“If you're horrible to me, I'm going to write a song about it, and you won't like it. That's how I operate.” – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift. Love her, hate her, love her, or love her. There really is not much of a choice as everyone seems to be constantly showering Ms. Swift with praise. While her fans are eager to show Tay some love she also has no problem sharing that love with others. As Gawker points out, she has dated what appears to be every man in the universe.
Regardless of Taylor Allison Swift’s extracurricular activities you cannot deny that she is a powerhouse in the music industry. Of Taylor’s five studio albums, three have sold over a million copies in their first week making Taylor the first female artist to have done so. That is remarkable considering that I cannot recall the last time I actually bought any music. John Lennon famously claimed that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” TSwift is not quite that popular, but she is close according to Google Search traffic:
Whether Taylor or The Beatles before her, these musicians are having a large impact on in the lives of the kids. Perhaps an impact comparable to The JC. (Justin Bieber actually IS a more popular search term than Jesus over the same time span, which should be worrisome.)
Being popular is nothing new for TSwift and we can measure that popularity using the charts produced by Billboard. Taylor first appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 on September 23, 2006 with her song “Tim McGraw” off of her debut album Taylor Swift. Billboard started tracking the hits of the day on its list Best Sellers in Stores way back in 1939. Shortly thereafter it started publishing two other lists, Most Played by Jockeys and Most Played in Jukeboxes. Three years later Billboard published its magnum opus, the Hot 100, which coalesced these various chart into a single definitive ranking across genres.
Today the Hot 100 is composed of three components: sales (35-45%), airplay (30-40%) and streaming (20-30%) which can vary weekly in order to hit the target of 100 songs. The Streaming Songs chart is the newest and began in 2007 with data from AOL and Yahoo. It expanded to include services such as Spotify in January of 2013 and one month later added YouTube views. The Digital Songs chart tracks sales data for digital downloads while the Radio Music chart tracks radio airplay audience impressions. Both charts are generated from data furnished by Nielsen Music. Additionally Billboard publishes its YouTube data as a separate chart on its website.
The Billboard charts provide a rich, publicly available data set. Using the tools over at Kimono I scraped the available data from the Hot 100, Radio Music, Digital Songs, Streaming Songs and YouTube charts since 2000. Now that I have data on hundreds of artists over the last one and a half decades I feel like anything is possible. Taylor Swift is our test case because (1) She is very popular (2) many of her songs make it onto the Hot 100 (3) her most recent album, 1989, was released after Spotify and YouTube were included on the Streaming Songs chart. Here is what 1989′s travel through the Hot 100 looks like:
Yes it’s a bunch of lines and dots, but they tell some interesting stories. Compare the difference between “Shake It Off” and its debut at the #1 spot with the slow methodical rise of “Style.” Or Bad Blood’s resurgence after the addition of Kendrick Lamar and the release of its star-studded music video. Overall, nine of the 15 songs from Swift’s fifth album appeared on the Hot 100. At first it seemed odd that Taylor’s songs would drop off the chart once they dropped to position #50. Was this some brilliant marketing strategy? Is it not worth promoting a song anymore after it has fallen so far? Unfortunately the answer is much more mundane. Billboard labels songs as “recurrent” and removes them after 20 weeks on the chart and after falling below the 50th position.
In November 2014 Swift pulled her music from the popular streaming site Spotify. This severely crippled her ability to gain on the charts through the streaming component of the Hot 100. TSwift did agree to have her music featured on Apple Music’s new service which launched June 30, 2015 after some controversy regarding its 3-month free trial period. Her ability to sway the actions of the second most valuable public company legitimizes her powerhouse status and further validates all of this work.
Swift can make up for her refusal to stream by dominating on another “streaming” service, YouTube. Below is a breakdown of her trends on each of the Billboard charts I analyzed. While the Hot 100 ranks songs 1-100, the other charts only display the top 25 songs in each category.
(NB physical sales of a CD are also a component of the Hot 100 ranking, but are not included above.)
Some take aways: Each song had a huge increase in digital downloads when 1989 was released at the end of October, but only “Blank Space” was able to maintain that (”Shake It Off” was released prior to 1989). However, the increase in digital downloads was enough for both “Bad Blood” and “Style” to make it onto the Hot 100. YouTube views are almost always above streaming views. This makes sense since Taylor did not allow streaming on other services. If “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space” had not been labeled as recurrent they would probably still be on the Hot 100 based on their YouTube views which are very persistent. YouTube views were a leading indicator for “Bad Blood.” It made it to the top 5 of the YouTube chart a week before charting on digital downloads, the Hot 100, or radio songs. It would appear that TSwift’s mastery of music videos can single-handedly make a single.
Finally I calculated the area under the curve (AUC) for each of Taylor’s songs off of 1989 and compared it to the number of YouTube views for each song. The AUC was calculated by assigning a 100 point value to position 1, 99 points to position 2 etc. and multiplied by a song’s weeks at that position. Without access to other streaming services like Spotify or Tidal and given the visual correlation between the YouTube and Streaming Songs charts I expected a strong relationship between YouTube views and success on the charts. The regression for TSwift was statistically significant. However Justin Bieber, who does not have the same qualms with distributing his music on Spotify had an even stronger correlation. This might have something to do with the fact that J-Biebs has a music video for every song off of his new album (although many of them have relatively few views) while Taylor only has videos for six of her songs. Would more music videos add buoyancy to some of her other songs? I suspect that it would.
I should quickly note that analyzing the Billboard Hot 100 is not a novel idea. On his blog Modern Insights (and minor observations) Michael Kling has plotted similar analyses looking at the rise and fall of artists and songs in the Billboard Hot 100. Also very recently Cristian Cibils from Stanford University published a brief paper where he used machine learning to predict a song’s future Hot 100 trajectory based on past chart performance. I would recommend you check their posts out. Next Big Sounds is a company that tracks streaming and social media to provide unique insights into what makes songs popular and actually makes money doing it.
This is just a quick overview of some of the interesting features that can be investigated using data from Billboard. Full disclosure I did most of this as a part of WNYC’s Note to Self’s Infomagical week. Tweet me which other artists you think might have interesting stories to uncover. Taylor Swift is here to stay, and while she is here she will continue to win over our hearts and most of the Grammys.