Decoding the inevitable growing pains of our social media charts
In many respects, Blue Rodeo is one of the most successful Canadian bands of all time. The Toronto act have sold millions of albums; had a dozen radio hits; been named to Canada’s Walk of Fame, Music Hall of Fame, and the Order of Canada; and sustained a highly consistent 30-year career with few valleys and many peaks. They still tour the country coast-to-coast to regularly full halls and theatres, peaking in a traditional summer gig at the 15,000 capacity Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto.
They are also labelled a “buzz” act on our charts, meaning they are rubbing shoulders not with the peers you’d assume, but instead with the newborn careers of Alvvays and Bahamas—fine acts, but each with one-twentieth the pedigree of an icon the likes of Blue Rodeo.
Look, we get it: It’s tempting to look at this and say, well, these charts are a joke. But before you jump to such a conclusion, allow us a brief moment to present the logic behind these numbers. And how these numbers reveal a vast untapped resource for many acts, even the most established ones.
NEW DATA VS. OLD TRANSACTIONS
The charts at NCM are driven by data from a wide array of sources—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and Soundcloud, just for starters—but at their heart they are about one thing: online activity. If a fan streams, “likes”, comments, shares, posts, or tweets about an act, it adds in some way to that act’s standing here. But buy a concert ticket, purchase a CD, get spun on radio...and you’ll not see that transaction reflected here.
In this light, the relatively low tiers occupied by well-established acts such as Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip begin to make more sense. In many ways, these charts are all about how an act’s audience chooses to engage with them. Often, age is part of what defines the terms of that engagement. No one should be especially surprised to learn that millennials stream music more than those in their 40s and above; nor should it be a shock that they utilize social media more actively, too.
So it’s not that an act of Blue Rodeo’s vintage don’t or can’t use social media to their advantage. But the relationship they have with their fans is one that has long since been defined under certain parameters. When the bulk of their fanbase is simply not as active on social media as others, it seriously hinders their reach in that arena from the get go.
Genre can be another factor. To be clear, the biggest stars in every genre can be social media barnburners—what’s more interesting is how the tendencies of a genre affect lower level artists. For example, the world of EDM, electronic, and hip hop music—styles whose artists have always been at the forefront of streaming, remixes, and mixtape downloads—is a haven of online activity. This is hardly surprising. In many ways, those scenes reached a new maturation via those very platforms.
Meanwhile, even younger artists in the realms of folk and rock are less likely to have quite the same impact online. This could change in the future—but for now, they’re playing catch up with genres whose artists and audiences have been aggressively using streaming and web platforms for about a decade now.
EXPANDS, DOESN’T REPLACE
One of the key misunderstandings about reading online activity charts is that people often wish to nominate them as a replacement for charts based on album sales or for that matter, even figures for concert revenue. They’re not. Rather they expand our knowledge—they augment it. An artist can be especially strong on social media without releasing physical copies of their albums (in fact, EDM acts like Montreal’s Adventure Club do just that). An artist can even generally bypass live performance and get great traction. Social media charts simply track another facet of an artist’s connection to its fans—and these various facets don’t necessary need to correlate to one another to be true.
IT’S IMPERFECT, BUT IT’S WHERE THINGS ARE GOING
The science behind the collecting these numbers is imperfect. If you stop to think about how much raw data platforms like Facebook, Vevo, Twitter, and YouTube produce every day—likes, comments, plays, streams—you get the picture. And for the Blue Rodeos of Canada, a lack of deep engagement on social media really isn’t a huge concern. They have their audience now. But for younger artists—especially those in genres not as internet savvy as others—a perceived discrepancy between their standing on our charts and their standing in a concert hall or record store isn’t an error. It simply represents a new opportunity to expand an audience.
In a way, that’s the most fascinating thing about looking at these charts. It’s not about seeing a perfect reflection of what you believe to be true. It’s about perhaps seeing something hidden. And if you’re an ambitious musician, choosing to act upon it.