Who’s Happening Now

Behold the top of the Hot 100 for the week of September 18, 2021. Nine of the Top 10 are from the new Drake album Certified Lover Boy, which was released on September 10. Further down, the other 12 tracks on the album all debuted within the Top 40.

This is fine. It reflects the way people consume music now, streaming or downloading on-demand. We don’t go to Musicland to buy pieces of plastic anymore. Most people don’t even order them from Amazon anymore. This is fine.

Here’s what is not fine.

After Billboard tweeted this chart the other day, I retweeted it with a question: “Has Eric Alper proclaimed that this makes Drake greater than the Beatles yet?” Alper is a Canadian music publicist with several annoying Twitter habits, chief among them his fluffing of Billboard chart achievements. Maybe 12 hours later, he tweeted, “Drake is the only artist in music history to have 21 songs in the top 40 simultaneously. And he’s done it twice.” Alper has a vested interest in Who’s Happening Now, and as such concerns himself with history only as something that can be rewritten by Who’s Happening Now. But I have said it over and over: due to changes in methodology, you cannot compare current Billboard chart achievements with those of past eras.

Exactly which date before which you cannot compare is debatable. In 1991, Billboard started using Nielsen Soundscan data in its charts. Soundscan tracked sales data in more-or-less real time, a far more accurate system than the old ask-record-stores-what-they’re-selling system, which Billboard used previously. It was in this era that new albums started regularly debuting at #1, which had been vanishingly rare. It was also in this era that country and hip-hop acts were revealed as a lot more popular (in sales terms) than the old methodology reflected. In 2005, Billboard began incorporating paid digital downloads, which drastically increased the volatility of the singles charts. Another milestone came in 2007, when Billboard began incorporating streaming and on-demand data.

The latter addition presented a conundrum. How do you equalize a Spotify play with an actual sale? The Recording Industry Association of America eventually came up with a number: 1500 streams or ten on-demand downloads is equal to one album sale. So since 2014, Billboard‘s main charts have been popularity charts and not strictly sales charts. Billboard hasn’t always been so transparent about this. Back in the 80s, it started counting airplay in its sales charts, which our friend Mike Hagerty described thusly: “Counting airplay on a mixed chart is like Nissan getting to claim every time you see an Altima drive by as an additional sale.”

But it’s fine. For over a century, it’s been Billboard‘s mission to determine Who’s Happening Now, and how.

Repeating: these methodology changes make comparisons with past achievements meaningless. Drake has put all of the songs on his album into the Top 40 during its first week out? Fine. Michael Jackson would certainly have done it when Bad came out in 1987. The Beatles would have done it, probably with everything from A Hard Day’s Night forward. At the end of the 70s, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer would likely have done it. In the 80s, albums by Madonna, Prince, George Michael and Whitney Houston would likely have come very close. And all would have debuted on the album chart at #1.

In 2018, Drake’s album Scorpion became the fourth ever to contain seven Top-10 hits, joining Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Born in the USA, and Thriller. But the latter three had to remain popular for two solid years in order to score seven singles, while Drake did it in a week. It doesn’t mean his album was as popular as those others; in fact, it might mean just the opposite. Two years after Scorpion, were people still listening to it the way they were with Janet, Bruce, and Michael?

A related achievement involves singles debuting on the Hot 100 at #1. All of them have come since 1995. Had it been possible in earlier eras, other acts would have done it: Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, MJ, Prince, Madonna, Bruce, George Michael, Janet, Whitney. As I noted this week, the Carpenters were big enough in 1971 to have done it. Ariana Grande is staggeringly popular, but her place in history is distorted by the post-2007 accounting change: that she’s debuted at #1 with five singles doesn’t make her the greatest female singer of all time, no matter how badly Eric Alper wants to call her that.

Good on Drake for what he’s done. But any attempt to take the long view of What Has Happened demands that we not be blinded by Who’s Happening Now.

20 thoughts on “Who’s Happening Now

  1. Chris Herman

    Billboard’s counting of streams for their Hot 100 fails to differentiate between a “loved-it” play and a “hated-it” play. With the old system, if you bought (or downloaded) a song, it was because you heard it previously and liked it. In contrast, you can stream a track just out of curiosity only to have it count the same regardless of whether you loved it or hated it.

  2. I followed the link to the Twitter thread on Rolling Stone.

    This is just a reflection of a new group of reviewers and editors, another generation removed from experiencing much of the list in context.

    I think even in its glory days, Rolling Stone was a flawed arbiter of musical taste. But it could be fun. My favorite review was from Dave Marsh, who knew how to write and would happily have filled the magazine himself if allowed.

    It was a one-star review of the Surf Punks’ album “My Beach”.

