Curious case of YouTube's charts: Something's strange about the platform's rankings, but nobody's talking

Analysing the phenomenon may explain why Badshah's Paagal isn't on YouTube’s charts when the video on Sony Music India’s channel has been watched over 100 million times

Amit Gurbaxani July 31, 2019 10:28:31 IST
Curious case of YouTube's charts: Something's strange about the platform's rankings, but nobody's talking
  • What explains the absence of Badshah's Paagal from YouTube’s charts when the video on Sony Music India’s channel has been watched over 100 million times?

  • It turns out that this is not the first time that this sort of thing happened.

I’ve often griped about India not having an official YouTube chart, a privilege currently enjoyed by over 40 other countries, including those with much smaller markets than ours. In any given week, Indian songs account for around 20 percent of the most popular music videos being streamed on the platform across the world. And Indian acts frequently top its Global Top Artists chart.

Over the last three weeks, we might have indirectly got an answer as to why the video streaming service has not yet launched a chart for its largest and fastest growing region.

On YouTube, what you see as view counts, isn’t always what you get on its rankings.

According to Sony Music India, the video for Badshah’s non-film single “Paagal”, which was released on Wednesday, 10 July, broke the record for the most views in a 24-hour period on Thursday, 11 July, with over 75 million plays. Yet “Paagal” was nowhere to be seen on YouTube’s Global Top Music Videos chart that covered the week from Friday, 5 July to Thursday, 11 July.

Since galloping past 75 million, “Paagal” has trotted to over 113 million views at the time of publication. But it has yet to appear on the list. Why? I reached out to YouTube multiple times over the past month. They did not respond. The lack of an official stamp did not stop Sony from issuing a press release claiming the record, which has been consistently disputed by fans of K-Pop group BTS whose 74.6 million benchmark (for their video for “Boy With Luv”) Badshah evidently crossed.

YouTube remained silent, Badshah did not. In an Instagram story, he countered allegations that many of those 75 million streams were “fake views” and wrote that the use of Google AdWords helped spread the word about “Paagal” around the globe, thereby accelerating its world-beating success. The purchase of Google AdWords, he explained, amounted to “paid promotions”, which are implemented by international acts as well.

The million-view question is: Why isn’t “Paagal” on YouTube’s charts when if you go to the video on Sony Music India’s channel, it clearly shows that it has been watched over 100 million times? Especially when it takes only between five and 10 million views in a week to crack the survey? It turns out that this is not the first time that this sort of thing happened.

To find out how frequently it occurs, I combed through Kworb.net, a site that publishes “all kinds of music-related data” including lists of the most viewed videos on YouTube during the last 24 hours and seven days as well as weekly and monthly YouTube rankings. Kworb, it should be noted, is flagged under “Websites to Avoid” in Wikipedia’s guidelines for articles on record charts because the figures are estimates and “are not based on official data”. Yet, Kworb’s counts seem to, at least approximately, correspond with the numbers displayed on a video’s official YouTube page.

Curious case of YouTubes charts Somethings strange about the platforms rankings but nobodys talking

Why isn’t Badshah's Paagal on YouTube’s charts when if you go to the video on Sony Music India’s channel, it clearly shows that it has been watched over 100 million times?

However, there are significant differences when you compare Kworb’s and YouTube’s weekly rankings. Some songs on Kworb’s survey do not show up in YouTube’s at all and vice versa. For example, for the week of Friday, 19 July to Thursday, 25 July, Turkish vlogger’s single “Ela” was No.10, according to Kworb but like “Paagal” (incidentally No.83), it’s not on the YouTube chart. On the other hand, the remix of Puerto Rican singer Jhay Cortez’s “No Me Conoce” is No.3 on YouTube but absent from Kworb’s list. I reached out to the person behind Kworb via Twitter. I have yet to receive a reply.

