billboard would make final calls about what genre a song was, but it was based upon the listening habits of particular communities. Now, pace Werde, they are working on “codifying a process” so that genre chart managers can “inherit guidelines” for making these calls.

The result is that Rihanna, a pop star, rockets up the R&B charts despite receiving minimal R&B radio airplay. Or K-pop sensation Psy sits atop the Rap charts, despite getting no urban radio airplay. What makes Psy hip-hop? According to Werde, Googling “Psy” and “rapper” gets “millions of hits,” and “No less an authority than Wikipedia identifies him this way.”

In other words, Billboard’s delineations of “genre” are going to be relying more heavily on the assumptions and decisions of Billboard’s editors, and less upon the way different communities consume popular music.

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