For the past three weeks, Post Malone’s sophomore effort, Beerbongs & Bentleys, has enjoyed an unusually long reign atop the Billboard album charts—without actually selling many copies. Instead, in an era when the way we measure music sales is constantly shifting, the album has succeeded based on streaming. And listeners have been streaming Beerbongs & Bentleys at an astonishing rate.
As fewer listeners buy albums, album sales no longer tell the full story of an artist’s audience. (As of last September, streaming reflected 62 percent of the music business in the U.S.) To reflect that shift, Billboard started factoring in streaming figures back in 2014, creating a new system that treats 1,500 streams from an album as one sale. The new system is intended to give a better sense of what music people are actually listening to (and paying for, either by buying albums, subscribing to streaming services, or listening to ads), and some artists—including Malone—have benefited. Beerbongs & Bentleys has more than 810,000 album-equivalent units sold, but the vast majority of those aren’t actual sales. Instead, more than 600,000 of those are streaming album-equivalent units, which means Malone’s music is getting streamed a lot—Billboard measures 600,000 sales of the album purely from streaming, which means people have streamed the songs close to a billion times in its first three weeks.
That means that Malone’s listeners have very different listening habits from fans of other hot Texas artists. Leon Bridges (whose Good Things debuted at #3 in early May) had first-week sales of 66,000—but 59,000 of them were actual sales. When Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour was released in April, it reported 49,000 sale equivalents its first week, with 39,000 of them being actual sales. That’s to be expected, to some extent: Both of those artists have fan bases that skew a little older and may have more traditional music-consumption habits than Malone’s college-aged audience, who likely are into streaming music, as well as beerbongs and/or Bentleys.
Appealing to a younger, more streaming-friendly audience has worked out for Malone. Earlier this month, he set a new record for the most songs in the top twenty of Billboard‘s Hot 100 by a single artist, with nine of the album’s songs at the top of the list (and all eighteen songs on the album within the Hot 100 itself). That broke a record set by The Beatles back in 1964.
Beating the Fab Four sounds impressive, but that, too, doesn’t tell the full story. The Beatles may have set the record 54 years ago, but they weren’t the sole holders of it: just a few weeks ago, they split that record with North Carolina rapper J. Cole, who also landed six songs in the top twenty of the singles chart. Getting a song into the top twenty in 1964 was wildly different from doing so in 2018: the Beatles had to release a half-dozen singles that people went into stores to buy, all at the same time. For Malone to do it, people just had to play his album on Spotify over and over again. It’s impressive, but its unlikely that the record he set is going to last any test of time. Shawn Mendes might break it, or G-Eazy, or Adele, or Beyoncé. Maybe all four of them. Maybe someone we haven’t heard of.
Fundamentally, the advent of streaming has changed the music business by tracking listens rather than listeners. If you bought a copy of Beatles For Sale, every time you listened to the album only counted as once. But with streaming figures included, queuing up an album and playing it in the background as you do anything adds to the figures. Granted, it takes a lot of plays to reach a sale—one has to get through the eighteen tracks on Beerbongs & Bentleys 83 times before it starts counting toward a second listen—but a person doesn’t have to play the album in its entirety to raise a single song into the charts. Even Malone’s “Jonestown (Interlude),” a track featuring 1:52 seconds of ominous tones and shimmering bird sounds before Malone repeatedly sings a single refrain about suicide and Kool-Aid, managed to make it to #73 on the Billboard chart.
Within that context, Post Malone is still having an impressive run with one of the year’s biggest albums. Artists like Bridges and Musgraves, who depend on listeners accustomed to buying records, would probably have achieved more chart success had their careers begun in, say, the musical climate of 1997. Malone, though, is a man of his time, succeeding by making music for people in their early twenties. But he’s not so much breaking the old records as he is setting new ones in categories that didn’t exist even half a decade ago. Since the audience for streaming grows every day, we don’t have a proper framework to know if those records are made to last. Childish Gambino may shatter his record later this summer, and Shawn Mendes’s self-titled third album is likely to dethrone Beerbongs & Bentleys‘ position at the top of the charts on Friday. It’s possible that Post Malone could have one of the biggest albums of all time, under the current metric, and not even have one of the biggest albums of the year. Right now, things are just changing too quickly for us to know for sure.