The rules for scoring a No. 1 album are about to change in a big way. The Billboard 200 chart currently ranks the top 200 full-lengths each week based only on sales. Now, in what Billboard says it’s most dramatic update to the chart’s methodology since the SoundScan era began in May 1991, the music-industry bible has announced it will start counting on-demand streaming and digital track sales toward the album chart.
The two additional metrics will go into a new algorithm. The first chart to use the revised rules will be published on December 3, covering the top 200 albums of the Thanksgiving week. That’s a week that will bring new releases from Eminem, Rick Ross and David Guetta, among others.
How will it work? Well, 1,500 on-demand song streams from an album will be equal to one album sales; Billboard says it tracks “all of the major on-demand audio subscription services, including Spotify, Beats Music, Google Play and Xbox Music.” And 10 digital tracks sales from an album will equal one album sale.
Who will benefit? Clearly, acts that tend to have more streaming listens and digital track sales than album sales will get a boost. Billboard lists Ariana Grande, Hozier and Maroon 5, for a start. Those 1,500 streams could all be of the same song, so a hit single could play an even bigger role in determining a hit album.
The details of the metrics and the reality of how they play out in practice will be sure to foster debate in the weeks and months ahead. But some change was inevitable and hardly premature. Billboard already counts streaming for the Hot 100 and its genre song charts.
The fallout from the changes to the genre charts may foreshadow potential criticisms of the album chart, specifically that the changes made the charts more homogenous (a popular rap song that isn’t played on rap radio, for instance, can now top the rap charts). But all that remains to be seen.
Billboard isn’t doing away with its old Billboard 200 methodology entirely. It will launch a new chart, Top Album Sales, that will track the top albums based on sales alone. Genre album charts will also stay sales-based for now.
The bottom line, though, is that the new chart reflects the industry’s bottom line. Rising streaming revenues have been offsetting a drop in sales. The album is a concept, and that will live on even if the new “album” chart doesn’t technically track just albums anymore.