On February 20, Billboard announced that YouTube video stream data would be taken into account in determining the Billboard Hot 100. Billboard reports “Billboard is now incorporating all official videos on YouTube captured by Nielsen’s streaming measurement, including Vevo on YouTube, and user-generated clips that utilize authorized audio into the Hot 100.” Now the formula for the Hot 100 chart includes streaming data, digital track sales, physical singles sales, and terrestrial radio play.
Because of this new development, Brooklyn-based producer Baauer has seen his song “Harlem Shake” rise to the top of the Hot 100 chart. Based largely on the viral sensation video clips (see below), “Harlem Shake” has received 8.7 million views on the official YouTube video.
“Harlem Shake” is only the 21st song in Hot 100 history to debut at number 1. Baauer, according to Billboard, is the first artist to rise from relative insignificance to top the charts on his first entry. Although the song has been out since last June, its rise to prominence has occurred over the past few weeks because of the viral success it has seen. “Harlem Shake” has come to represent its own meme on the internet rather than a song by the artist Baauer.
When the internet gets ahold of something, its true popularity can be unlocked. An open, free and inclusive digital environment, users create their own experiences. Largely free of political and corporate influence, user-generated content gains popularity in a genuine grassroots way. Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” is a primo example of an artist taking advantage of the internet’s possibilities. Nobody is advertising “Harlem Shake,” it’s not getting played out on top 40 radio stations, and Baauer’s record label is Mad Decent! People simply love the idea of dancing to his song in crazy costumes in random places.
This comprehensive overhaul to Billboard opens the music industry to the unlimited possibilities of the internet. The battle over the corporate influence in music was challenged by the rise of the internet age, and now we can see Billboard itself attempt to adapt to the ever-shifting musical landscape. As the industry continues to shift away from corporate-backed mega-bands towards the ground-up blogosphere environment, artists like Baauer can begin to compete with the likes of Bruno Mars and Brittney Spears. With this new formula for calculating the list, the amount of money backing an artist is no longer a measure of their success or popularity. The hopeful result: the de-kitsch-ification of the Hot 100 list. Of course the Bruno Marses and Taylor Swifts of the industry will continually appear on the chart, but the fact that YouTube is absolutely more open and free than radio suggests that the Hot 100 list will also become more open and free. Although the pay-to-play mode is (theoretically) defunct, the constant free ticket giveaways and promotional deals of the mega-stations suggest that there is a healthy corporate influence in the radio business. This influence guarantees that Drake will get more plays than Bon Iver, Lil Wayne more than Grizzly Bear. But now that YouTube views come into play, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Drake will forever be above Bon Iver on the Hot 100. Because users have absolute agency on the internet over what they choose to listen to, perhaps the Hot 100 will become a people’s list instead of a corporation’s list.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t downsides, either. The new internet age has brought in a re-imagining of the marketing of ‘cool’. Countless blogs attempt to voice their opinions on which bands are worthy of their time and energy and spread judgments based on some abstract sense of authenticity and “genuine music” (Pitchfork, I’m lookin’ at you). Believe it or not, Pitchfork gained popularity in a similar way to “Harlem Shake.” Just as people love watching others dance to “Harlem Shake” in goofy outfits, they love reading snarky album reviews on a 10-point scale. With 240,000 readers per day, Pitchfork is the largest alternative music webzine. In his book Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music, Greg Kot interviewed record store owners and discovered that some inventoried their stores based on reviews Pitchfork authored. Plain and simple, Pitchfork influences music sales. This argument is also relevant to the issue of YouTube. It’s not too hard to read a review on Pitchfork, open a new tab, and head to YouTube to watch the music’s video. Pitchfork.tv’s 2012 partnership with YouTube makes this transition even easier. Pitchfork now produces official videos for bands they cover and post them on YouTube. From a business and cultural perspective, Pitchfork and YouTube have become intertwined. Because of this trend, we must ask ourselves: “how much longer until Pitchfork is more influential than Sony and Warner Bros?”
Overall, the addition of YouTube streaming to the Billboard formula is hopeful. To some degree, it takes power away from those in control of radio plays and puts it back in the hands of the listeners. The essential merit of YouTube is that the listener is an active participant in the decision of what to play rather than a passive listener sitting by a set of speakers. The fact that watching videos on YouTube is free makes it pure choice. Users can chose whatever they want to listen to and access it for free in seconds. While there will certainly be outside forces influencing the popularity of music, for Billboard to recognize the autonomy of internet listeners is monumental. In this way, Billboard for the first time can come to represent a list of 100 songs that people love, not 100 songs that have the biggest corporate backing.