Forget the Grammys, The Weeknd’s ‘After Hours’ reveals a big flaw in the Billboard album charts

(March 17, 2020).  Oh Grammys schmammys…have you seen the Billboard album charts lately?

More specifically, have you seen the recent schizophrenic chart performance by The Weeknd’s megasmash, Grammy-snubbed album After Hours?

If you haven’t, it’s been like one of the wildest rollercoaster rides at a theme park you haven’t visited since 2019; or a chart run with as many ups and downs as the stock market in early 2020.

The Weeknd’s ‘After Hours’ album

Here are the last six weeks’ positions occupied by After Hours on the Billboard 200 albums chart: No. 4-No. 37-No. 2-No. 6-No. 163-No. 4.

Further explained:  Since his Super Bowl performance on February 7, the album has had a tumultuous existence on the charts.  The week after he performed the halftime show, After Hours took a surprising tumble from No. 4 down to No. 37 (with several days of post-Super Bowl momentum suggesting the opposite would happen).  

The following week, it rebounded all the way from 37 to No. 2.

Then, after sliding to No. 6, After Hours plummeted to No. 163 last week.  Now, on the latest chart, the album catapults back into the top five at No. 4.

So what gives?  Are fans suddenly this undecided about an album whose first anniversary is just days away?

Well, the answer to that is no and the reason for the erratic chart behavior is simple – even if it makes no sense, intuitively and technically speaking.

Here’s what gives:

The Weeknd issued a greatest hits package during Super Bowl weekend.  That set, titled The Highlights, includes two tracks from After Hours – not surprisingly the concurrent top-10 singles “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears.”  Upon its release and in the wake of the Super Bowl halftime show, The Highlights entered the chart at No. 2 the same week After Hours tumbled to No. 37.

Seemingly every week since then, the albums have zigzagged up and down the chart, crisscrossing one another as fans decide which one they want the most. The actual sales numbers on both albums are pretty close, separated each week by only hundreds or maybe 1,000 units.  But here’s the kicker:  whichever album wins the pure sales battle (that is, sales of physical CDs or vinyl, or full album downloads) in a given week, Billboard awards that set all the streaming points from their two common songs.

And that’s where the fun begins. 

As Billboard explained in its Chartbeat column this week, After Hours sold 3,000 pure copies in the latest tracking period, versus only 2,000 for The Highlights.  As a result, the streaming and digital download numbers for both “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears” are assigned to their original parent album this week.  The prior week, with The Highlights outselling After Hours – again to the tune of only about a 1,000-copy difference – all of the streaming and download activity for the two common songs were assigned to the greatest hits package, and back and forth it goes.

This nearly weekly reassignment of the two songs’ individual streaming and download units between the two albums has been happening since mid-February and accounts for all of the wild yo-yo moves of After Hours (and The Highlights) in that timespan.  

It illustrates the following things about both that album and the Billboard chart it’s occupied for nearly a year now: 1) how dependent on streaming numbers the charts truly are; 2) how dependent on just two songs’ performance After Hours is; and 3) how flawed either the technology or the chart policy is that Billboard must assign ALL the streaming and download activity for any given song to one album, regardless of the source album from which it was streamed or downloaded.  

For point No. 1 – streaming’s contribution to today’s charts – that’s a reality of music consumption in the 21st century that makes perfect sense and shouldn’t change.  Otherwise, albums that sell a few thousand copies a week would be scaling the lists and not reflecting the true consumer patterns of today’s music fans.

For point No. 2, it’s become abundantly clear that the only two tracks that are driving After Hours now are the two current top-10 hits.  People seemingly lost interest in the album’s first single, “Heartless,” a long time ago and no other songs have generated much attention in the past half year.

The fact that, when the streaming and download points for “Blinding Lights” and “Save Your Tears” are removed, the album can tumble from No. 4 to 163, speaks volumes about its depth or maybe the lack thereof.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, is the flawed calculation methodology employed by Billboard and its data provider Nielsen/MRC Data.  One would think that technology has advanced to where the chart authorities could discern which source album is generating the most streaming or download activity for particular tracks.  If people are streaming “Blinding Lights” from After Hours, then that album should be the one getting the credit.  If they’re playing it from the greatest hits collection, then The Highlights should benefit.  This shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing scenario.  

The fact that one album outsells the other in any given week – especially by as few as a thousand copies, or in a worst-case scenario, as few as ten copies – shouldn’t dictate which album is credited with the millions of steaming points its hit singles generate on a weekly basis, such that their reassignment causes the albums to fly up and down the chart in whiplash fashion as After Hours has been.  Is that truly an indicator of the album’s popularity or even its consumption rate, as the industry now touts these charts to be reflecting?

And it’s not just the charts that are impacted.  The Nielsen/MRC data used for the Billboard 200 are also what the RIAA factors into its sales certification levels.  While it may not seem like much for a year-old, multi-platinum album like After Hours, there’s a difference of tens of thousands of weekly album equivalent units between a set at No. 4 and one listed at No. 163.  The losses associated with the reassignment of those points from its two most popular tracks away from After Hours could add up and ultimately affect future certification levels (the album just achieved its double-platinum certification last week). 

All of this boils down to the following:  It’s either due to limitations of the streaming and digital download tracking technology or a policy decision by the charting authorities that this anomaly exists.  

Yeah, After Hours recent snubbing at the Grammys resulted in some hurt feelings and was a real slap in the face for The Weeknd.  But if the recent erratic chart behavior of one of the most talked-about albums in recent history is any indication, then the Grammys may not be the only music industry institution in need of a thorough review.  

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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