I. Status Quo
When you look at the Billboard charts, it’s hard to find a focus. Since the major redesign of Billboard.com in 2009, few things have changed about the design of the charts, but numerous features have been added. You can share chart placements on major social channels and even play songs and buy downloads and tickets. There’s also a dizzying array of info, from weeks spent on a given chart to artist news and non-Billboard chart activity. Billboard’s charts now seemingly provide everything a music listener could ask for, plus some things too new to have been on anyone’s wish list.
In recent years, Billboard has increased the number of charts it publishes, as well as their feature density. “Social 50” and “Uncharted,” two tallies based on social media and music streaming, grew out of a partnership with data provider Next Big Sound. Months ago, the publisher also debuted an “On-Demand Songs” ranking, a joint effort with Nielsen and NARM. The downside of these new charts, however, is that they follow the same design and feature set as the rest: Aside from the artists and music that comprise each chart’s entries, it’s frankly hard to tell them apart. And whether actual listeners get anything out of what are still primarily industry-facing charts is also an open question. Some are likely to provide better opportunities for music discovery than others, and some listeners will likely find a chart that suits their taste in music, but the overall experience of reading Billboard’s charts is underwhelming and mostly disappointing.
Some missing elements are context and interactivity: Below each chart entry, a cache of news items exists, but finding the correct story and reading the relevant bits is laborious. By the time you find the pieces you need to see the bigger picture (how a song charted and why it moved), you have likely left the website and abandoned the puzzle. The charts are also passive. Listeners can share to Twitter that “We Are Never Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift is #1 on the Hot 100 chart, but they have no means to register their opinion or impact that ranking.
"Currently, Billboard’s chart playback
is dependent on Myspace, which does a
good job, but is still full of holes."
There are reasons for such shortcomings. Billboard’s charts are tied to an old platform. To enhance their style and functionality, the company would need to pay for another costly update and get a new partner for music streaming. Currently, Billboard’s chart playback is dependent on Myspace, which does a good job, but is still full of holes. Seeking direct licenses from the record labels is still cost-prohibitive, so that leaves the option of partnering with online music services like Spotify or Rdio to power playback.
Another huge dependency lies in data. A majority of the data for Billboard’s charts currently comes from third parties (Nielsen and Next Big Sound), who primarily deliver it on a weekly basis. With this setup, empowering listeners to influence chart rankings wouldn’t be much fun, due to updates happening only once a week. And layering a Reddit-like voting system on top of the existing charts would (again) require a new platform, not to mention the challenge of implementing gaming mechanics and anti-gaming mechanisms.
Put simply, things are the way they are because they are. That’s what the status quo is.
II. Better Widgets
Everyone is trying to create a better widget, but that doesn’t always translate to a better experience. Pandora and Spotify, the most popular online music services, enable listeners to click a play button. And while years of market research and user feedback have informed the location of that control and years of product development and technology advancement have allowed for seamless music playback, the experience ends as soon as it begins. You could argue that the music is the experience, and the fact that it plays every time you press that button should be considered a miracle (it is), but the “future” of music often feels unremarkable.
Certainly, the simplicity of Pandora is what makes it beautiful. There are hundreds of neat features that could be added, but they would clutter the product and make it confusing. Spotify, on the other hand, contains sidebars laden with playlists, apps, friends, and activity. Features are crammed into every possible space. Most listeners who have used Spotify for a while encounter a highly personalized mess when they open the desktop app.
"It’s not like they look at Pandora or Spotify
after they click play anyway; music is merely
the audio backdrop to their daily activities."
As regrettable as this may seem, this is what listeners want. It’s not like they look at Pandora or Spotify after they click play anyway; music is merely the audio backdrop to their daily activities. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t accept widget after marginally improved widget as progress. There must be room to improve, if not rethink the experience.
Earbits, an Internet radio service, shows us the potential for a different approach. The player, inspired by thesixtyone, features a high-quality photo of the artist and a responsive interface. As you listen, you’re prompted to join their mailing list, download their latest album, or like their Facebook page, among other things. You can also click to view their biography (which includes discography, merchandise, and upcoming shows), view photos, and leave comments. When you give a “thumbs up” to a song you enjoy, you’re given the option to tweet or share it.
