On Sunday night, ABC aired the Billboard Music Awards, featuring performances from Britney Spears, Nick Jonas, Megan Trainor and, uh, Fifth Harmony? One of the hosts described it as “music’s biggest night,” which is true in the way that a pick-up game of basketball is “sports’ biggest night.” Viewership hit a three-year low, with the television audience dropping a crushing 14 percent from 2015. The influence of the Billboard Music Awards is waning into a sad twilight, and that is good for artists, producers, listeners and anyone who cares at all about music. Especially you.
Let’s start with the performances. Britney Spears kicked things off with a medley of hits that was fun enough for Millennial viewers — there’s still something warmly reassuring about seeing Britney be successful — but that’s not exactly how you want to come out if you’re trying to celebrate the year in radio singles. Following Britney was a string of mostly forgettable numbers from Shawn Mendes, DNCE, P!nk, and Troye Sivan.
Billboard justifies its existence by being the gatekeepers of what constitutes a “hit.” If you make it on Billboard, you’ve made it, period. So goes the narrative pushed by Billboard anyway. The actual facts are a little more complicated. In 2001, Joe’s “Stutter” topped the Billboard charts for four weeks, longer than “Miss Jackson”, “Bootylicious”, and “U Got It Bad” combined. Of Outkast, Usher, Destiny’s Child, and Joe, who would you consider the most successful?
Likewise, here’s a brief list of artists who’ve never had a single top Billboard charts: One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, Backstreet Boys, Missy Elliott, Bruce Springsteen and Bob fricken’ Dylan. Drake only reached number one for the first time this week with “One Dance.” Believe it or not, ‘N Sync had but one, solitary single hit the top spot on the Billboard charts, and it wasn’t even “Bye Bye Bye.”
Nevertheless, Billboard has continued to peddle the notion that they are the puppet masters of pop stardom, and it’s a facade that’s starting to get mighty wobbly in 2016. It’s been a terrific year for music, from Beyonce’s Lemonade to Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, but you’d never know it to watch the Billboard Awards. Of all the performers, only Rihanna and Ariana Grande could lay claim to meaningful contributions to the year in pop music. We can charitably throw Justin Bieber into the mix, even though Purpose dropped last year.
The reason for this is obvious to anyone with a streaming music account (which is to say: it’s obvious). Beyonce, Kendrick, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, Radiohead, James Blake and even Rihanna have moved on from releasing albums as collections of plausible singles and into albums as cohesive statements. They don’t chart on Billboard because they don’t make albums with Billboard in mind. The grandness of albums like Life of Pablo and A Moon Shaped Pool is their very wooliness, and the way every song needs every other song. In the immediate wake of Lemonade‘s release, there was a lot of speculation that “Sorry” would be the album’s single, but even that chatter seems out of touch with Beyonce’s trajectory away from radio singles and into longer, more novelistic formats. And where Beyonce goes, the rest of culture must follow.
It was widely expected that the digital music revolution would kill the album, but it’s ended up having the exact opposite effect. It’s made the album invincible — immune to the clutches of radio kingmakers who need artists to bow down to the demands of advertisers, censors, and the AABA song format. Joni Mitchell once sang that labels remain critical for “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song,” and some naysayers will say it’s easy to ignore the radio when you’ve got Kanye and Beyonce’s name recognition, and those people might consider listening to Chance the Rapper. Dude’s never signed to a label in his life.
Chance has been able to leverage his dedication to the craft at the expense of a killer single the old-fashioned way: making really great music and trusting consumers to find it. It’s too early to say he’s created a new blueprint for the industry — Chance is too singular of a talent to expect all other pop artists to replicate his success. But he is proof that the rumors swirling about the death of the label and the bright new era of artist autonomy that has been swirling for roughly fifteen years might finally be coming to fruition.
Which brings us back to the Billboard Music Awards. There were issues with the broadcast that goes beyond its own dinosaur feeling (Madonna’s ill-advised tribute to Prince, Kesha’s genuinely moving Dylan cover), but the overarching problem is Billboard doubling down on their antiquated idea of what makes a successful musician instead of embracing the future. The truth is, we are the new Billboard, the new determiners of what constitutes a successful album.
Maybe we always were.