Best of 2013: Daniel Mullins vs. Billboard

BillboardBillboard, who publishes the (supposedly) quintessential music charts, have released their year-end chart of the Top 15 Bluegrass Albums of 2013.

15. Leaving Eden – Carolina Chocolate Drops
14. Brothers of the Highway – Dailey & Vincent
13. The Living Years – The Isaacs
12. Ahoy! – The Punch Brothers
11. Hammer Down – The Steeldrivers
10. The Gospel Side of Dailey & Vincent – Dailey & Vincent
9. The Goat Rodeo Sessions – Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile
8. Who’s Feeling Young Now? – The Punch Brothers
7. Best of Bluegrass: Collector’s Edition – Steve Ivey
6. Stars & Satellites – Trampled By Turtles
5. Timeless Hits From The Past Bluegrassed – Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
4. Carry Me Back – Old Crow Medicine Show
3. Deep Roots – Steven Curtis Chapman
2. The Bluegrass Album – Alan Jackson
1. Love Has Come For You – Steve Martin & Edie Brickell

Based solely on Nielsen SoundScan sales numbers, the Billboard bluegrass charts can sometimes be a misrepresentation of what is actually popular in bluegrass music. Part of this comes from the fact that many bluegrass bands (and labels) do not report to SoundScan. Also, Billboard’s definition of bluegrass may be a bit more liberal than some might like, knock more mainstream bluegrass acts out of the running.

Regardless, being based only on sales figures can often skew the results when trying to determine the tops in bluegrass. The Billboard bluegrass chart stays relatively stagnant for most of the year. Out of fifty-two weeks of chart data, the Billboard bluegrass Top Ten only featured forty-nine different albums!

Other than the fifteen projects listed above, here are the rest of the albums which cracked their Top Ten in 2013.

  • Slidawg’s Redneck Christmas – Slidawg
  • Foggy Mountain Special – Various Artists
  • A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart – Black Prairie
  • Why Can’t We – The Isaacs
  • Music To My Ears – Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
  • Nobody Knows You – Steep Canyon Rangers
  • God Didn’t Choose Side s– Various Artists
  • Down Side Up – Old Man Markley
  • They Called It Music – The Gibson Brothers
  • Bluegrass Power Picks: 25 Mountain Classics – Various Artists
  • Sweet Tennessee – Judah & The Lion
  • The Old School – Peter Rowan
  • On The Edge – Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
  • Gypsy Runaway Train – The Roys
  • This World Oft Can Be – Della Mae
  • That’s Just The Way I Roll – Dave Adkins & Repulik Steele
  • Wide Awake – Joy Kills Sorrow
  • Southern Sunday Hymns: Bluegrass Gospel – Various Artists
  • Roll Me, Tumble Me – The Deadly Gentlemen
  • Red River Drifter – Michael Martin Murphy
  • Ten – Nu-Blu
  • New Day Dawning – The Roys
  • Walking Song – Ron Block
  • Dear Sister – Claire Lynch
  • Cluck Ol’ Hen – Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby
  • Tell The Ones I Love – Steep Canyon Rangers
  • Memories & Moments – Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien
  • Streets of Baltimore – The Del McCoury Band
  • Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Noam Pikelny
  • Bluegrass Gospel – Various Artists
  • Three Chords & The Truth – James King
  • I’m A Stranger Here – Devil Makes Three
  • Dark Holler Pop – Mipso
  • Live At First Avenue – Trampled By Turtles

Sales should not be the sole criteria when determining the best albums in any genre, but particularly in a niche market such as bluegrass. Our music has so many facets and styles, it’s nearly impossible to concoct a “be all, end all” list catered to everyone’s taste. However, sales figures alone is surely not the way to attempt such an endeavor.

