On Wednesday February 20th, Billboard added YouTube views to their Hot 100 methodology which radically changed the makeup of the esteemed chart. The most immediate change came at the top, where “Harlem Shake” by Baauer, the viral sensation, debuts at #1. It marks the first time that a relatively unknown artist debuts at #1 with very little radio airplay to aid it. Given the ubiquity of the song last week, with everyone from the Today Show to college swim teams to the Norwegian Army joining in, it feels culturally right to see the song at the top spot. As many writers have noted, this is probably the biggest change to the Hot 100 chart in a very long time.
But why did it take this long to add YouTube (and VEVO) views to the chart? With numerous videos being seen north of 100 million times, YouTube’s influence on pop culture has been clear for a few years. At a minimum, it’s been two years since the game changing Rebecca Black video. Shouldn’t Billboard have been counting YouTube all along?
The likely reason why they haven’t is because YouTube numbers have to be trustworthy if they are going to influence the bellweather singles chart. Simply scraping numbers from YouTube is not valid as it doesn’t account for country discrepancies within a US based chart. But it also doesn’t account for activity from bots, a practice many labels and artists have used to varied success over the last few years.
In advance of the Hot 100 announcement, YouTube stepped up its enforcement of its Terms Of Service forbidding bot views. The most noticeable result was a 2 BILLION view decrease in major label videos 2 months ago, but similar audits of videos at all levels have been ramping up for months now. With a chart influence now on the line, both parties are more incentivized to stay honest. The timing of these events feel like more than coincidence, and certainly suggests a concerted effort to increase YouTube’s credibility for chart eligibility. As such, I would anticipate enforcement to get more strict, with account deletions a likely punishment for bot activity.
Last week’s #1 was “Thrift Shop”, another song that broke out of YouTube. Getting the credit as the “breaking spot” for back to back chart-toppers is crucial to reinforcing and growing YouTube’s brand. Having more credible numbers is certainly good for everyone in the long run. For those who think they can do an end-run around the system, it feels very likely that this one is closing rapidly.