The main reason this approach stands out is that Earbits markets music. An artist can submit their music to the service, and once approved, they can buy “airtime” to expose listeners to new songs or promote tour dates. The more listeners Earbits can drive to an artist’s mailing list or downloads, the more money that artist will have (in theory) to invest in their online marketing efforts. And so far, this trade-off seems to be working. According to Brian Hazard of Color Theory, who has successfully used Earbits several times now, “If you’re willing to pay for text ads on Google or Facebook, you might as well get the plays thrown in at about the same price.”
Most of the innovation in online music happens around emerging artists, because the barrier to entry is lower and the licensing costs are lighter. If Earbits started out with mainstream popular music, it would enter a crowded market with established players and high overhead. Without a larger partner to provide distribution, the company would need to slog it out to build a user base and gain leverage. Years later, Earbits might earn enough clout to negotiate with the record labels for exclusive songs or artist participation, but the odds are against it. It would have a better widget tied to the same inventory. The experience would be immersive, but nothing else about the service would be exclusive.
"For Pandora, the brands are the customer and
the audience is the product. Promoting
Frightened Rabbit’s Facebook page over Miller
Lite’s radio station won’t pay the bills."
So why don’t Pandora or Spotify become more music-focused like Earbits? For Pandora, the brands are the customer and the audience is the product. Promoting Frightened Rabbit’s Facebook page over Miller Lite’s radio station won’t pay the bills. And there is also the argument that a majority of Pandora’s users are passive listeners who likely don’t want to be bothered with mailing lists and album-release prompts. Spotify, for its part, does promote music to some degree, but mostly through ads on the free version. It’s a slippery slope, because if Spotify took cues from Earbits, it would be increasingly pressured by labels to offer more and bigger prompts. A developer could test similar features in a Spotify app, assuming that they were to comply with their strict guidelines. In the end, both companies want to create a better experience, but for now, we’re stuck with pretty good widgets.
III. The Disruptors
The most innovative take on charts to date is We Are Hunted. The service indexes the most popular emerging songs online and presents them in a beautifully designed interface. Each placement on the tally can be shared to social channels, purchased through digital retailers, or used to create a playlist. One can also click to view an artist profile that features their latest news, tour dates, and biography. Mixed in with the tally are featured songs that can be downloaded for free in exchange for an email address. At its heart, however, We Are Hunted catalyzes music discovery more than it provides an authoritative chart.
Initially, publications heralded We Are Hunted as the “Billboard of the social web,” because it gathered sentiment data from forward-thinking sources like blogs, social media, message boards, and P2P networks. And in a way, it was. No one had launched a social chart at the time. But Hunted isn’t Billboard; it’s a pretty list and no one knows what appearing on it means. The data aren’t compiled directly from the sources, and it’s unclear what those sources are and how they’re weighted. Unlike a Billboard chart, Hunted isn’t transparent, quantified, or consistent. It’s a playlist generator, not industry currency. That is, as you might suggest, the point. Hunted is a filter, and much like KCRW or Pitchfork, it helps listeners to discover music. As such, Hunted may look like a chart, but it’s really a utility.
The next challenger to the Billboard throne arrived in 2010. BigChampagne, the media measurement company (since acquired by Live Nation), launched its Ultimate Chart. What separated the tally from the Billboard Hot 100 is that it measured the popularity of a song across a broader array of data sources, which included online music services and social platforms. At the time, Billboard primarily measured popularity by radio play and music sales. As a result, when an artist stopped being heavily rotated on radio and moving units, they would tumble on Billboard’s Hot 100. But should this happen? After all, we know that spikes in activity come and go, but many artists continue to be popular online and off regardless. This is the oversight that BigChampagne sought out to correct with the Ultimate Chart. To some, this effortlooked like more of the same. To others, it was a game-changer.
"Like We Are Hunted, the chart highlights up-and-coming
artists and is based on sentiment data, but it also tracks
social buzz, music streams, and purchase metrics."
