It Came In Like a [Carefully Calculated] “Wrecking Ball”

Earlier this year, Billboard announced that it would be including YouTube streaming in its calculations for its Hot 100 chart. The same week, “Harlem Shake” became the number one song in America based on thirty seconds of it being used in thousands of viral videos.

Billboard chose to implement its new rules that week because it saw an opportunity to draw headlines, furthering their relevance while damaging their legitimacy (see the elder McNutt on that particular subject). They could have implemented them a week earlier, or a week later, but I’d bet money on them waiting for a moment to debut the metric when they could claim a song debuted at #1 because of their new streaming numbers that put Billboard on the pulse of how people are listening to music (Billboard’s Silvio Pietroluongo suggests it just happened to be that week, but I call shenanigans).

The impact of streaming has been less dramatic in the weeks since Harlem Shake’s five-week run atop the Billboard charts: One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” broke a Vevo record for most views in its first 24 hours and debuted at No. 2, but the single failed to gain traction and plummeted out of the Top 10 the following week (to No. 15). “Breaking the Vevo record” has become a new way for fans to support an artist, as Miley Cyrus set a record with “We Can’t Stop” (unseating Justin Bieber, who had unseated One Direction, who had unseated Justin Bieber), which was broken by One Direction, then tested—with some controversy—by Lady Gaga, before being claimed again by Cyrus with “Wrecking Ball.”

If Billboard implemented its YouTube metric to garner headlines, Cyrus certainly released the “Wrecking Ball” video to draw headlines, continuing a narrative of “off-the-rails” self-representation from the former Disney star. However, it’s also what I’d consider the shrewdest navigation of the new Billboard chart reality yet, earning Cyrus her first No. 1 single after “We Can’t Stop” was held off by “Blurred Lines” all summer. While “Harlem Shake” and “Best Song Ever” had not been released to radio or available digitally in advance of their streaming moments, “Wrecking Ball” had gained some momentum through an Audio-only YouTube link, availability on On-Demand services, and through at least a week of early radio/sales attention. The video was activating a market that was both ready for a controversial video and capable of leveraging that video into further purchases/radio pickup/etc.

I’d also argue that, although there are plenty of issues with the provocations perpetrated by the video itself, it’s an interesting case for why the content of music videos matters in this new environment, perhaps more than it has in quite some time. While the actual content of a video may be irrelevant to the streaming data Nielsen is collecting for Billboard, as it counts a listen regardless of the visual content, it matters to the video’s success at gaining attention outside of an immediate fanbase. People shared the “Wrecking Ball” video because it captured their attention as a text, not simply because fans were prompted to listen to it en masse; although fans are capable of launching an artist like One Direction near the top of the charts solely on the basis of their constant refreshing of a single video page, they aren’t capable of contributing the infrastructure necessary for that chart position to be sustainable. The video for “Best Song Ever” offers a more expansive narrative than previous One Direction videos, but it nonetheless speaks primarily to fans, unlikely to be capable of bridging the gap into popular culture (something One Direction also failed to do with their concert pic, which fell roughly 75% in its second weekend).

The “Applause” video, meanwhile, failed to make any kind of impact; while one could imagine previous Lady Gaga videos—“Bad Romance” and “Telephone” in particular—potentially making a splash beyond her “Little Monsters,” this effort mostly felt like Gaga introducing a new collection of personas and aesthetics central to the forthcoming ARTPOP (a task that contributed to her star text but does little to add to it, culturally speaking).

“Wrecking Ball” jumping to No. 1 the way it did was absolutely the result of the streaming data being gathered by Billboard—without it, the song would not have had the radio play necessary to break onto the charts in this fashion (especially given the radio dominance of “Blurred Lines”). However, the video so captured Cyrus’ notable public persona in the wake of the VMAs that it spread beyond the initial streaming burst prompted by Cyrus’ self-promotion, extending into digital sales and other metrics that are more likely to have staying power. It shows the music industry getting a handle not only on how to use streaming to gain initial placement on the Hot 100 chart, but also how to leverage the potential for streaming boosts as part of a broader release strategy.

More artists will be actively pursuing the Vevo record as a badge of honor, and as a way to gain chart position. It’s likely that most of them will succeed, although how many of them will translate that success into long-term hits remains to be seen; even “Wrecking Ball,” bolstered by its streaming numbers, is not guaranteed to stick around if its potential momentum doesn’t materialize. That said, “Wrecking Ball” feels like the first song that rocketed to the top of the Billboard charts because its actual real-life music video became a cultural phenomenon and helped turn the song into a hit; although I worry what kind of videos its success might inspire, it nonetheless brings the video back to the forefront in a Billboard decision that began with 30-second clips of a song played over a viral video.

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