Lil Nas X vs. The Beatles? The Billboard 100’s Most Successful Artists

There are many ways to judge an artist, and the best ways are probably entirely nonstatistical. But add up all these millions of ways that different people rate music, and you get something pretty close to metrics like total album sales, YouTube streams, and other quantitative popularity measures.

In this post, and hopefully in a few follow-up posts where I’ll dive deeper into this wealth of data, I’m looking at the Billboard Top 100 as the “most popular” songs each week. The Billboard Top 100 ranks songs based on sales, radio time, and streaming volume. I downloaded the Top 100 for every week between the weeks of August 4, 1958 (presumably when the Billboard started?) and September 28, 2019 (a week ago, at the time of writing).

The question of how to rank artists based on this data remains thorny: do we count the number of Number 1 hits they produced? The number of weeks any of their songs were at Number 1? The total number of Top-100 songs? The total number of song-weeks in the Top 100? I started with just these four, to keep it simple. (You could devise many other systems, probably more valuable ones, e.g. by weighting higher-placed hits more than lower ones, etc.)

The following graphs rank the top 30 most successful Billboard artists, by time spent on top of the Billboard at #1 (left) and by total time anywhere on the Billboard (right).

And, if you’re wondering what songs launched some of these artists to the top, here are the top 30 songs, both by time at #1 and time anywhere on the Billboard 100:

If you ask me, this suggests that Drake is the greatest artist in history, and clearly he’s not done yet. I have to say, I’m disappointed in the legends of old whom I kept telling people would be far more popular than today’s celebrities, although artists like Aretha and the Supremes do pretty well for themselves. But I wonder how Billboard-dominant Elvis would be with today’s internet/streaming/viralness?

Some questions: Is there a difference between fanbases of various genres? How powerful is “meme” value? How much of this is driven by clubs, movies, etc.? Factors that inform the trajectory of songs and artists are super interesting and unclear.

Complete tables of ranked artists and songs, beyond the top 30, are available here in Google Sheets, along with the full raw data I used as a CSV download. Contact me if you’re interested in the code I used for data collection or visualization; it’s not published here for lyrics copyright reasons.

Keep an eye out for future posts on this topic—I’ve got a few ideas bouncing around my head about studying what characteristics might make a song or artist popular!

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