Who Is Still Buying Digital Downloads? Oliver Anthony’s Fans Apparently

Oliver Anthony Concert - Credit: Mike Caudill/Billbaord/Getty Images
Oliver Anthony Concert - Credit: Mike Caudill/Billbaord/Getty Images

Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond” didn’t have significant radio play last week, nor the help of a major label.

But it did have digital sales. A lot of sales. With the backing of conservative influencers like Matt Walsh, Dan Bongino, and Laura Ingraham, who championed the song as a populist message for the working class, it went all the way to Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on the strength of over 147,000 downloads last week. That’s about 14 times as many as the Number Two song, Luke Combs’s “Fast Car,” and more than three times’ as many as the rest of this week’s Top 10 combined. Excluding “Rich Men,” the 199 other songs on data provider Luminate’s Top 200 Song Consumption chart averaged about 1,100 sales.

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Digital downloads are, for the most part, a dying listening format, part of a bygone era for a drastically different music industry. It’s far easier and ultimately cheaper to stream music these days than find your iTunes password, log in, and pay to download a song or album. But it wasn’t always this way. In 2015, as streaming was beginning to dominate the market, downloads made up 34 percent of the U.S. recorded industry’s revenue, according to the RIAA, at about $1.2 billion. Revenue has dropped every year, and by 2022, downloads made up just 3 percent of the U.S. industry’s revenue. All signs point to digital sales inching closer toward extinction as streaming now makes up 84 percent of the business, but as Anthony’s numbers reflect, the download is still an important metric when it comes to the Billboard charts.

To attribute Anthony’s success only to sales, however, would be inaccurate. With 17.4 million streams last week, “Rich Men” had the fourth-most streams of the songs on the chart, according to Luminate — only a couple hundred thousand behind Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer.” For over a week, “Rich Men North of Richmond” has topped Apple Music’s U.S. and Global Charts and has bounced around the top three on Spotify’s U.S. chart. From Friday through Monday, the song had already garnered an additional 13.1 million streams per Luminate, about 3 million more than “Fast Car” and about a million shy of “Cruel Summer,” which had 14.2 million. “Rich Men” is neck and neck with Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night,” which has about 13 million streams.

Still, the X factor on this week’s chart was clearly the sales. Sales of Anthony’s song have dropped in the past few days compared to the same period last week, but they’re still strong at about 77,000, keeping him as a contender for a second week atop the chart.

A song sale has a much larger weight for chart placings than an individual stream. With $11 a month getting users access to most of the music they could ever want (or no money at all if you use Spotify’s ad-supported tier), streaming any one song is a low buy-in for consumers compared to a digital sale, where someone specifically purchased an individual piece of music. Fan bases — or groups who want to see a particular song or artist hit Number One — seem to know this and have cultivated a fruitful strategy to push a song up the charts.

Anthony is far from the only artist whose chart position benefited from an abnormally high number of traditional sales. Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” coasted on controversy to Number One last month, and like “Rich Men” was championed by American conservatives, resulting in about 175,000 sales. Those two cases involved a political element, but the sales game is actually more common among pop fans looking to boost their favorite artists.

The week before Aldean, BTS superfans took Jung Kook’s “Seven” featuring Latto to the top thanks in part to about 138,000 digital downloads, blocking Aldean’s path to Number One (at least for a week) in the process. Back in April, fellow BTS member Jimin’s “Like Crazy” debuted at Number One off of 241,000 downloads. While their song didn’t top the chart, the Barbz helped Ice Spice and Nicki Minaj’s “Princess Diana” debut at Number Four thanks to over 75,000 sales.

Such ploys arguably put an artist’s brand or status, or any number of non-musical factors, above the songs themselves. Aldean and Jung Kook’s jockeying for a Hot 100 Number One in July did not reflect what was actually the most-listened-to song of the week. Instead, it gave the two artists’ fan bases affirmation that the artist they wanted to go Number One could be manifested, even if only on a technicality.

Seeking an edge for a higher chart placement isn’t new. In recent years, artists bundled their albums with merchandise and concert tickets to boost first-week sales. For some genres, those strategies are the only way they could see a Number One in the streaming era. The bundling rule, which caused some controversy among critics, was eliminated in 2020, but Billboard modified it to address the issue and brought it back earlier this year. 

“We all want to win, everyone tries to play the game in some way,” says Zach Friedman, president of indie label 10k Projects, whose clients include Ice Spice, Trippie Redd, and Iann Dior. “Look at Travis Scott, he’s a huge [direct to consumer] artist, fans bought the products. He has a community behind him, he has a big fandom. Across the board, one artist might be more popular than another, but if their fans rally for them, I think it’s awesome.”

While fanbases can organize and sell thousands of digital downloads for a week, according to multiple industry insiders doing it for multiple weeks and coupling that with strong streaming numbers isn’t as simple. Mass sales can help push songs up the charts in the short-term, but aren’t usually a reliable strategy for keeping them there. “Seven” dropped to Number Nine the very next week and now sits at 30. Aldean’s “Small Town” dropped even more dramatically when the sales dried up, falling to Number 21 after its week at the top and is now at 25. “Like Crazy” fell to 45 the next week and hasn’t been featured on the Hot 100 since May. “Princess Diana” fell to 29 and is currently at 60.

For “Rich Men North of Richmond” to avoid a similar dip, Anthony will likely need streams to keep him up top. It’s far too early to tell what happens next, but so far, the song doesn’t appear to be going anywhere yet.

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