Context: I spent a couple of years working in an Internet measurement company in the early 2000’s so I have some direct experience of measurement methodologies.
If streaming is changing the music industry then it is only logical that the way in which the market is measured should change too. We are in a transition phase where consumers are abandoning ownership for access, and also often swapping spending for free. It is a period of uncertainty and there is an understandable clamour to make sense of it with new approaches to measurement. Hence Billboard’s decision to incorporate streams into its album charts (with 1,500 streams equalling one ‘sale’) and other moves such as the UK’s Official Charts Company’s incorporation of streaming. But it is not just the methodologies of the charts that are changing, their entire purpose is shifting. In fact, before we reinvent charts we need to be clear about what purpose we want them to serve.
Sales charts have historically served a number of purposes:
- Driving sales: securing a high 1st week chart position dramatically increases the chances of more sales because it unlocks opportunities such as (more) radio play, TV coverage, retailer promotion etc.
- Driving awareness: by being in the charts music gets in front of consumers which matters because they typically exhibit herd like behaviour. Chart success can beget chart success.
- Measuring popularity: charts give a snapshot of what is popular with music fans
Adding downloads was a very natural and entirely logical step for charts. Downloads after all are still a sale. So all of the objectives remained intact. But adding streaming changes things. You might be able to make a direct revenue comparison with sales (i.e. 1,500 streams = 1 sale) but that obscures a much more diverse consumption picture. The simple fact is that many streams are not a sales equivalent.
A subscriber listening to an album a few times through on a paid streaming tier can reasonably be considered analogous to an album purchase (in entirety in behavioural terms and in fraction in revenue terms). But a YouTube user that listens to a handful of tracks from an album just once cannot reasonably be considered anything like an album sale. Instead this is far more analogous to radio listening.
Using a revenue determined measure to define the link between streaming and sales changes the nature of a chart and in turn also what purposes it serves best. It becomes something that sits between sales and audience measurement. And, done carefully, that can be OK, but this needs to be recognized. A chart that includes free streams cannot though be considered a sales chart.
Capturing streaming activity is crucial but the issues are where and how. Radio play charts are a fantastic tool and help identify taste trends. This is where free streaming data most naturally sits, along with other inputs such as Shazams and also social data captured by the likes of Next Big Sound and musicmetric. In this increasingly complex consumption landscape a broad range of inputs are needed to paint an accurate measure of music fan interest and behaviour.
But try to do that simultaneously with measuring sales and you end up with a diluted mish mash that does not do either job properly.