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image or artists who charted on Billboard among the top 5 in 2018.

Who is the Biggest Pop Star?

Billboard claims the most popular musicians of 2018 were Drake, Post Malone, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and Cardi B. But neither Sheeran nor Swift released an album in 2018; does this ranking truly represent music culture?

It used to be easy to rank music—for decades, Billboard’s ranking was based on radio plays or album sales. Today, music consumption has become so fragmented that there’s no single way to measure popularity: we’ve got Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Soundcloud, YouTube, radio, album sales, and touring.

But each of these platforms skews towards a specific audience—imagine a ranking based purely on CD sales! Billboard built a complex equation to deal with this, but a small tweak in sources or weighting would change who the world considers its biggest star. We can’t definitively measure popularity, but we pretend that we can with Billboard’s ranking, which remains our default mental model of culture.

The Pudding’s team debated this existential musical question and had a few thoughts to consider.

Defined by Concert Venue Size

By Caitlyn Ralph & Amber Thomas

An artist’s live shows truly give a sense of their popularity. It’s a physical representation of how many people care about an artist to track the tour, purchase a ticket before it sells out, and transport themselves to watch the performance.

With that said, it’s completely missing from Billboard’s algorithm. When historians look back on 2018, they should report on those who performed to the largest audiences on the largest tours.

All Artists Must

  • have performed one of these iconic venues in 2018: Madison Square Garden in NYC, The Forum in LA, or TD Garden in Boston
  • have released new music in 2017 or 2018, and are therefore supporting an album cycle

How The Stars Were Calculated

  • find all concerts played by artist in 2018
  • measure venue size
  • sum to find how many seats they played to in 2018

Seats booked in 2018

Defined by YouTube Views

By Matt Daniels

Billboard’s algorithm is heavily weighted towards streams by paid accounts, which basically means the ranking is whatever’s played by people with premium accounts on Spotify and Apple Music. Billboard decided that music culture is anyone who can afford to pay $10/month.

On a global level, this is even more egregious—in many countries, $10/month is a luxury afforded to only the wealthy. It’s also biased towards places where Spotify exists, which excludes India (#2 country in the world, 17% of the world’s population). That’s why the #1 artist on YouTube, Ozuna, had more streams in 2018 (10.7 billion) than Drake, the #1 artist on Spotify (8.2 billion).

Top Artists in 2018

*Spotify released a ranking of artists by streams. For some artists, their stream counts were released too.

YouTube is a better proxy of popularity. It has global reach, there’s no barrier to entry to listen to music, and there’s no barrier to entry to upload music (i.e., labels still control what’s played on radio).

Defined by Total number of gifs

By Jan Diehm

I’m in my early 30s and I still stan the queen, Ms. Britney Spears.

A couple of years ago I made the cross-country pilgrimage to see her perform in Vegas. A little over an hour into singing every single word and dancing my butt off, I had to sit down because I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. My wife promptly quipped, “Even Britney doesn’t sing that much!” (I mean, Brit’s had her fair share of “Me Against the Music” moments, but I still love her).

And that brings us to my argument: pop stars shouldn’t be measured on musical success alone—they’re cultural icons. The biggest ones creep into the zeitgeist and become the things we share and meme. To measure this, I’m using the total number of gifs by artist in GIPHY’s search results.

All Artists Must

  • have appeared in Billboard’s Top 100 of 2017 or 2018

How The Stars Were Calculated

  • find all artists who meet the above criteria
  • remove any duplicate artists and collaborations
  • search GIPHY for each artist and record the total number of gifs

Artists, ranked by GIF count on Giphy

P!nk was removed from the dataset because a search for her name returned too many gifs that were only related to the color pink. Also, shout out to twenty one pilots for appearing in two Top 10s so far.

Defined by Mentions on Reddit

By Jack Beckwith, Michael Hester, and Sam Vickars of The DataFace

These days, artists’ promotional efforts are no longer confined to tours and occasional press runs. They're connecting with fans constantly through social media and building personal brands that extend beyond the music. Younger artists have used this to their advantage, as recent up-and-comers like Lil Pump and Cardi B have grown their clout through likes and shares before signing major label deals.

In this world, artists should be judged on their ability to drive digital conversations. So we’ve turned to Reddit as our data source, counting the number of comments across the platform that mentioned each artist. Yes, Reddit tends to skew fairly young and male. But it’s also one of the largest social networks in the world with an impressive global reach.

All Artists Must

  • have appeared in Billboard's Top 100 in 2018

How The Stars Were Calculated

  • compile a list of artists who meet the above criteria along with any nicknames
  • count total mentions of each artist across all Reddit comments in 2018

Top Artists on Reddit, Sized by number of comments

Several artists (like Future and Logic) were removed from the dataset because their names were too similar to common English phrases.

Defined by Social Followers

By Ilia Blinderman & Russell Goldenberg

Pop is short for popular. And let’s be honest, pop music has never been just about the music—it’s always had some aspect of “how many people are actively paying attention to you?” Luckily for us, we can quantify that by looking, quite literally, at their followers via social platforms. Introducing your new King of Pop: Justin Bieber.

Artists, ranked by followers on social channels

YouTube

Instagram

So, who wins? Should we give the crown to the always-on-tour Dave Matthews Band? Is YoungBoy’s YouTube reach a true reflection of stardom? Or should we award top spot to 2 Chainz’s meme-ability, Kanye’s ability to garner controversy, or Justin Bieber’s mind-boggling social following?

Arguments can be made for any one of these artists, and in some sense, that’s the point: using a data-driven approach to answering a cultural question seems inherently authoritative, but multiple data-driven methods of approaching exist. Which of these is best remains a question for the researchers and the audience to answer together.

Illustration by Dan Evans