Digital technology reduced diversity in music charts

If you had to venture a guess, would you say that digital technology has increased diversity in the music industry, or decreased it?


The dawn of the Internet promised to increase diversity in markets. Diversity would come about because digital technology reduces the costs of production, distribution and promotion, making it economically viable to launch a niche product. Digital technology also promises to reduce search and transaction costs for customers interested in those products.


In the case of the music industry, digital technology enables unknown artists to produce and record their own tracks, on a computer. They can also promote their music on social media, and distribute their work on SoundCloud or another audio distribution platform. In turn, music fans can find and listen to new music, independently of radio station producers or music store managers. They can also sample music tracks before buying them; and, of course, stream music as and when wanted, rather than downloading the track or buying a physical CD. Free from the constraints of gatekeepers and physical limitations, a broader range of artists could find their way to the public and, presumably, to musical charts.


However, this study by Simon Sjolander shows that the exact opposite happened.


The author analysed the musical top charts in the US, between 1958 and 2015. That’s 57 years of data, including multiple forms of music consumption, from physical sales to radio plays, digital downloads and streaming!


Sjolander’s study shows a clear decline in the number of artists making it to the top 100 chart, year on year (Figure 1). At the same time, there is an increase in the average number of weeks a title spends on the chart (Figure 5). That is, there is a clear, long-term trend of decreasing diversity in musical charts, which the Internet did not overturn.


Most interesting, however, is the analysis of the number of titles per artist during this period. Figure 6 shows an initial decrease in the mean number of titles per artist, on the top charts. However, this trend reversed around year 2005. After this date, there is a sharp increase in the mean number of titles per artist on the charts. So, rather than seeing more variety of artists and tracks on the top charts, we see more and more instances of one artist having several tracks on the chart.


music fig 6


This is, of course, the year when YouTube was launched, mp3s players were now very popular, and downloading music was a well-established behaviour. Rather than increasing diversity, these and other digital technologies seem to have created bigger superstars.

music headphones


The author advances several reasons for this, including:

  • the ability to consume individual, preferred tracks rather than the whole album may increase the number of individual titles consumed;
  • the possibility to consume tracks at low or no cost allows people to consume more music from their preferred artists;
  • the ease to spread word of mouth via social media amplifies buzz for artists who already have the attention of their audience;
  • recommendation systems favour existing artists, by ranking and connecting their multiple titles, while struggling to classify and establish connections for new artists.


Surprised by these findings?


UPDATE: Snapstory about this article

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