    It read:

    “My record player.”

  3. Alvaro Leos

    Funny how the 500 greatest songs of all time are all well known artists and well known songs. Apparently virtually no great music was made before 1950, and nothing worthwhile came from classical music. C’mon Rolling Stone, put at least some effort into this list. Put songs by your local bar band, give Lesley Gore the most entries, and make the No. 1 song of all time the “1-800-Cars For Kids” jingle. Otherwise it’s no different than any aging hipster’s Spotify feed.

  4. mikehagerty

    The other factor here (and forgive me if I’m the last to figure this out, but it’s 5:00 a.m. and the coffee is still brewing) is that while an artist releases an album, the public no longer has to buy it to access every track on it that isn’t a single, a B-side or getting some radio play. Everysong is accessible simultaneously and any or all of them can chart on what we quaintly think of as a “singles” chart.

    That, then, sets up artists whose albums contain a lot of songs to set this kind of chart “record”. Looks like Drake has 21 tracks on his new album.

    So, in the same environment, and figuring that for the debut week, curiosity would have most people checking out every track, “The Beatles” (the one we call “The White Album”) , which has 30 songs (well, 29 and “Revolution 9”), would likely have taken ten of the top 10 and very nearly a third of the Hot 100.

    And, to Chris Herman’s point, the curiosity plays would have guaranteed that “Revolution 9” went top ten.

  5. Part of the answer here is probably to unfollow Eric Alper – although his stuff has a way of worming onto my feed from others anyway.

    I dream of an alternate universe where the 28 songs from Trout Mask Replica swarm the Top 40 like rats in a horror movie, with “Pachuco Cadaver” and “My Human Gets Me Blues” throwing elbows for the Number One spot.

    1. I have heard it said that Facebook makes us want to know less about people we know in the real world, and Twitter makes us want to know more about people we’ve never actually met. Eric Alper is the exception to that rule. He’s the kind of person you follow when you first get on Twitter because he seems cool and fun. Only later do you start finding him kind of tiresome.

  6. mackdaddyg

    Your article was very interesting and a little depressing.

    I don’t pay attention to the charts mainly because I don’t keep up with any new music. I’m old. Such is life.

    What depressed me is the reminder that consuming music isn’t the same as the old days. The concept of going to a record/cd store to purchase music is now limited to a smaller audience, and that saddens me a bit. Again, I’m old.

    I can only assume that Billboard is doing a good faith effort to be accurate in these changing times. After reading your timeline of their changes, I got to wondering….people like Bing Crosby were really big in his day. Were there any changes in the Billboard reporting that would cause a Beatles/Crosby comparison to also be an apple/oranges kind of thing?

    Finally, there’s this:

    “The Beatles would have done it, probably with everything from A Hard Day’s Night forward.”

    You got me wondering about that. Given how many radio stations probably played the entire Sgt. Pepper album on the air as soon as it came out, it seems very probable that the Beatles would dominate the top ten singles with tracks from the album….or would one entire album being played beginning to end count?

    Either way, comparing Drake to the Beatles is silly in chart terms. I don’t know if besting the Beatles means anything to current stars or not.

  7. Wesley

    Very fine column here, jb The only time I find the current Hot 100 endurable to note is when the oldies flood the chart during the Christmas season and finally give some airplay to Crosby, Como, the Carpenters and others that have virtually disappeared from all but the most eclectic oldies stations. I really don’t follow or believe in any chart accomplishments made on it pretty much this century due to all the changes.

    And thanks for warning me not to follow Eric Alper, by the way.

  8. You might be interested to learn that I got a private message from Eric Alper this week. He disputes my characterization of his tweets, which he certainly has the right to do. I’m not sure that if I had 785,000 Twitter followers, a thriving career in PR, and a Sirius/XM radio show, that I’d feel a need to defend myself from a guy with 523 followers and a post that’s been read by a couple of hundred people, but that’s his right to do as well.

    1. Wesley

      I am so glad that I wasn’t drinking anything when reading this or I would’ve had to clean up my computer from doing a “Danny Thomas spit take,” as I believe it’s known in the broadcasting world. Quite impressive how you hit a nerve by speaking your truth, and good for you, jb! As far as I’m concerned, this is the best news to start off the change in seasons I’ve heard all day!

    2. Hey JB,
      Aw, I always have time to have conversations about music with anyone – large or small audience. That’s what makes music and journalism and radio so great – there’s a lane and road and opinion for everyone. Have a great weekend!

  9. I had no idea who Eric Alper was and had to look him up. Still means nothing. Interesting note on his family. Alper’s grandfather, Al Grossman, opened Grossman’s Tavern in 1943 and was Toronto’s first licensed blues bar. That IS important.

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