Shortly thereafter, MTV unveiled its artist-ranking service, Music Meter. Like We Are Hunted, the chart highlights up-and-coming artists and is based on sentiment data (provided by The Echo Nest), but it also tracks social buzz, music streams, and purchase metrics. As reporter Austin Carr at Fast Company aptly described it, “The chart is based on velocity rather than absolute popularity, so it will only show artists who are rising quickly—not those who are sitting in the No. 1 spot.” To avoid the kind of criticism leveled at the Ultimate Chart (all pop, no surprises), MTV chose to strip out the most popular artists, like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, in an attempt to avoid comparison and create a music discovery experience. In recent months, MTV has removed the beta label from Music Meter and expanded the offering to include editorially determined categories like “Up & Coming,” “Hip-Hop,” and “Indie.”
These are curious and ultimately compromising decisions. First off, chart rankings are generally determined by aggregated data, not personal opinions. Who decides which popular artists should be excluded? The Echo Nest does have metrics that take into account the “familiarity” and “hotness” of an artist, which likely help MTV to create a blacklist for Music Meter, but someone must be checking the chart for errors and removing outliers, too. Meanwhile, another instance of human meddling is in the genre distinctions. Again, The Echo Nest evaluates the sentiment surrounding an artist, and if a majority of the blog posts and news items refer to an artist as “indie,” the categorization of indie by MTV is probably close, if not correct. But genres are an editorial distinction and “indie” is a very flimsy one at that.
Music Meter is often called a chart, but MTV knows better. It’s a discovery experience.
IV. One Direction
Popular music is ripe for disruption. The reality is that two-thirds of younger listeners watch the videos for their favorite singles on YouTube and still experience Top 40 on traditional radio. A much smaller group listens to music on Pandora and Spotify, and a majority of them have likely never heard of Earbits, thesixtyone, or We Are Hunted. These listeners have only known a world of better widgets because no one has sought out to create a better experience. Even the mighty Google, which debuted its music service in 2011, has succumbed to the fate of attaching a play button to an otherwise underwhelming platform.
Consider this thought experiment. What if you created an online music service that offered free music streams subsidized by ticket and merchandise sales? What if the service tracked what you listened to and it provided you with suggestions on what concerts to attend and what band merchandise to buy?
For example, as you listened to “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction, you would be notified that they are playing three consecutive nights at the Staples Center in Los Angeles (where you live). If you wanted to, you could buy tickets for the show in a few clicks. Or, perhaps, as you start singing along to “We Are Never Getting Back Together” by Taylor Swift, you’re presented with a few photos of her latest t-shirts.
It’s difficult to say if sales from such a service could support the costs of running an online music service, but the idea brings up an interesting point: There are many things that a casual listener of One Direction or Taylor Swift may want to know, but never learns. For a million reasons, the news of a tour or new t-shirts never reaches them, nor does the release of a new single or album. Unless a listener becomes a fan of the artist on social platforms or signs up for the mailing list, it’s likely that they’ll never encounter most of the artist’s updates.
"As Earbits demonstrates, there are a number
of ways that personal and relevant messages could be
delivered to listeners though a music service."
As Earbits demonstrates, there are a number of ways that personal and relevant messages could be delivered to listeners though a music service. On Spotify, this is a huge and frequently missed opportunity. If you’re a Green Day fan and have several of their albums starred, it’s likely that Spotify never alerted you that their latest album, ¡Uno!, was coming out. Unless you checked out the “What’s New” section, you would have missed it.
Swarm.FM, a new music discovery app for Spotify, scans your library and recommends new releases based on your listening activity, favorite artists, and trending albums. It has other neat and helpful features, but this one is particularly enlightening. You will likely spot a new album by one of your favorite artists that you didn’t know existed, which can be an embarrassing moment for any listener. In a way, scrolling through the Swarm.FM feed can feel disheartening, because you can see a river of music that you’ve been missing out on and wish you had known about sooner, or had had the time to find out. But it’s comforting, too, because now the app will keep you up to date.
