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Billboard Makes Big Changes to Rock Songs Chart

By October 15, 2012

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Every Thursday, Billboard unveils the latest charts for all different types of music, including the Rock Songs chart, which I write about each week because I'm interested in reporting on what singles are having the greatest impact on rock fans. Last week, the No. 1 song on that chart was Mumford & Sons' "I'll Wait," but on October 11, Billboard announced that it would be reconfiguring the Rock Songs chart, as well as the song charts for several other genres. By doing so, Billboard hasn't just radically changed how they tally the country's most popular rock songs but also how it defines rock itself.

In Billboard's announcement, the industry trade paper said it would alter its ranking of country, R&B/hip-hop and Latin songs: "[D]igital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS." Likewise, the Rock Songs chart, which started up in the summer of 2009 and had previously only focused on airplay, "will also include digital download sales and streaming data for the first time."

The changes were immediately felt on the Rock Songs chart: fun.'s "Some Nights," which had gotten as high as No. 3 but had been dropping down the chart in recent weeks, was crowned the new No. 1, with Alex Clare's "Too Close" jumping up from No. 5 to No. 2. ("Too Close" had been at No. 2 for three weeks but had been losing altitude of late.) We had four debuts in the Top 10, one of them being Mumford & Sons' "Babel," which placed at No. 10. ("I Will Wait" fell from No. 1 to No. 5.)

But it's not the huge shifts up and down the Top 10 that bother me. It's the way Billboard has decided to change its methodology.

As the article explains, "The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard's signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100." Additionally, "The move to the Hot 100-based formula will ensure that the top-ranked country, R&B/hip-hop, Latin and rock titles each week will be the top titles listed on each genre's songs ranking. This will be in line with how the Billboard 200 albums chart aligns with the albums charts for each corresponding genre."

In theory, this should allow for a certain consistency across charts, which ought to be a good thing. But in practice, the newfangled Rock Songs chart, at least in its first week, too radically favors pop artists who are only tangentially connected to most people's definition of rock music. With all due respect to Phillip Phillips, Train and Ed Sheeran -- all of whom jumped into the Top 10 -- these aren't artists who are heavily played on rock stations. This was one of the appeals of the old Rock Songs tabulation, which measured the "most popular alternative, mainstream rock and triple A songs, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions across those formats."

Previously, some readers of this site might have been annoyed by, say, the presence of Coldplay next to Linkin Park or Foo Fighters in the Top 10, but at least the old chart accurately reflected what bands rock stations were playing. I've always embraced an inclusive definition of what "rock music" means -- as far as I'm concerned, Wilco, Deftones and Nickelback are all rock music -- but the new Rock Songs chart's definition of "rock music," to my mind, is maddeningly broad. Rather than letting rock stations determine what constitutes rock music in the 21st century, Billboard is looking at the Hot 100 chart and very liberally throwing anything remotely "rock" onto the Rock Songs chart.

My other problem is that, by focusing on streaming sites like Spotify, the new Rock Songs chart inordinately rewards popular albums. Mumford & Sons' Babel, currently the No. 1 album on the Billboard 200, now has 12 songs in the Top 25 of the Rock Songs chart. Nothing like that ever happened before on the old chart, which emphasized singles over album cuts. Consequently, instead of opening up the countdown to more acts, the new Rock Songs chart has become a lot more narrow, presumably because a ton of people are checking out Babel in its entirety on services like Spotify.

As a result, I'm at a loss about what to do going forward. It seems a little silly to continue writing on a weekly basis about a chart that, I feel, no longer reflects the state of current rock music. Interestingly, the Alternative Songs chart, which often has a lot of crossover with the old Rock Songs chart, hasn't changed its format, and its current Top 10, although definitely leaning toward modern rock, may become the chart to follow in the future. At least Alternative Songs pays attention to what stations are playing.

There's an argument to be made that Billboard's new methodology takes the power out of radio's hands and puts it with the listener instead, in the process more accurately illustrating which songs are really the most popular. That's certainly the belief of Silvio Pietroluongo, who's the Billboard Director of Charts. "The way people consume music continues to evolve and as a result so do our genre charts, which now track the many new ways fans experience, listen to and buy music," he said in the announcement. "We're proud to be offering updated genre charts that better reflect the current music landscape." The Rock Songs chart may be updated, but I'm not sure that it's necessarily better.

Update: Here's how I'll be tackling the Billboard charts from here on out.

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Photo courtesy Big Hassle.


November 7, 2012 at 5:59 pm
(1) Steve says:

Expertly written. Your insights on the way songs are currently ranked on the Rock Songs chart were not only enlightening, but they also have me yearning for a return to the older format. I’m seriously thinking about taking your advice and following the Alternative Songs chart going forward. Thanks for the great article. Well done.. keep up the good work.

November 8, 2012 at 12:12 am
(2) rock says:

Thanks, Steve — I really appreciate it. If you’re interested, here’s how I’ll be doing my weekly Billboard Rock Charts from here on out.

November 21, 2012 at 6:21 pm
(3) Nick says:

Thanks for this article. I also follow the charts weekly but have been baffled for the last few as to why suddenly the entirety of Babel is in the top 25. Ridiculous.

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