September 7, 2016

Three Things You Need to Know About Pandora’s Charts

Unlike Spotify and YouTube, who have shared their spin counts with the Nielsen-powered Billboard charts for years, Pandora has been uniquely secretive about the songs they spin most. However, starting in August, the internet radio juggernaut finally started sharing information about the songs and artists they play with three different charts:

  • The Pandora Trendsetters Chart shows the top 20 new artists used by listeners to start new Pandora stations during the past week. However, once Pandora considers an artist “established” based on their social and streaming activity, they no longer include that artist on the Trendsetters Chart.
  • The Pandora Predictions Chart shows songs that are receiving social media references and increased Pandora spins, but have not yet reached any Billboard charts. The Predictions Chart is a similar concept to Billboard’s “bubbling under” chart.
  • The Pandora Top Spins Chart shows the 100 tracks that have been spun the most times over the past week, reflecting which songs are currently the most popular. For most radio programmers, the Top Spins Chart is the most relevant of these three charts because it most closely mirrors tools such as Mediabase airplay, Spotify, Shazam, the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and custom callout research that programmers rely on for information about which songs are most popular with listeners.

Before you dive into Pandora’s data, there are three key things to understand about their Top Spins Chart:

1) Pandora automatically drops most songs off their Top Spins Chart after 16 weeks—which means half the hits are missing.

Regardless of how popular a song still is, Pandora categorically drops most songs from its Top Spins Chart after 16 weeks. They do allow rare exceptions if a song is on a “hot streak,” which they define as any song they believe has not yet reached its peak spin count. This policy is similar to how Mediabase and Nielsen BDS move songs from “Current” to “Recurrent”, but unlike these services, Pandora doesn’t show you the recurrents.

Why does this policy matter?  Almost half of the 10 hottest songs on the Hot 100 in a typical week are older than 16 weeks. Many of the biggest Top 10 hits on radio and on other streaming services are typically up to 28 weeks old. Assuming Pandora’s listeners are typical new music consumers, Pandora’s Top Spins Chart is likely missing half of the songs that really get played most on Pandora. This week, those missing songs include the following Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100:

  • “Cheap Thrills” by Sia featuring Sean Paul
  • “Ride” by twenty one pilots
  • “This Is What You Came For” by Calvin Harris featuring Rihanna (This song was #1 on Pandora’s Top Spins Chart last week, but vanished this week due to the 16-week drop policy)
  • “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers featuring Daya
  • “One Dance” by Drake featuring WizKid & Kyla

Pandora has this policy, “to ensure that the chart is not altogether static.” That’s perplexing, because other charts that don’t arbitrarily drop songs certainly change over time. Pandora has come under fire from record labels for not exposing its users to new music as rapidly as other sources, so this policy might be an attempt to counter that critique. Unless Pandora users predominantly use the service to hear gold titles, the Top Spins Chart without the drop policy chart would not be static either.

Arguably, this chart’s name is misleading: What you’re really seeing is the biggest hits that are still growing on Pandora, not which songs are, in fact, their top spins.

2) “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down” has no impact on Pandora’s Top Spins Chart.                                                                                                                                                                            A song counts as a play on the Pandora Top Spins Chart regardless of how long the listener played the song. That means if Pandora offers a song to a listener, it counts on the Top Spins Chart, even if the listener immediately skips or thumbs down the track. While hitting “thumbs up” on a song means Pandora will play it more frequently, thumbs ups don’t directly impact a song’s chart performance, either.

To a degree, Pandora’s Top Spins Chart shows which songs Pandora thinks listeners will like, not necessarily which songs they actually do like. In that regard, the chart is similar to radio airplay charts: For some titles, they reflect which songs program directors think listeners will like, not necessarily which titles the station’s new music research ultimately shows listeners do like.

3) Songs on the Top Spins Chart represent up to 10-million plays.                                                                                                                                                                                                   Unlike Mediabase and Nielsen BDS, Pandora’s Top Spins chart doesn’t show the exact number of spins for each song. Pandora has stated that the songs from #100 to #1 on the Top Spins chart received between 1.5 and 10 million plays during the past week.

Since Pandora is a personalized service, there is no equivalent metric in radio. Spins aren’t comparable, since tens of thousands of listeners hear a song each time a leading major market station spins it. Audience Reach isn’t equivalent, either, since it shows the number of listeners who heard a song this week, regardless of how many times each listener hears it. Although not directly comparable, it’s worth noting that while Pandora’s top song gets played about 10-million times, the biggest songs on terrestrial radio each week reach well over 150-million people in the U.S.

With this knowledge in mind, how should you use Pandora’s Top Spins Chart as a tool for evaluating new music for your station?

  • Expect that up to half of the biggest hits each week will be missing from Pandora’s Top Spins Chart because of their 16-week drop policy. Don’t assume that listeners no longer want to hear a song on Pandora or on your radio station simply because it no longer appears on Pandora’s chart, especially if other measures show it’s still popular.
  • Use Pandora’s Top Spins Chart to spot hits you might be missing. While Pandora’s chart can’t tell you how long big hits remain popular, it can be a great source to spot new songs that are catching on with Pandora users before they’re catching on elsewhere. Given that Pandora’s audience dwarfs the listenership of other streaming services, knowing a song is a breakout hit on Pandora can be valuable information.
  • Before adding a song that’s big on Pandora, assess whether your listeners might react negatively to it. Pandora’s Top Spins Chart shows what they played regardless of whether or not listeners hit “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” While users’ thumb activity will ultimately reflect what Pandora plays, songs could appear on the Top Spins Chart that a lot of their users actually hate.

pandora blog image 2016 09

Comparison of the Pandora Top Spins Chart with the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Half of the Top 10 hits are missing from Pandora’s chart because of their 16-week drop policy. © 2016 Billboard, © 2016 Next Big Sound

For more things to consider when reviewing how songs perform on streaming services, see our articles on How Streaming Data Can Help Radio Pick New Music and The Limitations of Using Streaming Data to Pick New Music.

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