Topping the charts with digital playlists

DJ Khaled is also a social media star who drops daily snippets of wisdom on Snapchat.
DJ Khaled is also a social media star who drops daily snippets of wisdom on Snapchat.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • You technically cannot buy the digital compilation album from Epic Records featuring hits by French Montana and DJ Khaled that has been a steady presence on the Billboard chart this summer. In fact, the album has sold a total of zero copies since its quiet release seven weeks ago.

Yet, thanks to an updated formula for determining positions on the Billboard 200 that accounts for online activity, as well as some savvy opportunism from the label, the album, Epic AF, has landed in the Top 10 four times by exploiting - or mastering - the new system.

It works like this: Since late 2014, Billboard has counted 1,500 streams or 10 paid downloads of a song as the equivalent of one album sold. But if a hit single comes from an album that is unreleased, the millions of plays it tallies on services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music go nowhere.

Epic has collected its albumless artists' most popular summer songs across streaming services - Lockjaw by French Montana and Kodak Black, Don't Mind by Kent Jones, Pick Up The Phone by Travis Scott and Young Thug - into one digital playlist, giving it a hip title and some generic cover art. In 2016, that is enough to call it an album.

Now, when Billboard counts the weekly plays for Don't Mind, which has 139 million Spotify streams to date, they are attached to the album, catapulting the digital compilation over traditional albums from artists on competing major labels. Chart position equals bragging rights - and its own form of marketing via brand visibility.

Billboard declined to comment on Epic's methods. But this week, the chart company opted to change its rules slightly so that paid downloads of singles included on this album do not count towards its chart position but streaming numbers do.

Still, the system is flexible.

The album includes current hits from DJ Khaled (For Free, I Got The Keys). Before the release of the music producer's ninth studio album Major Key on July 29, the streams for those songs went towards the compilation album. But this week, they were counted towards his album, his first to have hit No. 1.

As a result of losing those streams and all song sales, the compilation album dropped to No. 32 from No. 5, having accomplished its goal as a placeholder hit.

"It did what it was supposed to do," said Ms Celine Joshua, a senior vice-president for commerce at Epic and its parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, who oversaw the project.

For hip-hop and R&B especially, streaming has become the dominant mode of consumption. Streaming activity nearly doubled last year as traditional sales and digital downloads fell; this year, on-demand audio streams are up another 97 per cent. Thus, the online discovery of new artists increasingly comes from streaming playlists such as Spotify's influential Rap Caviar, with its more than four million subscribers.

"Why don't we design a product that behaves the way our consumers do?" Ms Joshua said she had asked, bringing the idea to Epic's chief executive L.A. Reid, who gave the green light and helped to pick the track list.

The associated costs - "none", Ms Joshua said - helped the process along.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2016, with the headline 'Topping the charts with digital playlists'. Print Edition | Subscribe