Pop Music

Rihanna, Gareth Emery, the fickle internet and the problem with Next Big Sound's Social Charts

Billboard recently debuted a pair of new charts compiled by Boulder-based company Next Big Sound, the subject of a recent Westword feature. The charts, called the Social 50 and the Next Big Sound 25, track bands' online presence, whether it's Facebook "likes" or Last.fm plays. Music industry bigwigs think this information is manna from heaven, but there's reason to be skeptical.

The Social 50 chart tracks most new fans/plays/comments/etc, and the Next Big Sound 25 tracks the greatest rate of increase in new fans/plays/comments/etc. The Social 50 is velocity of social media traffic, and the NBS 25 is acceleration. If Backbeat were running a record label -- we'd all be looking for new jobs, but for the sake of argument -- we wouldn't rely on either. The Social 50 tells us only stuff we already knew, and the NBS 25 is completely different week to week, and therefore tells us nothing at all.

Next Big Sound's slogan is "Actionable Intelligence for the Music Industry." The "Music Industry" in question is interested in making money, like any industry, and they are finding it increasingly hard to do so in today's free-sharing free-for-all. NBS is saying, "Here: We have the answers. We can tell you what bands and artists to bet on to make you money."

The Social 50 is ruled by oh-duh! pop titans. The top five of that chart haven't changed in the past two weeks:

1. Rihanna 2. Justin Bieber 3. Lady Gaga 4. The Black Eyed Peas 5. Eminem

For the music industry, there is nothing useful about that. We already know these artists are lucrative. And as music consumers, we see this chart as even more stagnant and behind the curve than the regular Billboard sales charts. Those at least tell us what new music people are listening to -- this is more like looking at a crowd-sourced iTunes Most Played list.

But Next Big Sound is obviously less interested in that chart. They know its a tail indicator and not useful to labels looking to sign new talent. Billboard can't get too excited about a chart filled with bands no one's ever heard of because their entire existence is predicated upon providing information about the biggest names. So the Social 50 is a sort of compromise. Billboard gets the Social 50 to fill with their bread and butter, and in exchange, they include the chart NBS actually cares about, the NBS 25, among their other 550+ offerings.

The NBS 25 is, ostensibly, the one you'd care about if you were a member of the music industry looking to make sense of the up-and-comers. Except it doesn't actually work. Since Billboard started publishing the chart in mid-December, we do not see a single artist appearing on more than one week's edition of the chart. The entire thing turns over every week.

The chart's slogan on the NBS web site is "The 25 fastest accelerating artists across the Internet most likely to become the next big sound." But, if I'm a label executive trying to figure out who to sign, how do I use this? Just pick a week at random and cross my fingers? Or sign all one-hundred artists who will appear on the chart in a month's time? Doesn't seem like either solution is better than what we already had.

And there's another problem with the NBS 25. What the chart does tell us is which artists are successfully disseminating something around the internet that week. And if they are doing that, what do they need a label for? These are the exact artists who should not be signing contracts under any circumstances. Because the biggest thing a label can offer you is distribution, of both your music and you as an artist.

Indeed, this week's NBS 25 number one is Gareth Emery, who is a world-renowned DJ who started his own record label in 2008. He's been ridiculously successful as both a DJ and a label owner -- DJ Mag called him the #7 DJ in the world in 2010 and the first release on his Garuda imprint topped Beatport's charts for over a month. Emery doesn't need help from the "industry," in the form of a contract or distribution or marketing or anything else.

Also, hilariously on the NBS 25, is Das Racist at number 18. Good fucking luck to the music industry executive trying to get those dudes on top 40.

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Kiernan Maletsky is Westword's music editor. His writing has appeared in alt-weeklies around the country as well as Miley Cyrus's mom's Twitter feed.
Contact: Kiernan Maletsky