/ 13 April 2022

Do music charts matter in the digital era?

2021 Billboard Music Awards Backstage
Drake regularly finds himself at the top of the charts in the streaming era. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for dcp)

For decades, music charts have influenced listeners on which songs are popular at a particular time. As patterns in how people consume music is changing, are music charts still relevant for our time?

The music chart premiered in the 1940s, when Billboard magazine first started tallying songs. The song at the top of the chart would signify how popular the track was — which meant it was booming on the airwaves, and the musician could look forward to a substantial number of sales. However, in the digital era, which has drastically changed how people consume music  — and introduced different platforms where music is played  —  the chart still persists and insists on ranking songs. Why is this so? 

Neil Johnson, a consulting radio programmer, attributes this to the “innate intuition in the chart”. He explains that people innately want to rate things, and not only music. On the internet, myriads of ranking websites appear time and time again with “top tens” of a any number of different things. Those, says Johnson, are also charts also.

When songs are listed in print or online, it sparks an interest. People want to gauge how they thought about it, as compared to the chart. 

Even though charts have been around for years, South Africa has only now garnered the strength to score songs officially, although the country could not rid itself of the obsession to tally songs before that was so, as radio stations have been ranking songs according to their popularity since the 1960s.

Last year, the Recording Industry of South Africa (Risa) launched The Official South African Music Charts (often shortened to the acronym Tosac), the first official music chart measuring the music consumed through digital platforms in the country. 

According to Lesley Mofokeng, spokesperson for Risa, the chart aggregates streams from four platforms: Apple Music, YouTube Music, Deezer and Spotify, amounting to 90% of all legal music streaming in South Africa. 

“This is the first and only [official chart] in the country,” says Mofokeng. The chart does not only feature local artists, but all types of music consumed in the country. 

Andrew Mitchley, chief operations officer at David Gresham Records, says that the charts are essential because they inform the music industry and the public of the current success of songs and artists.  

He added that they capture the “current buzz and [are] for creating historical archives of the success of local artists for future generations to engage with and draw inspiration from”. 

Mitchley says that the US charts were established in the 1940s and have been well maintained ever since, and that hopefully our charts will stand the test of time too.

Why now, though?

Charts “are a great way for an artist to understand themselves in a digital market.”   (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Apple Music)

Streaming era

Johnson says record labels would stock CDs and records in various stores. A computer system linked to the stores would mark a CD sale as it is scanned on the till for a particular artist. That is how record labels used to aggregate album sales of their artists, but the data was never made into a chart. 

Johnson emphasised that the charts show what people are listening to. However, with the emergence of streaming music platforms such as Apple and Spotify, consumers can create their own charts through their own playlists. Charts have become “hyper-personalised”. 

This could be a problem. In a 2019 article by Mark Tavern on DJ Booth, he explained that consumption patterns have indeed shifted and that no single chart can capture consumer behaviour. “If everybody has a chart, how can there be a standard?” he questioned. 

Tavern insists that in today’s fragmented record business, these numbers mean less and less. 

“At the same time, the migration to streaming as consumers’ primary consumption method implies that marketers are now awash in data, struggling to define consumer engagement,” he says. 

“Legacy systems, processes, and mindsets prevent flexibility in terms of analysing consumer behaviour. Artists and their teams routinely game the system. All have made it nearly impossible to understand what’s happening.”

Kwelagobe Sekele, Gallo’s resident curator, also questions charts’ relevance. Sekele, who is also known by his stage name, PO as a member of Kwani Experience, says that charts in principle kill music and culture because they are limited to a select number of artists and ignore a “whole universe” of music out there. 

“It’s like someone is the best this or that. It’s a setup that looks like a standard for accomplishments,” he said. 

However, he added charts had one use: they show sales.

“I think it does matter,” says musician Nomsa Mazwai. Art is a vocation, and it’s how you generate your income, she explains. Collective management organisations in South Africa collect different royalties. They show the songs that get the most digital plays, and an artist can look at the number and see what the financial split will be for them. Charts “are a great way for an artist to understand themselves in a digital market,” she added. 

But Mazwai says consumers should not let charts dictate what they listen to. “Listen to the music that makes you joyful and happy.” 

She says some consumers are not music-adventurous and some explore other forms of music. So they might be influenced by what is popular and that is what’s on the charts. 

Mitchley contends that many people enjoy being guided by the charts, as it keeps them informed of current trends. “Whereas listening patterns have evolved on streaming platforms to cater to specific tastes, it’s really up to the individual and their desire to discover the new trends or not,” he explains. 

Mofokeng says that it is in the artists’ best interests to take the metrics seriously. They remain popular and are some of the most listened to shows on radio on weekends. Music charts matter to any developed or developing music industry, because it’s what informs the listeners’ buying decisions and empowers decision-makers with knowledge.