Recently, I came across an article where Steve “Skinny” Felton, the drummer of nu metal giants Mushroomhead, was complaining about the Billboard charts; claiming that they were disrespectful towards metal and rock bands. Despite what you may think about Mushroomhead as a band, surely this is a claim that is worthy of investigation and/or discussion?
Mushroomhead’s latest album The Righteous and The Butterfly recently sold 10,715 copies during its first week on sale, and entered the Billboard Top 200 at #20, #1 on the Hard Rock chart, and #5 on the Rock chart. For a band of their caliber, those figures are pretty good, and surely anyone would be happy with that kind of placement? So, what is Felton moaning about? Here’s what he has to say:
“Either they’re extremely lazy, or Billboard is simply out of touch with current musical styles. This rock chart should be more respectful of rock and metal artists, and all artists, period. Hardworking metal and rock bands don’t have a chance at the proper recognition they deserve. Billboard should redo this chart and remove non-rock artists like Tori Amos, Lorde and others.
It’s disrespectful to all artists. Tori Amos? I own a few of her early records, and I can assure you when I purchased these, they weren’t filed under “rock.” Lana Del Rey? Didn’t she do a dance mix to get a Top 40 hit? Oh, and she’s performing at Kanye West‘s wedding to Kim Kardashian – how is that “rock? Even Lorde is annoyed.”
Even though Mushroomhead have essentially produced the same music since 1997, Felton does raise a fair point; there are a lot of artists on the Billboard rock, hard rock and alternative charts that seem to have been mis-categorized. While this may not seem to be much of a concern for the metal community in general, there are bands who could benefit from a level of exposure beyond your average metal blog. With bands like Mastodon and Meshuggah gaining a considerable mainstream following and landing high on the Billboard charts, it might be worth it to clear the way for other bands to achieve that level of success.
The Billboard charts are obviously not designed to account for the nuances of metal, or for independent music in general. Yes, it’s odd to see Lorde at the top of both the rock and alternative charts, and maybe even frustrating to artists who clearly fit the description of those categories being pushed down, or entirely off of the charts by Pure Heroine. If you look at the top alternative albums of this year (according to Billboard), Lorde is flanked by the likes of Imagine Dragons, Jack Johnson and Foster the People, so her categorization here is not entirely wrong. In modern top 40 music, artists are categorized in terms of what they sound like in relation to what is already popular, not necessarily the genre they originated from. This does a disservice to metal bands, but it isn’t necessarily disrespectful- it’s just as much as Billboard could be expected to do.
A quick perusal of the Billboard archives provides a better perspective on the situation. The rock section for 2014 has several categories: rock, hard rock, alternative, adult alternative and mainstream rock. Rock, hard rock and alternative also have separate charts for songs and albums. There are also a few charts for different formats like airplay, digital and streaming. Most of the artists represented show up on multiple charts, being accounted for in at least two different genres. With all of the categories and formats there is a wide range of bands making the charts, however there would definitely be a larger number of artists and more diversity if each band stuck to one category. That would be ideal, but it is unlikely to happen. There is the Independent chart too, which has anything and everything from Protest the Hero to Garth Brooks.
The current Billboard categorization system may not be conducive to giving metal bands a leg up, but it definitely leaves open the possibility for heavier bands to find success. There are more categories than there were a decade ago, and the charts are no longer dictated solely by radio airplay and MTV. Rock albums today also tend to spend less time at the top of the charts. That may sound negative, but it actually means there will be more artists represented throughout the year, and you won’t get a band like Marcy Playground at the top of the charts for 14 weeks straight because there is literally nothing to knock “Sex and Candy” down from #1.
Even if we were to attempt to ‘fix’ Billboard’s categories, how far do we go? Judging by how quickly discussions of genre tend to devolve into futile shouting matches, I can’t imagine Billboard caring enough to entertain the idea. Who polices it? Who decides what genre an artist belongs in? What happens if an artist changes their sound from record to record, or even song to song? This is likely how almost all of the bands represented across Billboard tend to cross over into at least more than one of their many categories.
In short, while the Billboard system is still not perfect in the way that it chooses to categorize music, it has shown consistent improvement and growth over time. As customer’s buying patterns change, so will the ways in which we measure them. For now, Billboard seems to mostly do their job, and while Mushroomhead’s disgruntled drummer may have a point (however tenuous), that Billboard’s methods are hurting his band’s potential success – one can’t begrudge a massive corporate endeavour for trying to diversify the music they represent, in a time where many others just wouldn’t bother in the first place.