If you said the name Olivia Rodrigo just seven months ago, only a few heads would have turned. Rodrigo, who at the time was known only for her appearance in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and for her semi–viral hit “All I Want,” quickly became an overnight sensation. After she released her first solo track “drivers license,” all the stars aligned to create a hit unlike any other. A massive TikTok following, viral memes, and endless praise catapulted the song to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for not just one but eight straight weeks. This feat would be impressive for any song, let alone for an artist’s debut single. “drivers license” seemed like a once–in–a–lifetime combination of word of mouth and public interest, but Rodrigo would go on to be even more successful. Besides landing eight songs from her album SOUR in the top 10 of the Streaming Songs chart, Rodrigo also placed every track from SOUR in the top 30 of the Hot 100. Based on these statistics, it would seem that Billboard accurately represented Rodrigo’s trajectory from a Disney star to a global pop sensation.
Unfortunately, this is quite a rare occurrence for Billboard. Rodrigo’s third single “good 4 u” unexpectedly became even bigger than “drivers license,” breaking some of the same exact records “drivers license” set just a few months prior. One would expect an even stronger performance on the charts, except this time, Rodrigo had competition: BTS.
The K–pop group’s history with Billboard is complicated. In 2018, their album Love Yourself: Tear was their first number one album on the Billboard 200, a first for any K–pop album at the time. However, collaborations with Western artists including Halsey, Lauv, and Charli XCX performed relatively poorly on the Hot 100, and for such a popular boy band, a number one was their ultimate aim. It would take two years before their all–English “Dynamite” would top the charts. “Dynamite” had all the ingredients for a smash hit: it was catchy, featured a colorful music video, and was heavily played on radios, and the group went all out to capitalize on this chance. During the song’s tracking week, BTS released remixes, offered discounts, and sold vinyls and cassettes. They relied on their fanbase to purchase, stream, and share as much as possible, and it paid off when the group finally achieved their elusive goal.
For their new single “Butter,” BTS faced a harder battle against Rodrigo’s “good 4 u.” Again, BTS took advantage of every tool available to them, from instrumental versions to physical editions. Of course, they’re not the first musical act to do this – artists such as Taylor Swift and Travis Scott have also relied on remixes, bundled sales, and excessive promotional campaigns to add a number one to their discography – but what made “Butter” so controversial is that based on most metrics, “good 4 u” was undoubtedly the more popular song. Simply put, “Butter” was the top song for just the BTS ARMY, who spent over $100,000 in digital sales to boost the song. To the general public, “good 4 u” was the clear winner that week, even if it was number two on the Hot 100.
With so many recent misleading chart toppers, Billboard was determined to revise the rules. After 2020 had a record amount of number one debuts, indicative of a year with weak hits powered by initially high but rapidly declining interest, Billboard declared an end to tour and merchandise bundles in order to control the chart chaos. While this change was a welcome one, it is just the first step for Billboard to resolve its long–fought war with its own charts.
When the Billboard Charts were first created in 1936, there was no such thing as digital sales or streaming. Instead, the main driver of chart positions was the number of physical shipments. This is different from the number of physical sales used today because sales are measured by public consumption while shipments are measured by a manager’s willingness to invest in sales and promotion. Therefore, rather than depending on the fans, label groups took it upon themselves to obtain the highest positions. What companies could do was ship out tens of thousands of albums to record stores, regardless of whether or not they thought fans would buy them. Even if they recorded a net loss, a number one was seen as much more valuable and profitable.
As iTunes rose in popularity, the focus shifted to the digital world. Billboard recalibrated their formulas to include both digital and physical sales in their calculations, thus ushering in the return to a fan–driven market. Because of their massive fanbase, this is where BTS could shine the most, obliterating any possible competition. With the recent addition of streaming, chart exploitation has become even easier. Instead of promoting songs, labels would just plaster them on the most popular playlists for the maximum number of streams. Billboard has drastically changed throughout the years, but manipulation has remained a pressing issue.
So if Billboard fails to be a good measure of an artist’s success, what should replace it? One suggestion is to consider revenue instead of sales. Revenue–based charts have already been implemented in other countries such as Germany. This would make the streams–per–dollar conversion clearer, prevent the intentional use of discounts, and reduce the impact of excessive radio play. While fans would still be able to find the ideal tactics to artificially increase a track’s position, this type of chart is more transparent and more representative of a song or album’s popularity.
At the end of the day, charts are merely portrayals of calculated statistics. They can never truly quantify an artist’s connection with their fans or the quality of their music. Perhaps it’s time for fans and label executives to stop putting so much focus on them. Sure, charts can be used to flaunt an artist’s accomplishments, but not every number one translates to the next 1989, Teenage Dream, Scorpion, or Divide. The dream of smash hits and long–lasting albums is tainted with fraud, deception, and controversy. Let the music speak for itself.