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From Jukeboxes to YouTube: How Billboard Is Catching Up With The Times

The viral sensation “Gangnam Style” has spent the past few weeks at number two on the Billboard Top 100 Chart, just behind Maroon 5’s “One More Night.” On the Rap Songs chart, it occupies the top spot. “Gangnam” may be approaching old cultural news at this point, but its Billboard domination is still a recent development—one only made possible last month, when Billboard began to count digital sales and online streams along with radio airplay in its Top 100 lists. The new Billboard puts song purchases and mere listens on equal footing, and it stirred up considerable ire from the music industry. But the decision felt like a long overdue response to a new consumer culture in which fans are as likely to listen to a song on Spotify on replay as buy the single. It marks the latest shift in power in the music industry: from record labels and radio DJs to listeners.

Historically, the Billboard chart has been a finger kept reliably on the pulse of the music business. Before the first Billboard Top 100 was published in November of 1955, the magazine ranked singles three ways: the most-played songs on jukeboxes (as counted by the internal song counters in select machines placed where teenagers were most likely to use them), the songs most played by disc jockeys across America, and the highest-selling singles in stores. The Top 100 designation helped to consolidate all three sources of data right as the popularity of jukeboxes started to decline, just a few years before bands like The Beatles started putting out LP records full of songs. It was a good way to get to know your consumer, and when Billboard fed that info back to the radio stations, it helped the record industry better cater their offerings to the record buying public. That’s how hits were born.

But the power balance first began to shift as MTV and independent record labels gained influence in the 1980s and 1990s. Then the Internet introduced challenges the majors weren’t prepared to deal with: the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster, music streaming, and eventually YouTube. Rappers recorded albums on their computers and then posted the songs directly to MySpace, garnering as many plays as some of the highest-ranking artists on the Billboard Top 100. Billboard, the most important trade magazine in music, was stuck trying to adapt while the big labels it worked with and for watched music sales plummet.

So what’s a Top-100 chart to do in an evolving landscape? As Bill Werde, the magazine’s editorial director, told me, Billboard has been struggling with the realization that “a hit isn’t one thing anymore.” The phenomenon of the pop hit was specific to a time in which there were few ways for young people to stumble upon new music aside from the local jukebox or top-40 radio station. Now the term has picked up a new connotation in a new age: virality.

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Before now, the Billboard chart wasn’t equipped to track viral sensations; the equation that once predicted, explained, and produced hits no longer worked. Take the case of OK Go: the band was relatively unknown until the low-budget video for its song “Here It Goes Again,” in which the musicians performed an elaborate dance routine on treadmills, was posted to YouTube in 2006. The video went viral and has garnered tens of millions of views to date, but the song barely cracked the Top 40 of the old Billboard list. Radio stations weren’t playing it, and people weren’t paying for it, so it was not technically a hit.

These days, songs and videos can take root in the popular imagination without a single play from a radio DJ. “Gangnam Style” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” were both lavished with industry attention in America only after the internet made them hits. So the cultural role of the Billboard list is changing. It has gone from setting the pop musical agenda to playing catch-up in the wake of a sudden viral explosion, reflecting mass cultural tastes rather than helping to create them. Where it once allowed radio stations to understand just whom they were targeting, it now feels like an appendage of an old system, made redundant by the YouTube play count.

This isn’t entirely new, of course. “Gangnam Style” is a creation not entirely unlike what the “Macarena” was in the mid-1990s, that pre-viral viral song that caught on because one person heard it and found it hilarious and then passed it on it to ten friends, who played it at a party for twenty more friends, and so on and so on. The record labels weren’t pulling those strings. The momentum came from pure word of mouth. But this was before YouTube, and the song sold 11 million copies within a year of its American release. Macarena sat at the top of the Billboard list for months, but not just because people were listening to it. People were paying for it, too.