On the authenticity of music charts: IMI Top 20's trends and nature raise questions about transparency, accuracy

·7 min read

Know that feeling of waiting for something your whole life, and then when you finally get it, it's a little underwhelming? It's been a month since we got India's first official music chart, a weekly top 20 of the most popular international songs in the country. As regular readers of this column would know, its launch was of special significance for a chart geek like me.

I've been trying to figure out why I've not been as eager to check the chart when it's out on Monday evenings like I am to see the US Billboard Hot 100, the top ten of which is also unveiled on Monday, around midnight IST.

My lack of excitement is not due to how static the charts are, which is just one of the fallouts of the streaming era. (Take a glance at Spotify's Top 200 for any country and you'll find that people around the globe tend to play the same set of top tracks for a long, long time.)

I can't even blame it on the charts being a bit boring at this time when one act is dominating the Number 1 spot. No prizes for guessing that there hasn't yet been an IMI chart not topped by BTS. Occurrences like this have happened many times in the past, like for instance when the Black Eyed Peas crowned the Hot 100 for 26 weeks in 2009.

By some process of elimination, I realised that a major reason why the IMI Top 20 isn't exciting me is because a lot of the fun in following music charts is the ability to predict the next week's survey. Search for #Hot100Predictions on Twitter to know just how big a thing this is among chart aficionados. But forecasting is not easy in the case of the IMI chart and a big reason for this is the lack of data shared by the trade body.

Here's what they have told us. The chart is based on streams on three international DSPs operating in India: Amazon Prime Music, Apple Music and Spotify. Of these, both Apple Music and Spotify update their own all-genre charts daily, while Amazon Prime Music's 50 Most Played: International, which is more like a playlist, is refreshed every Friday. Only Spotify shows the actual daily streams for the tracks.

On paper, studying each of these individual surveys to gauge which songs are performing the best across all three platforms should give you a fair idea what the Number 1 overall will be. In reality, however, that isn't enough. During the third week of June, for example, 'Levitating' by Dua Lipa was the highest ranked international track on both Amazon Prime Music and Apple Music. Yet it was Number 2 on the IMI chart, behind 'Butter' by BTS, which was Number 1 on Spotify but below the top five on both the other services.

'Butter' has broken records on Spotify in India and across the world, and that's probably why it outperformed 'Levitating.' But where it gets a little complicated is the fact that streams by subscribers are weighed higher on the IMI chart than those by free users. When I asked the IMI for the exact ratio, they declined to share it citing "non-disclosure arrangements with the DSPs" but industry insiders say it could be as high as 5:1. The only freemium service in the mix is Spotify, which would mean that either or both €" that a large contingent of BTS superfans, aka ARMY, are paying customers of the platform and/or that Spotify has a lot more users than Amazon Prime Music or Apple Music.

None of the DSPs have revealed their MAU (monthly active users) figures for India but we got an indication of approximately how many they have here at a recent webinar by music marketing services company Outdustry, in which they estimated that in our country, Spotify's consumer base is around 20 million, Amazon Prime Music's is about ten million and Apple Music's is roughly five million. There is, of course, some overlap between their consumers.

Those stats, along with the sheer dedication of ARMY, is enough to explain how 'Butter' is creaming 'Levitating.' However, I've found the lower region of the IMI chart more perplexing, particularly the continued presence of the HVME remix of 'Goosebumps' by Travis Scott, which has not appeared on Amazon Prime Music's Top 50 or Apple Music's Top 100 in any of the six weeks the IMI chart has been published publicly and has ranked below No. 100 on Spotify's Top 200 during five of those weeks.

This past week, 'Goosebumps' finally dropped out of Spotify India's Top 200 yet it managed to hold on to its Number 20 spot on the IMI chart. I've been wracking my brains to figure how this might be possible and the only slightly implausible reason I could come up with was that the majority of users streaming 'Goosebumps' on Spotify are paid subscribers of the service. And, by extension, that most of those playing the several other international tracks that rank above it on the platform's Top 200 are free users.

When the IMI didn't answer my questions about 'Goosebumps' and directed me instead to the FAQs section of their website, I did the next best thing and contacted BMAT, the Barcelona-based company that compiles the chart for them. While they didn't give me a firm answer, they did provide me with a one-word explanation of sorts: remixes.

There are three different versions of 'Goosebumps,' including the original credited only to Scott and the remix credited to just HVME. Streams of all three are combined for the IMI chart and looking at just the top 200 of Spotify doesn't show the complete picture. Fair enough. But in that case, how is it that 'Levitating,' whose original and DaBaby-featuring remix had a combined total of 1,725,030 streams on Spotify last week, almost 130,000 more than 'Butter,' was placed one position below it at Number 3 on the IMI chart? That too in a seven-day span during which 'Levitating' was Number 1 on Amazon Prime Music and in the top ten of Apple Music, while 'Butter,' which was Number 2 on Spotify, had fallen to Number 20 on Amazon Prime Music and below the top 30 on Apple Music.

Again, the folks at BMAT put it down to there being a gazillion remixes of 'Butter' €" not all of which are in the charts €" possibly tilting the balance. In actuality, by my count, there are five versions of both 'Butter' (original, 'Hotter', 'Cooler', 'Sweeter' and instrumental) and 'Levitating' (original, the remix with DaBaby, a remix of this remix by KUU, another reworking by The Blessed Madonna featuring Madonna and Missy Elliot, and a special Indian redo by Amaal Mallik with vocal contributions by Armaan Mallik and Sukriti and Prakriti Kakar.)

A lot of these discrepancies would be easily clarified if the IMI did a bunch of things that it isn't doing right now, including telling us exactly how many streams at least the top ten tracks have during any week, the weightage given to paid to free plays, and why certain catalogue titles (those older than 78 weeks) are allowed to chart ('Senorita' by Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes) while some aren't ('Blinding Lights' by The Weeknd). It would also make sense to publish the entire top 50, especially because the list generated by BMAT goes beyond 50 positions.

After all, the charts Bible Billboard magazine states all of these things clearly when it releases the top ten of the Hot 100. And the IMI has clearly modeled its charts on that survey €" even the table format used for the top 20 mirrors that of the American publication.

Indian charts, the IMI has said, are very much a work in progress and I'm hoping that eventually, they live up to their credo of "100 percent transparency and accuracy." Especially because the lack of transparency on the part of certain member labels is what's allegedly holding back the launch of the all-genre chart, which, despite all of this, I'm still keenly anticipating.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

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