Even if the tracks don’t always match, the positions of the videos that are on both charts often do. In the 179 weeks for which YouTube’s charts are publicly available, the No.1 on Kworb’s weekly YouTube chart has been the same as that atop YouTube in all except for 12 weeks. In other words, they’ve mirrored each other 93 percent of the time.

In most of these cases, the No.1 on Kworb was either No.2 or No.3 on YouTube. There are five instances where the Kworb No.1 was missing from YouTube’s official chart altogether. Three out of those five chart toppers were Indian music videos. The most recent of course is “Paagal”. For the week of Friday, 19 April to Thursday, 25 April, “Slowly Slowly” by Guru Randhawa featuring Pitbull crowned Kworb’s survey with more than 71 million views. It was not on YouTube’s list for the corresponding week. Unlike “Paagal” though, “Slowly Slowly” did chart, at No.7, the following week.

Before that, for the week of Friday, 28 September to Thursday, 4 October 2018, “Jaha Tum Rahoge” from the little-known 2017 Hindi film Maheruh — so little known that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page — was the most-watched music video on YouTube, as per Kworb but not even among the top 100, according to YouTube itself. What’s particularly strange about this is that “Jaha Tum Rahoge” was actually No.1 on YouTube’s chart for the week of Friday, 3 August to Thursday, 9 August 2018 (for which it was No.2 on Kworb).

Bizarrely, it fell off YouTube’s list the following week, never to return again. Being the chart geek that I am, at a music conference in August 2018, I walked up to Anurag Bedi, the business head of Zee Music Company, which released the soundtrack to Maheruh, and asked him why there was a sudden surge in the popularity of the video, which was uploaded back in November 2017.

Bedi said that his label had nothing to do with it. A probable explanation, somebody at the same conference said to me, was that the video, which is preceded with a warning that “it may be inappropriate for some users” and contains what passes off as soft-porn in India, could have been belatedly shared on messaging platforms for its “hot” content.

Could it be that “Slowly Slowly” and “Jaha Tum Rahoge” were also boosted by “paid promotions”? And that YouTube does not count views generated by Google AdWords when compiling its chart? If that is indeed the case, then it could very well be that the streaming service does not want to officially state this because after all, Google AdWords are a source of revenue for Google and YouTube’s parent company Alphabet. To admit that all those plays don’t amount to anything for the charts would be to bite the hand that feeds it.

As this piece in Bloomberg outlines, it’s far cheaper to generate streams using Google’s advertising platforms in India than in the US or UK. Earlier this week, Mo Joshi, the co-founder of Indian independent hip-hop label Azadi Records, shared a screenshot of a message he received from a person offering “YouTube promotion” and a million views for Rs 95,000.

Alas, Sony’s “video-first” marketing campaign, which seemed to have been specifically designed to break the 24-hour record to build hype around "Paagal", does not seem to have had the desired impact, at least on audio-streaming services.

On the weekly charts published by Amazon Music, Gaana, JioSaavn and Spotify, it’s currently at No.46, No.12, No.26 and No.17 respectively. On Apple Music’s India Top 100, which is updated daily, it has climbed no higher than No.42. “Paagal” isn’t quite a flop but it sure isn’t the superhit that Sony was hoping it would be either. The only place it seems to have taken off is radio on which, according to airplay monitoring company AirCheck, it’s the second most played song in the country right now.

Radio, unlike streaming, is not a consumer-driven medium. And unfortunately for Badshah and Sony, a YouTube record isn’t a record until YouTube says so. In some way, it has perhaps benefited them that the platform doesn’t have an official India chart. To me, that’s a real pity because YouTube is how most people are accessing music online in India.

In terms of volume, if not value, viewership on YouTube is arguably the truest gauge of a song’s popularity here. This could be why the Indian Music Industry has apparently had a change of heart and decided to include streams from it for its soon-to-launch official chart. But when YouTube itself counts some streams as less equal to others, it’s only right that they set the record straight.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

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