Is Rolling Stone’s new music chart worth paying attention to?

Is Rolling Stone’s new music chart worth paying attention to?
Image: AP/Richard Shotwell
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There is a new music chart in town. On July 2, Rolling Stone launched “Rolling Stone Chart,” a ranking of the most popular songs, artists, and albums in the US. The music magazine’s new chart is a challenge to the hegemony of Billboard magazine’s ranking system, the industry standard since the 1930s.

Rolling Stone is staking its claim in the music ranking space on transparency and more frequent updates. Unlike Billboard, it’s chosen to reveal the exact formula it uses for its ranking, though it does not make the underlying data public. It also updates the rankings on a daily basis, while Billboard is only refreshed once a week. The other major distinction is that unlike Billboard, the Rolling Stone’s measurement does not include passive listening like radio play, only counting physical purchases, digital purchases, and streams.

A look at the top 10 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Songs reveals that while the rankings share some commonalities—Lil Nas X’s megahit “Old Town Road” is number one on both charts followed by “Señorita” by Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello—there are also some major differences. Perhaps most important, the Rolling Stone rankings are for June 28 to July 4, while the most recently available Billboard rankings used data from June 24 to June 30. This is likely why “Panini,” Lil Nas X’s recently released follow-up to “Old Town Road,” is not in the top 10 on Billboard. The impact of not including radio play is apparent in the ranking of “Talk” by Khalid, which is number four on the Billboard chart, but just missed Rolling Stone’s top 10 (it is number 11). “Talk” is the number one radio song in the country, according to Billboard.

Top ten songs in the US, as they appeared on July 5, 2019

Rolling Stone’s new chart begs the question: Why do rankings even matter? Most centrally, they are useful for music industry watchers who need to understand which artists are most popular and which artists and genres are trending upwards. Music labels use them to figure out which kinds of artists they should be seeking out, and which of their artists’ songs are resonating. Concert promoters and advertisers also find rankings useful as a way to identify high-profile artists that they may want to work with.

The rankings also play to a sense of competition and ego, and are a way for record labels to show an artist that they are properly marketing their music. A recent battle for the number one spot on Billboard’s album chart between the artists DJ Khaled and Tyler the Creator led to controversy. Billboard disqualified some of DJ Khaled’s sales because the album was bundled with the sale of energy drinks. DJ Khaled was reportedly furious when his album did not get the top spot due to this disqualification.

Another fun role of charts is that they allow music analysts to look at how popular music has changed over time. Among other insights, Billboard’s historical data has been used to show that songs have been getting shorter over the past several decades, and the declining number of “one-hit wonders.” The new Rolling Stone chart won’t be able to be used for this purpose, meaning that Billboard has at least one clear advantage.

Even without historical data, Rolling Stone’s offering is almost certainly good news. Competition will probably make Billboard work harder to remain number one.