What are the most popular albums in any given week?
For Billboard, the 125-year-old music trade publication, that was once a simple question. Its charts were based on the number of CDs, vinyl LPs or tapes that fans bought at stores.
But compiling its weekly charts has only gotten more complicated with the rise of streaming formats — some free, some paid — and as record companies have found ways to game the system by including free downloads of new albums with the sale of merchandise or concert tickets.
Now, in the latest change to its chart rules, Billboard has tackled one of the industry’s most contentious questions: the role of YouTube, which dominates music consumption online but has frequently been vilified by record companies — and even many of the artists who post videos there — for low royalty payments.
Starting Jan. 3, Billboard will count the popularity of official music videos on YouTube, as well as those on Apple Music, Tidal and Vevo, in the magazine’s flagship album chart, the Billboard 200. (YouTube plays have been part of Billboard’s singles ranking, the Hot 100, since 2013.) User-generated content — like memes or cover versions — will not count.
“It’s an important part of music consumption, and it’s time to recognize that,” said Deanna Brown, the president of the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group, a division of the magazine’s parent company, Valence Media.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, is by most estimates the world’s most popular online destination for music. According to Midia Research, which studies digital media, 55 percent of people who stream music use YouTube, while all free audio streaming services — like Spotify and Pandora (which also have paid tiers) — attract just 37 percent of the market.
The site has also regularly served as a launching pad for major new acts, like the rapper YoungBoy Never Broke Again, who dominated YouTube’s internal charts for months before landing a No. 1 album this fall.
Yet in the music industry, YouTube has been harshly criticized for its low payout rates. Despite YouTube’s vast popularity, ad-supported outlets like it generated $760 million last year, while paid services like Spotify and Apple generated about $4.7 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
YouTube has also faced questions about how its numbers can be manipulated. In September, the company said it would disallow paid advertising views from its own music chart.
Conflicts like those have prevented YouTube from being included on the chart before. But according to Lyor Cohen, the longtime music executive who three years ago became YouTube’s global head of music, those days are gone. Last year, the company introduced YouTube Music, intended as a direct competitor to Spotify and Apple Music, with both paid and free tiers.
“We went from fearful to collaborative and hopeful,” Cohen said of YouTube’s evolving relationship with the music industry.
How will YouTube streams affect the Billboard chart? Brown did not expect a drastic impact.
“I don’t know that you’ll see dramatic changes in the near term,” she said.
But the addition of billions of streams each week could have a substantial impact. Billboard will give the same weight to YouTube streams as it does to those from Apple, Spotify or any other platform: 1,250 clicks from a paying subscriber — or 3,750 clicks from a nonpaying user — are counted as the equivalent of one album sale.
One likely effect is a further dampening of the role of old-fashioned sales, which have been dropping for years but can still be significant. In September, the metal band Tool went to No. 1, largely by selling 88,000 copies of a $45 deluxe CD package.
After the video rule goes into effect, a band relying on such sales may more easily be swamped by another artist with a viral video.