Some of our genre’s best albums of 2013 failed to crack Billboard’s Top Ten. Below are, in my humble opinion, some of the best albums which they missed in 2013.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Time Machine – Newtown
  • Sideline: Session 1 – Steve Dilling, Skip Cherryholmes, Darrell Webb, Justen Haynes, and Jason Moore
  • Second Time Around – Jason Davis
  • No More Rain – The Steel Wheels
  • Battlefield – Mountain Faith
  • Gathering – Aaron Ramsey
  • Mercy Road – The Churchmen
  • Never Thought Of Looking Back – Terry Baucom
  • Build Me Up From Bones – Sarah Jarosz
  • Love Has Wheels – The Bankesters
  • Long Gone Out West Blues – Pharis & Jason Romero
  • Today Don’t Look Like Rain – Trinity River Band

continued – see Daniel’s Top 10 on page 2 

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel is from southwestern Ohio and has been around bluegrass his entire life. He manages the Classic Country Connection, a music store in southern Ohio which specializes in bluegrass, classic country, gospel, and Americana music. He is the host of the Bending The Strings radio program, which plays a variety of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music. He also maintains the website for Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. photo by LuAnn Adams

  • Dennis Jones

    The Billboard “chart” is sketchy at best, laughable at worst….just plain ol’ funny all the time. I have questioned many at the magazine for years on how an album is selected for the “chart”. Never got even a robot reply. That’s a hard nut to crack as artists have for years been asking about criteria for all the different genres. To have acts like The Carolina Chocolate Drops classified as Bluegrass hurts the genre. They are fantastic, put on one of the greatest live performances of any entertainers working today. No a Bluegrass act by any stretch. So many of the acts on that list are. Sarah Jaroz even says her music isn’t Bluegrass.

    I voted four stars on the article, but it registered a 1 🙁 Yours is a good list. I detest “Year End” “Top Whatever” “Best of 1919″…who really cares other than the artists who make them and the bad feelings of those who don’t? Happy New Year Dan.

  • Jon Weisberger

    As you note, Daniel, Billboard’s chart is based solely on SoundScan sales data; it shows the top selling albums that, in their editor’s judgment, fit on a bluegrass chart intended for an industry audience interested in sales as they relate to those readers’ interests (for instance, retailers wanting to know what’s most likely to sell and therefore most important to stock). It doesn’t purport to show the best albums.

    Also, while it’s true that many artists and some labels don’t report to SoundScan, plenty do (like the folks you list who made the chart at one point or another during the year – plenty of familiar names there!). In my opinion, the more who report to SoundScan, the better off our industry is, because the better idea we have of who’s buying what where.

    • Oh definitely. SoundScan definitely is important for the industry. There’s no question. It is great resource for record labels and artists to use in determining specific market areas. I agree that more labels and artists should report their sales. There may be some issues with the system, but at least it’s a system. Taking the time to send in sales numbers can only help the artist, the label, and the industry. I do think it is important, even though it may be a little extra work.

      One “flaw” I have with SoundScan is that they specify what is and isn’t a sale, which bothers me. For example, a prominent bluegrass artist has discussed with me their issues with SoundScan. One of their primary concerns is how SoundScan discredits sales at certain smaller venues including campgrounds. This definitely poses a problem for standard bluegrass acts. Personally, a sale should be sale, and location should not be an issue. Whether it’s at a campground, at Bridgestone Arena, or to a guy on the street, if money is exchanged for product, it should count as a sale.

      Regardless, based on name recognition alone, it is an uphill battle for the average bluegrass band to outsell names such as Alan Jackson, Steve Martin, Old Crow Medicine Show, and The Punch Brothers. Like it or not, that’s just the way it is. OCMS will play some shows which will have an attendance higher than what most bluegrass bands will play to in six months. That’s a fact.

      I won’t say that groups such as OCMS, The Punch Brothers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, etc shouldn’t be included in Billboard’s definition of the genre, because they fit much better in bluegrass than any other label meant to define their art. This does skew the numbers though when determining a Billboard Bluegrass chart. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a Billboard Bluegrass chart, because it is a useful tool for those not familiar with bluegrass. It also adds legitimacy to bluegrass as genre. However, some tweaking may not hurt.

      I do take issue with Billboard claiming “Best of 2013” and including a list of albums which are supposed to be the top bluegrass albums of the year and having those rankings based purely on raw sales numbers, hence the article.

