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Billboard’s director of charts explains how a track like “Harlem Shake” can shoot to No. 1

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In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Last month, Billboard updated the way it formulates its Hot 100 chart, adding the influence of things like YouTube streams to the way it calculates a hit’s reach. It’s a move that’s made a big difference and allowed for Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”—a track that’s basically more of a soundtrack to a meme now than an actual “heard it on the radio” song—to shoot to No. 1. It was a controversial move on Billboard’s part, but one that speaks to the state of music these days. An insanely popular song—Psy’s “Gangnam Style” for instance—might have taken the world by storm, but that doesn’t mean that it’s setting the radio or retail worlds on fire. With the music industry’s sales numbers consistently circling the proverbial drain, The A.V. Club thought it would be interesting to find out how Billboard’s charts actually get put together. We talked to Silvio Pietroluongo, the magazine’s director of charts, about SoundScan, record sales, and how his team determines whether Taylor Swift is country, pop, or both.


The A.V. Club: Would you describe some of the different charts Billboard has?

Silvio Pietroluongo: Billboard has dozens of charts. Some measure single actions, like a sale, radio airplay, and streaming. Then we have charts like the Hot 100 and some of our other song genre charts that are a hybrid of multiple streams. For the Hot 100, for instance, we measure radio airplay, digital downloads, and now streaming data. We added a large piece of streaming data a year ago this March. We added a lot of the subscription, on-demand services like Spotify, Slacker, Rdio, and MOG. We’ve had that in the pie for a while, those three pieces, but just recently, YouTube became the new member of the streaming contributors.


AVC: Sales-based charts are based on UPCs scanned and reported to SoundScan, correct?

SP: Yeah, scanning or when you buy a digital download. It’s registered, and it’s reported to Nielsen SoundScan by all the retailers. They track everybody.

AVC: For something like the Hot 100, how does streaming data or radio airplay get to you guys? You’re tracking so many things at once.

SP: It’s all processed for us by Nielsen Entertainment. A digital download is a sale, so it’s tracked similar to how they track albums. Nielsen BDS [Broadcast Data Systems] has radio-monitoring technology that monitors over 1,200 radio stations that report to the Hot 100. Any time a song is played, it’s electronically fingerprinted and processed via computers and registered as a play on various radio stations. For streaming, it’s a little bit different. It’s sort of similar to the retail portion, where the retailers provide data to Nielsen SoundScan. In this case, the streamers provide data to Nielsen to process. They match the data, they clean it up, and they send it to us to incorporate into our charts.


AVC: What’s the time period you measure? Tuesday to Monday?

SP: For sales and streaming, we use a Monday-to-Sunday cycle. The reports we get for sales and streaming cut off end-of-day on Sunday. Radio is a little different because we get real-time information from the monitoring system. We use a Wednesday-to-Tuesday cycle, and we create the Hot 100 chart on Wednesday morning.


AVC: Why did Billboard just now decide to add YouTube streaming to the Hot 100?

SP: We’ve been talking to them for quite some time. It’s been nearly two years since we’ve had open discussions on a serious level. There were various obstacles to overcome along the way. Part of it was making sure the data they’re sending us is sent in a timely manner. It’s a large volume of data, and we want to make sure it’s accurate, and we weren’t going a period of two weeks without getting new data.


So there’s that, and there’s the negotiation of trying to acquire data. When I say acquire, I don’t necessarily mean monetarily acquire, but just working out a deal for us to have that data as part of the chart. It’s been a combination of that, and we talked to a lot of companies.

A year ago, we were able to line up a bunch of other types of audio streaming services, like Spotify, and it was just getting together at that point. It’s not a matter of, “Hey, we wanted to do it now.” It just happened that we did it now. “Harlem Shake” is a pretty big song out there that sort of shines a light on what kind of effect it can have on the chart.


AVC: Being No. 1 on these charts is obviously a big deal. What steps do you take, or does Nielsen take, to make sure you have the numbers right?

SP: In terms of sales, it’s all done by point-of-purchase barcode scanning. That’s relayed to Nielsen from the retailers. There are processes in place for them, based on volume, if there’s any anomaly happening there, something looks a little odd—a store all of a sudden selling well more than they ever sold before—all those kinds of red flags surface, and they’re investigated. There are processes in place for that. Each of the streamers we deal with has their own methodology to prevent spamming or looping or bots out there that could multiply plays to an unnatural level. On top of that, we have a team of experts here that notice things like, let’s say, if we see a song showing up in the top 10, and we’ve never heard of it before, there might be a problem with that.


AVC: Some indie record stores have their sales weighted, correct? As in, one sale there might show up as 10 sales on the chart?

SP: SoundScan itself has a majority of the market. They don’t have 100 percent. They do try to account for the missing pieces by weighting. I would actually go to them with this question, though. I’d rather not speak to their weighting system.


AVC: How do you decide what goes on which chart? If Taylor Swift puts out a record, she’s obviously going to be on several charts. She’s going to be on the country chart, she’s going to be on the Hot 100, she’s going to be on the Billboard albums chart. But is that also a bluegrass record? Who makes that decision?

SP: [Laughs.] We have chart managers that are responsible for the various genre charts that we have. For something like Taylor Swift or Mumford & Sons, it can be tricky. The sound of rock changes. You could go back to the New Order, Depeche Mode days, and now Postal Service. That’s still rock, but it’s electronic.


