Billboard Turns to Twitter to Chart Music

Iggy Azalea
Iggy Azalea is one of the current chart-toppers as Billboard attempts to track song popularity on Twitter. Neil Hal/Reuters

In its latest bid to figure out what constitutes a hit song in the year 2014, Billboard has launched two new charts intended to track songs' "up to the minute" popularity on Twitter.

One of the charts, cleverly titled Trending 140, ranks how heavily songs are shared on Twitter in the U.S., tracking acceleration over the past hour. The Emerging Artists chart is a weekly chart of the most-shared songs by "up-and-coming artists."

It's not entirely clear how Billboard will differentiate between "emerging" artists and otherwise, but the charts themselves offer a glimpse. The former is topped by Iggy Azalea, Tyga and Shakira, among other mainstream pop and rap acts, as of this writing. The latter is populated by less well-known names such as Mykki Blanco, K Camp and Rich the Kid.

According to Billboard President John Amato, the entire system marks the culmination of an attempt to get real-time data into music charts.

"Twitter, for us, felt like the right way to capture real time more than anything else that we could think of," Amato said. "They're the only people that have true scale in real time. Facebook is a behemoth."

Amato described the real-time charts as a "true partnership between Billboard and Twitter." The social media platform is providing data that includes the use of "#nowplaying" or "#np" hashtags, Spotify streaming links and terms like "song" or "listen" in tweets.

The result lets readers discover the music people are talking about online rather than music they are buying. Amato, for example, was confused at finding English indie band The 1975 consistently landing in the top 10.

"For no explicable reason, there is just a real, true organic buzz surrounding this band The 1975," he said. "And this morning I downloaded the band The 1975 and I think some of their songs are awesome."

For the 120-year-old music industry magazine—which has been charting popular singles and albums since the 1940s—it's part of an ongoing push to incorporate new-music consumption and sharing technologies in its charts. In 2013, Billboard added YouTube plays to its Hot 100 formula.

Another chart, The Social 50, tracks which artists are most active on social networks. (Justin Bieber hogs the top spot.)

The new charts also demonstrate how far popular music consumption has veered from record buying as a contribution to an artist's sales.

Amato said the goal is simply to quantify consumer intent. "Sending out a tweet that says 'I'm listening to Iggy Azalea's 'Fancy'' is true intent," he said.

But if the goal is also to quantify online conversation, we await the day when Billboard's charts take into account the number of think pieces a song generates.