By traditional measures, the British hip-hop artist Taio Cruz is far from being a star. But in the new world of pop music, he is certified gold.
Mr. Cruz’s latest album, “Rokstarr,” has sold just 93,000 copies in 12 weeks, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and this week sits at No. 54 on the Billboard 200 chart.
But while he has sold relatively few albums, he has sold 4.9 million copies of two singles from the album, “Break Your Heart” and “Dynamite,” and videos for those singles have been viewed more than 49 million times online. For his label, Mercury Records, that means he is a commercial success.
For decades, the music industry has been looking to the album charts to establish what made a hit. In the past 10 years, though, album sales have plummeted, sales of singles have surged and new sources of revenue have emerged — like fees for music streamed online and ringtone purchases — that are changing the definition of a hot artist.
Still, much of the industry relies on the Billboard 200, the longtime album sales chart, as the primary measure and talking point about an artist’s moneymaking prowess.
“The music industry has trained people to focus on the album chart for 20 years,” said Jay Frank, the head of music for CMT, the country music cable network. “Now they need to get them to focus on something else.”
BigChampagne, a media measurement firm in California, believes there is an opening for a new chart that better captures an artist’s popularity and commercial success. Last month, the company introduced a service, which it is calling the Ultimate Chart, that ranks artists based on the number of albums sold, singles sold, songs streamed online and other factors. The service also ranks sales of albums and singles, though they diverge little from Billboard’s charts.
On the most recent Ultimate Chart, Mr. Cruz is the No. 2 artist. Lil Wayne ranks as the fourth most popular artist, while his most recent album, “Rebirth,” is on the Billboard album chart at No. 89. (The two charts are not always at such great odds. Eminem is the No. 1 artist on the Ultimate Chart while his album sits at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.)
The new charts reflect the shift in music industry revenue. Even established performers like Rihanna, whose latest album, “Rated R,” broke into the top five on the Billboard 200 in 2009, receives half of her revenue through those other avenues, according to Jim Urie, the head of distribution for the Universal Music Group, which owns her label, Def Jam, as well as Mercury.
“We used to have basically a single line on the revenue sheet,” Mr. Urie said. “Now we have many.”
For most labels and artists, though, revenue from those new streams has not made up for the sharp drop in CD sales. While labels would not discuss overall revenue for specific artists, total revenue from recorded music peaked in 1999, at $13.4 billion, according to Forrester Research, and was about half of that in 2009.
But the multiple ways to make money provide hope to a struggling industry and are also changing the kind of music that gets made and promoted. Album sales are often driven by older listeners who typically favor country and soft-rock artists like Taylor Swift and Susan Boyle.
Pop and hip-hop artists like Taio Cruz and Rihanna are sometimes underrepresented on the album chart, as younger fans in particular have moved to buying singles and streaming music online.
Even performers like Rihanna, whose albums rank high on the Billboard 200, may receive half their revenue from other sources. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
In the near future, that could mean more Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, less Nickelback and Keith Urban.
“It’s becoming clear this year, to the industry and the artists, that when you’re having real hit singles, it has great value,” said David Massey, president of Mercury Records, Mr. Cruz’s label. “They can be more important than the album chart position.”
The Billboard charts have been modified over the years as the music industry changed. Back in 1913, Billboard published a chart showing the popularity of sheet music. In 1945, Billboard magazine introduced a chart displaying the top five albums. Five eventually grew to 200, the number the magazine has stuck with since 1972.
The album charts were largely a guessing game and could be manipulated by music insiders. That changed in 1991, when SoundScan began electronically tracking sales by retailers. The labels signed on to the service, and Billboard used the data for its Billboard 200 chart.
It didn’t take long for the industry to realize that albums usually peaked in sales during their first week of release, rather than build up momentum over time, as they had long thought. That discovery changed the marketing strategy at record labels, said Peter Lubin, a former record executive, putting the focus on the weeks leading up to the release.
“The music industry got very good at creating stories about artist launches,” said David Pakman, a venture capitalist and former chief executive of the digital music store eMusic. “You created a story to get radio programmers to get behind it.”
If a record had a bad first week, Mr. Lubin said, the thinking at a label quickly became, “This record is a loser; if you invest any more money in it, you’ll be a loser, too.”
Eminem is No. 1 by the old standard of album sales as well as by the criteria that consider a single’s popularity. Credit Matt Sayles/Associated Press
And no one wants to be a loser. But until a new measurement tool is widely adopted, labels are largely left to their own devices to figure out a profitable strategy and a way to compare their success with the competition.
Cliff Chenfeld, an owner of Razor and Tie, an independent label in New York, said his company tailored a revenue strategy for each project rather than immediately falling back on a calculation of how many albums could be sold.
The singer-songwriter Dave Barnes, an artist signed to Razor and Tie, has never broken the top 50 in the Billboard 200. But Mr. Barnes found success on Christian radio and landed a deal with SongFreedom.com, a site that provides music to wedding photographers and videographers.
The commercial success of that deal, according to Mr. Chenfeld, is not reflected on the Billboard 200, even though its revenue is “considerable, and opportunities like that are viral.”
“The reliance on album sales is very 20th century,” he said.
Bill Werde, the editorial director of Billboard, said its Hot 100 chart lists the most popular songs based on a formula that factors in single sales, radio airplay and online streaming. “We’re constantly evolving what we’re doing and how we do it,” he said. Nielsen, the company that provides the album sales data to Billboard, has started to compile an artist’s revenue streams on a single sheet that it calls a scorecard.
But the top spot on the album charts, like a No. 1 book or a big opening weekend at the box office, remains a salient — and marketable — shorthand for industry success.
“We still fight for the No. 1 spot,” said Lee Stimmel, executive vice president for marketing at Epic Records, a Sony Music label. “It’s still a very important tag to have on a record.”