What’s in a Chart? On Our Obsession with Streaming Charts

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It isn’t uncommon for two or three major artists to have music releases coincide on the same day, especially on Fridays, which has become the de facto choice for debuting music, but Friday the 13th of May, 2022 was special. Two of the putative ‘Big 3’, Davido and Burna Boy, were set to release new songs on the same day, to be joined by other major acts like Asake and Zinoleesky while Mavin Records logged in a group single. Davido and Burna Boy expectedly dominated the headlines. Neither act had put out any songs of their own that year, and fans were eager to see which single would win the race to the top of the charts. A few hours later, the results were in. Davido’s Stand Strong, a gospel-leaning tune featuring Sunday Service choir, had risen to the summit of Apple’s Top 100 Nigeria in less than twelve hours, while Last Last, Burna Boy’s Afropop-dancehall record, was in third place. 

When a screenshot of this was posted by a fan account, Davido saw an opportunity to reiterate his self-given 001 status and get a lick at an old rival. The pair famously share a mutual animosity, and this seemed like a fitting final blow to that rivalry. But it was premature. By the next day, Burna Boy’s Last Last had overtaken Davido’s record on Apple charts, Burna was awake at 2 a.m. Nigerian time to savor his literal last laugh. This change in fortunes persisted, Last Last spent the next few months in and around the top 5, and was still charting in the top 20 when Stand Strong fell out of the top 100 altogether in mid-September. This battle, waged on Twitter, with ammunition provided from screenshots of Apple music charts, was a culmination of Nigerian music’s streaming chart obsession. 

Of course, in itself, the posting of streaming chart positions by artists is not particularly toxic, nor is its use by artists and fans for banter wars that do not progress beyond social media. It, however, has become a marker of the unhealthy use of chart positions as the ultimate measure of success in music. It also informs us that our artists and their teams may resort to unscrupulous practices to obtain these coveted number-one positions, including the use of streaming farms. 

Burna Boy and Davido are not outliers in valuing chart positions this high. When BNXN and Ruger were locked in an open battle a year ago, the one that birthed the entire streaming farm discourse, charts were once more used as benchmarks for success. The most recent major tussle in Nigerian music, between Zinoleesky and Seyi Vibez, also reiterated this with Zinoleesky predicting that Seyi Vibez’s next song would never seize the number one position. 

If artists can reach for streaming chart positions as evidence of who is bigger, you can expect that online stans will be even more eager to make comparisons based on them, in addition to other measurable benchmarks like sold-out venues and award wins. In a way, this makes sense. Like in football, the fans of each side need a list that is a tangible ranking of who is doing better. The Premier League has a table, and Nigerian music has presumably adopted the Apple Top 100 chart. 

These screenshots, it must be noted, are not always directed at rival fans or artists or aimed at self-puffery. At first, they were a means of expressing gratitude to fans and celebrating wins. In 2019, when making their ascents, the then-emerging acts Rema, Joeboy and Fireboy often ran to Twitter to happily display each new feat achieved on the streaming charts. Even experienced multi-award-winning artists like MI and Wande Coal have not been left out of this trend. It is easy to see why even these old heads are so caught up with excitement at this. In a country as big as Nigeria, simply hearing your song play in Lagos clubs or seeing it trend on Twitter does not constitute a sufficient sample size to measure how well a song is received by the Nigerian audience. Since streaming services are used to listen to music, streaming charts should provide an unbiased view of how much listeners love the songs. 

 This data, apart from the joy it gives an artist to see their art succeed, can be applied to the commercial side of music, like being used by major labels to grant contracts to emerging acts, or determining how much an artist will be offered for endorsement and performances. A brand would be willing to pay higher for a ‘number 1’ artist in hopes that the many fans that stream him will also be influenced by his endorsement of their product. Artists, their teams, and the big labels that invest in them need these commercial opportunities.

What happens next can easily be guessed. The artists and their teams know how important this metric is as a mark of popularity, so strategy is shifting towards impacting chart positions directly like a student simply cheating in exams as a shortcut to studying. Once, the crux of music publicity was actually publicizing the artist—like granting interviews and playing in small venues. Now, the shorter the route to streaming platforms, the better. Snapchat ads only one click away from a DSP are more preferred, or ads right in the DSPs themselves; playlisting is the new payola. As this happens, a disparity opens between the music on the charts and music appreciated in real life, the former becoming less a reflection of the latter. 

If these strategies remain benign though, hardly any harm is done. But when money is involved, one can not expect moral or even legal boundaries to be maintained. Stream farming, as mentioned earlier, is a fad that entered the Nigerian music lexicon after a series of back-and-forths between BNXN and Ruger over who amongst them was manipulating streams. Other artists have also contributed to this discourse, including Blaqbonez, Olakira, and Yemi Alade, each one of them casting non-specific aspersions on their colleagues. Music fans have mostly adopted this blind blame-passing, and it is common to see fans allege without proof that another artist is paying their way up the charts simply because the music does not appeal to the fan’s particular taste. 

But there are other times when fans across the board unite to call out clear cases of stream manipulation. Earlier in August, we were besieged by tweets from Jamopyper celebrating his latest win. His song, Nonstop, sat at number one on Apple Music’s top 100 charts. He was met with scepticism rather than congratulations. For many, that was their first encounter with the song, and it was surprising, to say the least, that it was sitting atop the country’s Apple chart. On Spotify, Jamopyper’s song could not make an entry into the DSP’s top 200 songs, and while that worsened the confusion for some, for others it provided clarity—the artist was probably using tools to artificially inflate stream figures on Apple music. When the song dropped from number 1 to 155 within a day, the actual celebration occurred; it was obvious a streaming farm discrepancy had been rectified. Currently, the song sits outside the charts of all streaming platforms, a few weeks after it supposedly peaked at number one. 

A good question might be, why the eagerness to manipulate your way to the top of streaming charts when it can easily be detected? The answer is in the power of the chart as a marketing platform in itself. Many music lovers use it as a place to discover music, and getting a song there, by whatever means, may kickstart a chain of events where people see the song at the top and listen to it, and then it gains enough streams through this publicity to actually merit a place there. These calculations, though, failed Jamopyper. 

Turntable Charts, Nigeria’s answer to the US’s Billboard and UK’s official charts, is the only Nigerian platform that aggregates streams from all major DSPs and includes TV and radio airplay to provide a single, well-sourced list of Nigeria’s most popular songs, making it the closest portrayal of the organic behavior of Nigerian music fans. However, an aggregate chart is difficult to influence and will need a consistent effort to make it there, so it is often ignored by fans and artists who seek more instant gratification as can be obtained from faster-updating charts like Apple Music. Ultimately, Nigerian artists must look beyond fixating on chart positions that no longer correlate with real-life popularity and realize that nothing matters more than credible love from the audience they create for.