What would be better, however, is if these songs were sewn into the experiences you already engage with. This is a simple service that traditional radio has provided for years, but gets lost online. When Lady Gaga debuts the first single from her upcoming album Artpop, stations will place the song next to familiar programing and enable you to discover it. All listeners have to do is continue to tune in and Ryan Seacrest will handle the rest.
Imagine that your thumb history on Pandora or library on Spotify served as a musical brain that powered custom stations and drove similar discovery. The latest songs from artists you love would automatically be rotated into the mix alongside other favorites. Radio has taught us that listeners need to be exposed to songs multiple times before they become familiar, and that this familiarity plays a strong role in how much they enjoy them. Songs don’t grow on us, but their pattern does; it becomes familiar and we like predicting it. For most listeners, pure music discovery isn’t pleasurable or useful. They only want to hear new songs as the byproduct of a larger experience.
V. Future Charts
Charts are one of the largest missed opportunities in the music industry. They must move beyond a static tally of artists and music and become more interactive, making it so fans can impact the outcome. Charts must also make it easy for fans to understand why an artist appears on them by integrating stories into the tally. And most of all, charts must shift from a ranked order of the most popular artists and music that updates weekly to a real-time data utility that powers a broad array of experiences and enables discovery.
TastemakerX, a social music discovery game, hints at what real-time interactivity makes possible. It allows fans to “buy” shares of emerging artists that are growing in popularity and earn points for discovering them early. Over time, fans build a virtual portfolio of artists and compete to be recognized as influencers. To make TastemakerX reflect the real world, in real time, the company partnered with The Echo Nest. The game leverages their “dynamic music intelligence” to instantly price and track artists as shifts in their online popularity occur, which enhances the realism of the marketplace. The challenge, of course, is that TastemakerX isn’t real. The entire experience happens in a silo and fans who play for keeps gain mere bragging rights. Such pitfalls haven’t hindered the growth of fantasy sports, but they’ll likely curtail the adoption of fantasy music.
Someday, there will be real-time, fan-powered charts. When that day comes, the moment a new song by Rihanna hits an inflection point of several million Spotify plays and YouTube views, it’ll debut on the tally. Fans will be able to share that milestone with their friends through social platforms and even vote to help the song rise higher. In turn, they’ll accumulate influence based on how the song fairs. A chart could, in theory, become a feedback loop that connects the artist and fan. So as Rihanna sees her song explode in popularity, she may gush to her fans and thank them for loving her song. She could even urge them to play and vote for the song more in an attempt to send it to #1. Fans could then share their small part of the larger story of her success.
"For example, if you click on New York or Los
Angeles, you can hear the latest songs uploaded to
SoundCloud by artists in that area. From there, you
can also filter the station by popularity and genre."
Another music startup that provides a window into the future is CitySounds.fm. Launched in 2009 at Music Hack Day, the web app lets you listen to cities as radio stations. For example, if you click on New York or Los Angeles, you can hear the latest songs uploaded to SoundCloud by artists in that area. From there, you can also filter the station by popularity and genre. This app is compelling, because it allows you to get a feel for different music scenes. “What we wanted to do first was tap into the vibe of each city. What music is popular right now, and where,” said founder Henrik Berggren in an interview with Evolver.fm. “That was our intention.”
That stated intention also reveals what becomes possible with geographical data. If you had behavioral data on the popularity of artists and songs in Los Angeles, it’s likely that you could filter that set to those that are native to that area. And if you can develop a chart for Los Angeles, that means you could do Austin and Nashville, too. Fans would be able to play the top 25 indie bands in Seattle and then check out the #1 hip-hop act in Brooklyn. Starting out, every city in the U.S. would debut real-time, geo-based charts—and later on, maybe scenes across the globe.
It stands to reason that an infrastructure like this would be capable of identifying when an artist from Los Angeles becomes popular among listeners in Minnesota, which may inform an artist’s decision to route their tour in that direction. To bring this full circle, if this service also recommended tickets and merchandise, it would be able to alert listeners in the Twin Cities area that their favorite band will be stopping by in the coming months. And if you happen to end up being a fan standing in the front row at the Frightened Rabbit show, that’s a pretty good experience.