      • Dennis Jones

        I still say… I still question the “choosing” of what records make the “Bluegrass” Chart. Let’s say…Taylor Swift…puts her latest CD up because it has banjo, mandolin and fiddle on it. That will blow the top off the sound scan meter. Does that do the Bluegrass Music genre justice? How about if Miley Cyrus’ people want to add her latest because it has a fiddle on a cut? Who makes the decision of what artists qualify for the chart and what are the guidelines? How does including The Carolina Chocolate Drops help Bluegrass? How does including OCMS help Bluegrass?

        • imafan

          It doesn’t help bluegrass to include those bands. Isn’t there an Americana or Roots (two terms I hate) where they could be stuck instead of in the Bluegrass category? The list proves that whomever is picking the bands to insert into the bluegrass category doesn’t know what bluegrass is.

  • John Stiernberg

    This is a long-standing issue for bluegrass and other roots music genres (blues, Americana, folk, etc.). Billboard and SoundScan are neutral, not really injecting bias, judgment, or anything inappropriate. They just report facts.

    Most bluegrass artists and their management that I know fall into one of three camps: 1) participants (e.g. submit numbers to SoundScan), 2) contrarians (aware of the system but refuse to participate), or 3) unawares (don’t know about SoundScan, NARAS, Billboard, etc.).

    Talking with a Billboard chart expert a few years ago, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at how few record sales it takes to “chart”, as long as SoundScan captures the numbers. This is a big opportunity for bluegrass people. It is also an issue for AMA, IBMA, the Folk Alliance, and related organizations to band together on.

    Your thoughts?

    • The bias occurs in the stylistic categorization, and in presuming that SoundScan accurately measures total sales, as opposed to sales reported to SoundScan.

      There are costs involved in participating. They are not prohibitive, but neither are they insubstantial. Getting venue sales accepted, crucial for independent acts and headliners alike, is an additional chore, requiring (letter of the law) that venue operators sign off. Acts who tour with management support have a huge advantage here.

      That isn’t to say that bluegrass artists shouldn’t be educated about the various promotional opportunities that exist. But it may not be accurate to suggest that bluegrassers either work this system, refuse out of stubbornness, or just don’t know.

      I think you should add a 4th camp: those who have considered the costs and benefits, and concluded that working in the system is more trouble and/or costly than the potential rewards of appearing on the Billboard Top 10 for a week or so. There are multiple smaller labels that have come to that conclusion as well.

      Participation by bluegrass artists is such that most any new project charts the first few weeks after it is released, if the artist reports. Is that worth the time, cost and trouble?

      People can come to contradictory conclusions.

      • Jon Weisberger

        Just to be clear, the value of reporting to SoundScan and getting SoundScan reports isn’t limited to the potential for appearing on Billboard’s chart. As far as decisions about whether to report or not go, there’s definitely a cost factor involved, but time and trouble? Most artists I know already keep pretty close track of how many CDs they sell at each show.

        In my opinion, the critical factor here is one you point to, John, when you say that venue sales are crucial “for independent acts and headliners alike.” If it’s true that bluegrass headliners – and again, there’s a pretty obvious question of “according to who” – rely largely on venue sales, that says a mouthful about the size and character of the “traditional” market (“traditional” modifying “market,” not “bluegrass” 😉 ).

        • The trouble is finding someone to sign off when they are busy, and you are in a hurry to leave.

          Let’s hope technology will be developed to make this process secure and reliable.

  • janice brooks

    Danial I’ll concur with Dennis on your awsum list. I’m most excited to see Flatt Lonesome here. It was luck that my spare night in Nashville I saw them open for your dad’s crew at the Station Inn.

    As I start my 7th year as an independent internet broadcaster in country related music I’ve learned a lot about Bluegrass and media has made so much of this music accessable.

  • Dennis Jones

    John Lawless makes great points. I still question the “choosing” of what records make the “Bluegrass” Chart. Let’s say…Taylor Swift…puts her latest CD up because it has banjo, mandolin and fiddle on it. That will blow the top off the sound scan meter. Does that do the Bluegrass Music genre justice? How about if Miley Cyrus’ people want to add her latest because it has a fiddle on a cut? Who makes the decision of what artists qualify for the chart and what are the guidelines?

  • thepilar

    In all fairness to Billboard, they are equally ignorant across all genres.

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