Congratulations to Janet Jackson, whose first album in seven years Unbreakable reached number one on the Billboard 200 charts last week. It takes the pop icon’s total tally of number ones to six, leaving only Madonna and Barbara Streisand above her in the rankings of women with most chart topping albums. Janet deserves all sorts of accolades for this achievement at this point in her life and career, all the more impressive considering that the feat was achieved without the media tour that precedes most number one albums.
However, Unbreakable’s position also marks a strange moment in the history of the album chart as well, having reached its position despite only moving 116,000 copies in its first week. Compare this to Janet’s much loved 2001 album All For You, which sold over 600,000 copies, or her 2004 effort Damita Jo, which moved 380,000 but only peaked at number two. The contrast is staggering not just for the difference in numbers but also when you consider the types of sales these are mainly referring to: The Billboard chart now takes into account digital sales, singles sales, and streams through the recognised streaming services as well as physical CD sales, with the majority of the figures made up by the former. Janet’s earlier album sale numbers would have been made up of physical CDs only.
Obviously it is hard to compare given the changes in means of consumption of music since the early 2000s, but it certainly is enough to make one question the viability of an album chart in this day and age. The chart would suggest that people are listening to the most popular albums less than before, but this doesn’t seem to be the case when one looks at online activity, not to mention the amount of kids whose headphones seemed to be glued to their heads these days. We have to wonder how accurate a sales chart can be in 2015 that doesn’t include PirateBay downloads, CD leaks, and both Soundcloud and Youtube views and rips. Billboard’s decision to include streaming from the biggest providers last November was an obvious move, but it seems almost arbitrary to not include streams while ignoring these other means. Sure, they would be considerably harder to calculate and verify, but its a fact of the matter that these means are how music is consumed by the masses these days. A chart position seems to say more about the demographic of an artist’s audience than the actual popularity of their music.
Billboard might argue that they only want to take into account fans who are willing to financially support artists. But if this were the case, Vinyl sales and live ticket sales should be a factor, as this is how many fans are choosing to support their favourite artists these days, and are actually most important to artists’ revenue streams in many cases.
The fact is that as they stand album charts show a very obscured picture of reality. What I would love to see is one of the Torrent sites take it upon themselves to create a ‘Pirate chart’ in the tradition of Pirate radio stations of old. They could take into account downloads on their sites, online streams, as well as the Billboard information. A chart is never going to perfectly map onto the world’s actual consumption of music, but at least this would be a more accurate alternative – Not to mention, a huge middle finger to Billboard&co, who have been too reluctant to accept that music consumption can’t continue to be looked at in the same terms as yesteryear.