(May 22, 2020). Earlier this week when Billboard announced the new No. 1 song in America (the duet “Stuck With U” by pop superstars Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande), the artist sitting at No. 3 on the list had a few things to say about it.
The recently freed rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine wasn’t too happy about the fact that his first post-jail release, “Gooba,” debuted in the third spot on the Billboard Hot 100, behind the Bieber/Grande hit and last week’s No. 1, “Say So” by Doja Cat feat. Nicki Minaj, which dropped to No. 2 on the current chart.
Among 6ix9ine’s beefs were 1) cheating allegations against the people behind the Bieber/Grande duet: Tekashi accused their camp of mysteriously buying up roughly 30,000 digital singles – with six credit cards – causing a last-minute spike in the sales points for “Stuck With U” on the last day of the tracking week (May 8-14); and 2) a Billboard bias against “Gooba” by excluding roughly 20 million of his single’s streams during the tracking week.
Like “Gooba,” the rapper’s allegations went viral and prompted Billboard to respond in an article posted to its website explaining how it arrived at this week’s No. 1 (and every week’s for that matter).
In a nutshell, Billboard explained that it (and Nielsen Music, its sales, streaming and airplay data provider) always reviews sales data to ensure that unusual buying patterns are scrutinized and eliminated. It did not identify any such shenanigans associated with the unusual sales spike experienced by the Bieber/Grande duet late last week. Instead, Billboard attributed their late gain to “signed” copies of the single being put up for sale on each singer’s website on March 14 – the last day of the tracking week, which likely motivated their fan base to buy more.
Billboard further explained that it always screens streaming numbers to ensure that only domestic figures are included (at one point in his argument, 6ix9ine cited his worldwide YouTube streams of 180 million as evidence that the fix was in, since only 53 million – a number further reduced to 31 million – were counted).
Billboard also defended itself by noting that a song’s raw domestic streaming numbers, which typically number in the tens of millions for those at or near the top of the charts, and its digital sales figures, which only number in the tens of thousands, have to be divided by different factors to make them more compatible with one another for chart calculation purposes. The same is done for airplay numbers, which is the third piece that goes into the chart’s three-factor formula each week.
Billboard has previously explained that it slices and dices streaming numbers to differentiate between on-demand streams and those that are achieved through paid subscriber services. When YouTube views were added to the mix earlier this year, Billboard further complicated its formula by using division factors to distinguish between audio/video clips viewed on that channel and streams accumulated on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, etc. This may explain the mysterious drop from 53 million to the 31 million 6ix9ine mentions in his video, although that part’s not entirely clear.
In other words, Billboard has the unenviable task of taking three main indicators of a song’s success: streaming (which now includes YouTube views), digital (and physical) sales, and radio airplay, and combining those to come up with an objective ranking of a song’s relative popularity with consumers…and doing all of that while ensuring that artists and their labels aren’t cheating by scooping up thousands of copies of their own products.
So, while Billboard understandably cannot reveal the sources of purchases – namely credit card accounts tied to digital downloads – as Tekashi demanded, the magazine itself doesn’t appear to have any specific artist biases when it comes up with the charts each week, despite the fact that its mysteriously complicated formulas and screening practices could be cause for artists’ concerns when their products don’t make it to No. 1 – itself a long-held badge of honor (and source of bragging and marketing rights) within the music industry.
The fact that 6ix9ine ranked no higher than No. 3 (he got very little airplay support from radio – 172,000 in audience – compared to 26.3 million in airplay cume for the Bieber/Grande single) means that not only did he have to overcome “Stuck With U,” but also the No. 2 song, “Say So,” which he never really addressed in his diatribe.
But is he completely wrong for venting his frustration about the undeniably popular “Gooba” not having enough to reach No. 1, despite its clear lead in streaming – the Hot 100 chart’s biggest component by weight these days?
Billboard has had to combat practices that 6ix9ine considers “unfair” for decades, practically ever since the charts (all of them, not just the Hot 100) were created eons ago. From the payola scandals of rock and roll’s early days, to biased reporting (and non-reporting) of record popularity by Billboard’s various sales and airplay accounts before the advent of barcode sale-detection technology and actual airplay monitoring were introduced in the early 1990s.
Even with the advent or point-of-sale monitoring, Billboard still had to deal with deeply discounted sale-pricing of physical products by artists and their labels, which often sparked unusual jumps to the top of the charts or lengthier stays at No. 1 (Mariah Carey’s label was the poster child for this in the 1990s).
Now, with digital downloads and song/video streaming in the mix, Billboard and Nielsen have to ensure that the data received each week is legit and that consumption numbers aren’t tainted by computerized bots buying up thousands of copies, or as Tekashi put it – six credit cards accounting for 30,000 sales units.
Despite its efforts, however, Billboard can never completely eliminate the savvy marketing of big players like the Mariah Careys, Justin Biebers and Ariana Grandes of the world, and their labels. The fact that an artist can, during the course of a week, tie in merchandise bundles to a song’s purchase and cause fans to go out and by multiple (albeit legit) copies of the same song they had already purchased only days earlier, is hardly an indicator of a song’s true popularity. It’s more an indication of the label’s marketing prowess.
The same thing happens each week on the albums chart. Rarely does an album reach No. 1 anymore on its own strength. Concert ticket promos and unrelated merchandise bundles are tied to album downloads to entice fans to buy up multiple copies. It was initially a practice with rock artists and their concert tie-ins. Now it has expanded to hip-hop and other genres.
This week’s No. 1 album – NAV’s Good Intentions – took it a step further when it released a standard version on Friday, May 8, then a deluxe version a few days later in the tracking week, to entice fans to keep streaming it and push it to the top (it likely would have gotten there anyway given its lead over the No. 2 album, Kehlani’s It Was Good Until It Wasn’t).
Last week, Drake’s Dark Lane Demo Tapes was robbed when it was released cleanly (no merchandise bundles, no concert promos, no mid-week deluxe versions, and no physical copies) while that week’s No. 1, Kenny Chesney’s Here and Now had all of the above. This week, Chesney’s album fell from No. 1 to No. 38, while Drake’s made a more modest fall from No. 2 to No. 3.
Which album was more popular again?
Truth is, it’s probably more accurate to say that the Hot 100 really isn’t a popularity chart anymore, so much as it is a measure of how well labels can market their products to the public relative to other labels. While an artist’s or song’s popularity certainly are factors, there’s no way of saying that “Stuck With U” is truly more popular than “Gooba,” especially with “Gooba” having a logic-defying lead in streaming numbers.
But at least Billboard doesn’t appear to be guilty of what 6ix9ine claims, that somehow the trade publication itself “can be bought,” at least not like it used to be. Instead, artists like him need to look in the mirror – or at his own marketing and promo people – and figure out ways to take advantage of practices that get around Billboard’s many rules, like these other artists do.
Billboard shenanigans: See how one of the most popular songs of the ‘70s was robbed of a No. 1 spot.
Artists like Drake and Bieber have mastered the game for years. And even if they sometimes fall short – both artists landed No. 2 hits earlier this year (with “Life is Good” and “Yummy,” respectively) despite some heavy-handed attempts at No. 1, they typically bounce back with even more savvy ways to market their singles.
Both Drake and Bieber countered with No. 1 follow-ups this month in “Toosie Slide” and “Stuck With U,” respectively.
Question is, will 6ix9ine, who vowed to drop another song if “Gooba” had hit No. 1, be able to do the same?
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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