Streaming is making shady tactics easier to employ and undermining the once-impressive accolade
Earlier this week (October 16), Syracuse rapper Post Malone scored his first ever US Number One with recent single ‘Rockstar’. Released in September, the 21 Savage-featuring track has slowly climbed up the Billboard Hot 100 since, much like the song it dethroned – Cardi B‘s ‘Bodak Yellow’. Usually getting to the top of the charts is seen as a big achievement, but maybe we shouldn’t be celebrating for Malone just yet.
Part of the track’s chart success is due to a video posted to YouTube by Republic Records. Rather than it featuring the entirety of ‘Rockstar’, as you might expect, it’s just the chorus repeated on a loop for the same run time as the full song. Strange, right? According to The Fader, views of this clip count towards streaming figures, which in turn count towards chart placings. The video has nearly 45 million views at the time of writing.
Why would anyone want to listen to one chorus over and over? The way in which ‘Rockstar’ is edited in this verse doesn’t make it seem like that’s necessarily what’s happening, though – it is seamless, as if Malone did just write a song with the same lines repeated over and over. The only clues that it might not be the full track are the words “feat. 21 Savage” in the video’s title (his verse is, of course, absent here) and the link to the “full song” in the description. If you’re not paying much attention or the song comes on via YouTube’s auto-play function when you finish watching something else, you’ll be none the wiser.
It all seems more than a little underhand. If you want to use the song’s chorus to direct listeners to stream the full song, is it really necessary to loop it for nearly four minutes? Is getting a formerly hallowed Number One that way an achievement or just a hollow victory won by strategy instead of artistry? This practice doesn’t just threaten the charts, but songwriting itself. Why bother to write the best entire song you can when you just toss off any old verses as long as you’ve got a chorus you can loop over and over on another clip to get those streams rolling in.
Labels are already using similar tactics to get their artists climbing up the charts. Remixes or different versions of songs (e.g. an acoustic version or similar) also count towards chart figures of the original track. Let’s pretend Drake had released a lounge version, trap remix and acoustic version of ‘One Dance’ last summer. That track’s omnipresence in the charts could have been reinforced even more by wildly different audiences and listeners. Is that really fair?
Shape of You – Acoustic, a song by Ed Sheeran on Spotify
In the US, there’s discussion around including YouTube views in albums chart figures in the future. Edited clips like Malone’s or the different versions of the same song could then skewer those placings too, further diminishing the importance of good songwriting. Getting to Number One should demand artists make more than just the minimum effort, otherwise things will become even staler than they already are.
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Of course, streaming also counts towards the UK charts, and a number of new rules have already had to be implemented to stop it from allowing the big name acts to completely dominate things too much. Since July, only an artist’s three most popular tracks can feature in the Top 100, stopping instances of an entire album’s track listing appearing in the upper echelons of the chart. That happened a few times before the rule was put into place, including when tracks from Ed Sheeran‘s ‘÷‘ held 16 of the places in the Top 20.
There’s also been moves to make sure artists who stay at Number One for weeks on end – e.g. ‘Shape Of You’, which clocked up 13 weeks – can’t just keep the top spot for an unfair amount of time. If a song’s streaming figures have gone down three weeks in a row after 10 weeks on the chart its streams will become less valuable. When a song is first released, 300 streams equal one sale. Now, if a song fits the parameters above, that ratio declines to 150 streams per sale, making it easier for new tracks to come in and take its place.
So far this year there’s only been 13 new Number One singles in the UK chart and 11 in the US. Using underhand tactics to exploit your way to streams isn’t going to make that situation any better or the charts more diverse – it’s just going to make things more stagnant, music less exciting and the achievement of making a Number One record seem totally meaningless.