Data Visualizations
from SeatSmart

Which Billboard Artists Are Getting the Most Illegal Music Downloads?

      Does being #1 on a Billboard chart mean people are really illegally downloading an album?

Who would illegally download Christian music?

The world of illegal online music downloads has always been murky, so we set out to answer these questions.

Sure, Billboard says an album is #1, but does the world of illegal downloaders agree? Well, let’s just say it shouldn’t come as a shock to discover that the internet has a mind of its own. But what that mind is thinking is definitely going to surprise you.

Billboard Charts vs. Illegal Downloads

Our study looked at the top 10 ranked albums from the Country, Rock, Alternative, Rap, R&B, EDM, Christian, Classical, Folk, and Overall Top Albums charts. We then looked up the downloads for each of those albums on Kickass Torrents, the world’s most popular site for illegally downloading music.

We wanted to see which albums predominated in illegal downloads, but first we decided to look at how each Genre Chart performed as a whole. The results were surprising:

Total downloads by genre

As you can see, there is an enormous difference between genres. Rap and R&B dominate. The top 10 albums on the Rap Chart got illegally downloaded more than 17 times as much as those on the Country Chart. And downloads for R&B’s top 10 albums were more than those for Classical, Country, Christian, Pop, and Rock combined.

Let’s dig a little deeper into classical music… If you can find it on the chart, that is. Out of Classical’s top 10 albums, the average number of albums downloaded every day came out to a whopping… 3. This brings us to a question for the ages: who steals classical music? The final answer appears to be: 3 people a day.

In a related area, Christian music doesn’t perform quite that badly, but it’s also not exactly standing out. Feel free to attribute that to Christian values or simple lack of interest. I’ll leave it to you.

Even Rock comes in behind Alternative, Folk, and Electronic Dance Music (EDM) in terms of the overall downloads of their top 10 albums.

Folk is actually particularly interesting.

Folk has more downloads than RockWhat's the deal with folk and rock?

The top 10 Folk albums get downloaded almost 1700 times a day on average. The top Folk album in terms of downloads (Beneath the Skin – Of Monsters and Men) has been downloaded more than all but the top 2 albums in Billboard’s overall top albums chart.

Even more interestingly, Rap outperforms the top 10 albums of Billboard’s Overall Albums Chart, no matter what their genre, in both total downloads and the average downloads per day. While Rap albums do pretty well in Billboard rankings (3 of Top Overall Albums’s ten best albums are Rap), the world of illegal downloading has clearly spoken that rap dominates even more here.

Does Billboard’s Popularity Have Any Connection with Illegal Downloads?

Total album downloads by Billboard rank
Average daily album downloads by Billboard rank

Billboard ranks seem to do a pretty good job representing what these illegal downloads tell us about popularity. As we see, a single album (thank Drake and Future) can certainly make a big difference, but that doesn’t change the fact that in both total download and daily downloads the album Ranked #1 doesn’t even come close to winning the most illegal downloads.

So it looks like Billboard moves on long before illegal downloaders do, they still love albums after they’re well on their way moving off the charts.

How does that play out? When we look at total downloads, we see that Drake dominates, but also albums ranked #7, #5, #9, and #4 (in that order) get downloaded illegally most often. Albums ranked #2 don’t even get 10% of downloader’s attention.

What’s worse than being #2 then? Being #2 with nobody stealing your music…

As for the daily downloads, Future’s DS2 takes the spotlight, and helps albums ranked #4 win in the “Most Illegal Downloads” category. This time, rank #8 competes with #2 for the worst spot. All this is to say, even if an album is ranked #1, you can be almost certain that it won’t be the hottest illegal download. You can’t win you ’em all…
Drake is no match for the other performers when it comes to total downloads.

Who’s Being Downloaded? Sorry Tay-Tay, but Not You…

Here’s a breakdown comparing albums’s total downloads. The colors correspond to the album’s genre.
Total downloads of top 10 ranked Billboard albums graph

As hinted before, Drake is obviously the standout. Heck, the entire Rap genre stands out with only the Empire soundtrack really challenging Drake, Future, and Kendrick Lamar. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late could essentially overshadow the total downloads of an entire genre or two (we’re looking at you, Folk).

