The Pop Charts Were Crazy This Year. Here’s Why.

Making the Streams Count

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Post Malone’s “Rockstar” got a boost from a version posted on YouTube by his record label that looped part of the song over and over.

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Arthur Mola/Invision, via Associated Press

Sometimes a grass-roots push, such as the loosely organized social media campaign to vault Cardi B over Ms. Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” wasn’t quite enough. In the case of “Rockstar,” which was a smash on Spotify and Apple Music immediately upon release, Post Malone also got a wily assist from his label, Republic Records, which found a loophole on YouTube. While the video service has long been a target of the music industry for its low royalty payouts and pesky copyright infringers, free streams on YouTube do count toward Hot 100 placement. But instead of posting the entire song free, Republic uploaded a version of “Rockstar” that was exactly the same length as the actual track, but featured only its chorus, looped again and again. (It also closed comments on the video, preventing users from explaining to others what was going on.)

In its first few weeks, the video earned more than 40 million plays, contributing to the song’s reign on Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart, which preceded its peak on the Hot 100. The successful tactic even had copycats — Big Sean’s “Pull Up N Wreck,” for one — though YouTube has since had the videos removed and changed its rules, telling Pitchfork in a statement: “any upload of a song intended to mislead a user (preview, truncated, looped) posted on YouTube to look like the original song will not contribute to any charts.”

SoundCloud and YouTube: Early Warning Systems

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Lil Pump was one of a handful of SoundCloud rappers whose music crossed over and became a streaming smash.

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Rick Kern/WireImage, via Getty Images

Some of the most ubiquitous rap hits of the year weren’t supposed to be hits at all. While streaming success stories are typically dominated by Spotify, which counts more than 60 million paid subscribers, and Apple, which has some 30 million, the digital underground can be just as influential.

“XO Tour Llif3,” a Top 10 hit by Lil Uzi Vert, began as a freebie on SoundCloud, only to gain so much steam that it left his label, Atlantic Records, no choice but to monetize it. The song eventually made its way to Spotify’s prominent Rap Caviar playlist and reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 in June. Similarly, Lil Pump’s “Gucci Gang” dominated the SoundCloud charts long before it got a proper commercial push, hitting No. 3 in December. YouTube worked in much the same way, elevating to the mainstream harsh and sometimes troubling viral songs like “The Race” by Tay-K, a teenage fugitive; “Gummo” by the controversial Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine; and “Rubbin Off the Paint” by YBN Nahmir.

Lil Uzi Vert – “XO Tour Llif3” Video by LIL UZI VERT

This trend may not hold: Billboard has announced that beginning in 2018, streams on unpaid or ad-supported services — like YouTube, most of SoundCloud and Spotify’s unpaid tier — would be weighted less than streams on paid services like Apple Music and Google Play. One potential consequence? Fewer niche rappers rubbing shoulders with Bruno Mars and Sam Smith on the pop charts.

In a Year of Streaming, How About Not?

Warning: It may not work for everyone. But for Taylor Swift, like Adele before her, this year was not yet time to follow the flock. By keeping her new album, “Reputation,” off streaming services for its first three weeks, Ms. Swift guaranteed herself an old-fashioned blockbuster, selling 1.2 million copies in her debut week. In the album’s first three days alone, it moved 925,000 units, some 600,000 as downloads and the rest as physical copies, both of which pay out higher royalty rates than streaming. Nice work if you can get it.

Albums as Add-Ons

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Shania Twain and other artists who rely less on streaming numbers for their success took an alternate route to No. 1: bundling their albums with ticket sales for upcoming tours.

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Justin Tang/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

For other acts whose strengths may not necessarily lie in streaming — in other words, nonrappers — there was the ticket bundle. Though it has been around for a decade, the strategy gained prominence this year as Pink, Katy Perry, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, Kenny Chesney, Shania Twain and U2 topped the album chart in part by including copies of their new releases with the purchase of concert tickets.

Though the sale counts only if the buyer actually redeems the album, the cost is factored into the ticket price and proved a pretty surefire way to gain a first-week sales boost for these reliable live acts. “About 20 percent to 30 percent of fans tend to redeem their album offers, with most favoring CDs or vinyl over downloads, though nudges on email and social media can drive better results,” Billboard reported.

The Remix Comes Through

The big-name remix, another tried-and-true maneuver that found new relevance this year, breathed extra life into a few big hits. “Despacito,” the pop-reggaeton gamechanger, was already huge, especially on YouTube and the Spotify global chart, before Mr. Bieber’s verse was added. But the remix made it a supernova that led the Hot 100 for a record-tying 16 straight weeks and earned Grammy nominations for record and song of the year. Beyoncé provided a similar bit of magic to J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” lifting it up to No. 3 from No. 21; she later jumped on Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” taking it all the way to No. 1. More quietly, Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” got a crunchtime bump from a Spanish-language remix and one featuring Kodak Black, both of which counted toward the main version’s chart position as it reached its apex.

J Balvin, Willy William – “Mi Gente” ft. Beyoncé Video by jbalvinVEVO

Endless Albums

From vinyl through the peak CD era, album length was often dictated by how much music could fit on the disc. The internet has done away with that constraint, too, leading some artists to pile on the tracks in hopes of racking up the streams. For a juggernaut like Drake, more did indeed mean more: “More Life,” his so-called playlist, was 22 songs long and broke digital records. Chris Brown upped the ante in October with “Heartbreak on a Full Moon,” which came in at 45 tracks, and he even instructed his fans on how to send it up the charts (“leave the album on repeat”), though he failed to reach Drake heights. And a new compilation by the stream-heavy label Quality Control, featuring Migos and Lil Yachty, has 30 songs, indicating that the idea has not yet reached saturation.

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