The Effects of Streaming on the SoundScan Charts

Billboard Charts


On December 3, 2014, for the first time, music streams were included in the album sales charts released by Nielsen SoundScan for Billboard. This included streams for major services such as Spotify and Beats Music (now Apple Music). Additionally, single track sales that had previously been accounted for in a separate SoundScan report were now integrated into the Billboard 200 chart. SoundScan decided to equate 1,500 streams with one album sale, with ten single sales equating to one album sale.

With on demand streaming numbers growing year over year, it was clear that the adding in streaming numbers and track equivalent album sales data would impact the charts. But questions remained about how big of an effect these changes would really have. Would the #1 album in a given week change once streams are accounted for? How significant a percentage of overall sales is the streaming number each week? How do streaming totals effect sales numbers after release week? Does the addition of streaming give an advantage to some artists or genres?

How Does Streaming Effect The #1 Album?

We analyzed data to see if the changes to the charts was effecting what the #1 album was for any given week. Looking at SoundScan data for 15 different weeks spanning February 2015 through June 2015, there was only one instance of a #1 album that was different than what the charts would have recorded if it weren’t taking streaming and track equivalent albums into account. This occurred on the week of April 6 – April 12, where the Furious 7 soundtrack was able to take the #1 spot, despite selling 30,000 fewer copies of the album than All Time Low’s Future Hearts. In this instance, there were roughly 9 million additional streams of the Furious 7 songs. However, the big difference was made up in TEA (track equivalent albums). Behind the massive hit song “See You Again” – the Furious 7 soundtrack sold over 580K singles this week, equivalent to 58,000 album sales.

How Does Streaming Effect The Top 5 Positions?

Although the #1 spot was only effected by the recent changes in one out of 15 weeks, the next four spots were much more volatile. Out of the 15 weeks, there was only week where all five of the spots were exactly the same as they would have been based on the old charts. The Furious 7 soundtrack once again showed the most movement; in six different weeks the album ended up in the top 5 and was in a higher spot than it would have been previously. In four of those six weeks, the album would not have even cracked the top five in the old format. During the week of May 11 – May 17, although the album only sold 9,262 copies, good for 23rd position in traditional sales, it was able to sneak into the top 5, leaping over 18 other albums on the back of both very strong streaming and track sales.

Streaming Versus Single Sales

On first thought, it would seem clear that this change (until the launch of Apple Music) would have hurt artists who don’t make their music available for streaming, the most famous example being Taylor Swift. Since Taylor’s music wasn’t available on streaming services and most of her competitions was, one would expect her to lose some ground. However, because of the addition of TEA into the charts along with streaming, Taylor actually had more weeks where her positioning was raised with updated charts than it was lowered. This is because every week she continued to put up strong single numbers, as each of her singles peaked at or near the top of it iTunes charts.

How Significant Is Streaming?

Looking across all 15 weeks and all Top 200 albums for each week (3,000 unique rows), there were over 6.61 billion streams, accounting for 13% of the overall album sales in the new chart model. However, when only looking at the top five for each week (75 unique rows) – only 11 of these entries are above the overall average of 13%. This means that 85% of albums that landed in top five overall for the week, were streamed less than average, compared to the overall Top 200 charts. The main reason for this is that a consumer will generally only buy an album once, and sales will almost always drop after the first week. Meanwhile, streaming will continue for a longer period of time. So, although in the Top 5 streaming may not account for a very big percentage, moving further down the list, the impact is generally greater.

Looking at A$AP Rocky’s release A.L.L.A., in its release week, streaming accounted for 11.65% of the overall activity. It was streamed over 25 million times in those 7 days, the equivalent of 17,070 album sales. In the second week, although album sales dropped from 116,731 to 31,758, streaming activity saw a much smaller drop going to 19.4 million streams. In this week, streaming accounted for 25.7% of total activity.

Who Benefits From Streaming the Most?

Looking over these 15 weeks, hip hop artists appeared to benefit the most from the addition of streaming into the Billboard 200. Looking at the top 25 albums across all weeks based on what received the most streams – 21 of these were hip hop releases. Drake’s album “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late” accounted for 15 of the top 25 spots, as it continued to see remarkable streaming success throughout its first 15 weeks of release. Over these 15 weeks, Drake’s stream total was the equivalent of selling 207,753 albums. A$AP Rocky’s album made this list three times, with Kendrick Lamar making it twice and Big Sean cracking the list during his release week. The other four non hip hop releases came from Sam Smith, Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheeran and the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack.

Overall Impact

Although most of the publicity from the December 2nd shift surrounded the addition of streaming into the formula for calculating the Billboard 200 charts, adding TEA into this has had an equally big, if not bigger impact. This holds particularly true for soundtracks, where one song has the potential to become a massive hit and carry the overall sales numbers for the whole album. We saw this both from the Furious 7 soundtrack as well as the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Streaming also helps more in the long tail overall than in the first week. In the first week, album sales will often still dominate, but after that, they will take a steep decline, while streaming can stay steady for many weeks.

This notion of long tail favoring streaming is an interesting concept. Do most people who are likely to purchase an album do it in the first few weeks? If this is the case, then, when pushing an album a month after release or longer, it may make more sense to be driving streaming services than retail. In addition to time since release, the genre of the release could help dictate the power of streaming. Hip hop and R&B are driving the biggest streaming releases, so making sure that streaming is being looked out for in those releases is important. As streaming continues to grow, it’s interesting to see that in a chart race, what may end up making the difference in who wins and who comes in second isn’t the streaming differences, but the winner in single sales.

Joe Schlesinger
Written By:
Account Director
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