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.