Even Taylor Swift’s massive success 1989 is outshined by everyone from Zedd and Tyrese to James Bay and 21 Pilots. Tay-Tay just barely beats out the soundtrack from Southpaw. Ouch… I’m sure this is only because Swift’s fans are just that much more devoted and would never steal.

Actually, I don’t think that at all.

In other news, if you can find the classical genre in there, congratulations, you don’t need glasses.

And to give everybody a fair share of the spotlight, we thought we’d share with you the top album of genre’s Chart so no one walks away with hard feelings:
Most downloaded album of each genre of the top 10 albums in each chart
As you can see, Twenty One Pilot manages to get two top spots being counted both in the Rock chart and the Alternative chart. Granted, that’s still only enough to get them into 9th place in overall downloads. It must be nice to be the best of the 9th best.

But for those even more curious, here’s how all of the albums we looked at stack up directly against each other:
Total and average daily downloads of top 10 ranked Billboard albums graph

What else does all of this really tell us? Actually, aside from a few major albums, the numbers just aren’t that high. At least not as high as I would have expected. We’re discussing what Billboard considers the most popular albums in the world and most are getting downloaded only a few hundred times a day.

If you think about all 7 billion people on this crazy planet, that seems fairly mild. Except for DS2 by Future, 3,378 downloads a day means you’re really getting taken for a ride. Try asking yourself how many downloads a day your new favorite album gets. You’ll probably be surprised when you see the actual number.

And the important thing here to note is this: some albums, no matter what the genre, no matter what the release date, will simply appeal more to the illegal online downloading crowd. We can’t figure out why, but it’s clear when you take a look at this:
Total downloads by days available graph

Here you can see just how much of an outlier Drake really is. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, DS2, and the Empire sountrack should get a standing ovation.

Because there are other albums, such as Majestic by Kari Jobe (Christian Chart) and Wonders by The Piano Guys (Classical Chart) that haven’t had any downloads despite being available for more than a year. These artists simply aren’t looking at expanding their fanbase to people who don’t want to pay for their music, and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing depending on how you want to look at it.

And it’s good to note that even more “popular” genres have this problem as well. Ratatat’s Magnifique is also in the “zero downloads” category, and Current’s Tame Impala isn’t doing much better, boasting only 10 downloads.

Conclusion: The Internet Begs to Differ

Let’s get back to that first question, how well does Billboard’s idea of what’s popular correspond to what the world of illegal downloading thinks? Not very well, I’d say. True, the albums ranked #1 perform well along with those ranked in the other top spots, but they’re often embarrassingly overshadowed by albums lower in the ranks.

Beyond this discrepancy, this question has just opened a whole can of worms.

What’s most interesting here actually lies below the surface. It’s that Billboard calculates its rankings by combining a whole variety of factors, such as streaming, radio play, album purchases, etc. Should illegal downloads be included here? After all, they do show what a huge group of people love listening to, and that’s the major goal with rankings since they’re a signal to so many music providers out there.

I’m left wondering, is the music being shoved into our ears by Clear Channel really the music we want? And how can we fix the problem if there really is one?

I’d say Billboard still has plenty of evolving to do if it’s going to keep up with the 21st century way of enjoying music.

What do you think?

Images used:
Brennan Schnell / Flickr / CC BY-NC
Bê Swifty / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA
Pemberton Music Festival / Flickr / CC BY-NC

Comments (1)

  1. Wendy Day - Reply

    October 5, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    Faaaaaascinating article. We have long known in the rap world that Billboard and SoundScan are inaccurate. Not sure why they aren’t accurate, and I’m not sure I even care why they aren’t, to be honest. What’s interesting here is the large number of free downloads in rap. Bootlegging has always been popular in the rap culture, sadly (we created mixtapes back in the day–not proud, just fact). And what’s even more interesting is that I doubt if the music was unavailable for free, that these folks in your study would ever become paying consumers. There’s something within our music culture that enjoys getting over. Many folks seem to think it sounds better when it’s free. Sad but true. Great article, by the way!

    Wendy Day
    Rap Coalition

Add a Comment