AVC: It’s on the dance charts.

SP: Exactly, it is on the dance charts, too. You don’t have to just fit one chart. An artist could be on a multitude of charts if it makes sense. We have a team of people here, and we have some lively discussions about that. We don’t just decide internally. We look at what type of activity is happening. Is Taylor Swift’s song getting played on country radio? Is the label working it to country radio? We try to get some feedback from the people involved with the record to see. Ultimately, we make the judgments here. There are a lot of gray areas. We do the best we can to put the titles on the proper charts.


The bluegrass thing is tricky. You also look at an artist’s history. They’re not always beholden to that history, obviously, but if the sound is the same and they’ve never really been considered bluegrass, then maybe not. Bluegrass is a tough one. That’s probably one of the tougher ones we have.

AVC: What’s your week like? Is Monday night just crazy for you guys?

SP: Every night I get home late, and I get my family all upset. That’s pretty much it, like everybody else nowadays. It’s really a nonstop week, especially with two online properties [Billboard and BillboardBiz] to feed. Part of our team also contributes editorial content to the websites regarding charts and trends we’re seeing borne out of charts. It’s a pretty hectic workweek.


Chart-wise, some of our radio charts close on Sunday, so on Monday we’re processing some radio charts. We’re also, as you say, deciding genres. That entails reviewing lists and lists of titles that come in through Nielsen on an album and song level, where we have to decide what genres they are and mark them up in databases so when we do process the charts, that bluegrass album is showing up on the bluegrass chart. That takes up a good portion of the early week. Those SoundScan sales charts arrive Tuesday night. We review them, process them, finalize them at some point on Wednesday, and at the same time, try to close the magazine and get all the stuff up on the website. It’s a long week. And the next thing you know, it’s Monday again.

The rest of the week is continuing our editorial coverage, having meetings, continuing our review of charts, and finding fun new ways and fun new sources to include in our charts to make them as relevant as they can be.


AVC: How is the Heatseekers chart put together?

SP: The Heatseekers specifically, when it was created in the ’90s, was to showcase artists that never cracked the top half of the Billboard 200 chart. It’s really tied to an artist’s chart history. It’s purely a sales-based chart. If an artist has never had an album reach the top 100 of the Billboard 200 or the top 10 of some of our other genre charts, then that artist can still be on the Heatseekers chart.


We’ve tried different ways to tout up-and-coming artists. We created a chart called Uncharted about two years ago, measuring social and streaming activity for acts. That has the same sort of chart cross-referencing, where if you haven’t reached a certain threshold, you can be on that chart. It provides a different look at acts. The social data is worldwide, so it opens it up to a little more diverse set of artists. We’re always looking at ways to expose up-and-coming acts.

AVC: Ten years ago it was harder to actually get on the charts than it is now. Now you can sell a few thousand records and sneak into the top 200. How long have you been with Billboard, and how has that trend affected your job or the charts in general?


SP: I was here before we had SoundScan, right out of college when we were calling radio stations and calling stores and getting faxes from them and hoping they reported accurately.

AVC: Good luck.

SP: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s funny, because when discussions were happening about launching SoundScan, it was sort of silly that some of the biggest artists around would debut on the album chart in the 30s and 40s and make their way to No. 1. The question was, “When movies open, they start fast. Don’t albums start fast?” The answer is yes. In the method of reporting and the time it took for people to report and for us to process, I think those things got delayed.


To get back to your question, yeah, when we launched SoundScan, all of a sudden you had hip-hop records going to No. 1, which was never the case. That was a big change. Then you bring download sales into the equation, and someone can have a hit that’s not even on the radio. It shows up on the top 10, which was a little different. Now you have streaming, which, you [can] see with Baauer. The success on YouTube led to that track showing up in the top three of our sales charts this week, and it could be the No. 1 selling download next week. You saw it with Psy. We didn’t have YouTube on the charts when he was on, but everything that was borne out of that play, from sales to streaming, was certainly displayed and got that song to No. 2. These are avenues for people to have success now. Will it be long-lasting success? I guess that’s the question with any act, but I think with Baauer, you’re going to start seeing some radio airplay come out of this. When that happens, then it exposes the record to the mainstream audience like it did with Psy. It didn’t really start selling the millions of downloads until there was some radio activity surrounding the social activity.

AVC: It’s also kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. Programmers see the record on the charts and it legitimizes it. It’s not just some meme that’s going around.


SP: Exactly. There’s a lot of press around Baauer this week, so I’m wondering if those insane streaming numbers are going to get higher, or if people have sort of exhausted their meme ingenuity.

AVC: That kind of success can be relative, though. I read that the kids who made “Hot Cheetos & Takis” never saw a dime from their song, and that’s been viewed something like 5 million times on YouTube to date.” With this kind of Internet popularity, it’s sometimes a question of how you monetize that streaming success. At some point, YouTube starts kicking money to the stars of its popular videos, but someone like Psy just started making money because he got a manager, was in commercials, started touring, and so on. He was smart.


SP: It’s all relative. People quote streaming numbers all the time; maybe now that it’s part of the charts, this can put into context what’s high and what’s not. Again, the numbers we’re quoting everywhere are U.S.-based numbers, which is, if you go on the website, you’re going to see total worldwide views. It’s always going to look a little different.