On Tuesday, while the world was otherwise occupied, an unsigned Brooklyn R&B band called Phony Ppl with a scant 6,800 Twitter followers released an album called "Yesterday's Tomorrow." The album was two years in the making, and its 15 songs connect the varied sounds of rhythm and blues and hip-hop that cross decades and genres.
The record was delivered digitally, without a companion CD or LP, into an uncentered pop marketplace whose attentions change by the second based on tweets, shares, feeds, real-time charts and Facebook likes, competing with the hundreds (thousands? millions?) of other recordings released on your average weekday.
For the record: A Jan. 18 Arts & Books article about Billboard’s new Trending 140 chart incorrectly refered to the rap group Migos as a single rapper.
Within this chattering abyss, though, "Yesterday's Tomorrow" somehow found traction, and it made its way onto Billboard's recently unveiled Trending 140 chart. Through that elusive, mysterious thing called buzz, a kind of online giddiness started driving Twitter conversations, Soundcloud shares and iTunes purchases. Simultaneously, the record gradually crept up the iTunes R&B chart as social media platforms spread links to both online stores and to a stream of the album at a site called DJ Booth.
Sometime during that first day, former Def Jam Records President Kevin Liles, who manages D'Angelo, Trey Songz and Ty Dolla Sign, tweeted his enthusiasm for the record. Chance the Rapper had already endorsed the band, and Phony Ppl had drawn the attention of tastemaking hip-hop site Nah Right. Fans raved, spread the word. By sundown, the track had peaked at No. 15 on the 140 chart and at No. 7 on the companion Emerging Artists chart, which highlights fresh talent.
Throughout Tuesday, Phony Ppl's work ascended the two charts, both of which track and report Twitter mentions in real time. It's how I stumbled on the release, which was competing alongside the work of successful artists such as Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and Meghan Trainor. (A third recently launched chart, Last 24 Hours, tallies mentions across the full day.)
Like YouTube's constantly refreshed charts and Soundcloud's new trending feed, Billboard's Trending 140 and Emerging Artists charts are fascinating and are becoming essential barometers of hive-mind musical enthusiasm. The 140 positions on the Trending chart mirror Twitter's 140-character limit and reflect the here-and-now thrills of popular music.
A collaboration between the music industry bible and Twitter, the Trending chart is a kind of stock ticker that tracks buzzing songs in real time through mentions on the social media platform. If enough people are excited, or the right combination of tastemakers move in a similar direction, the chart can even note full albums, as happened with "Yesterday's Tomorrow."
The chart moves with a suddenness that's blind to well-oiled marketing plans. It's there for anyone to observe, a snapshot that can flip the moment West makes mention of a new track, a new video is released or an Aretha Franklin clip goes viral.
Long gone is the era when a coterie of label owners, radio and TV programmers and club spins propelled songs to the top. The unpredictability of new charts like the Trending 140 is fueling a change in how artists earn both screentime and ears, with savvy underground rap artists such as Chief Keef, Gucci Mane and Soulja Boy leading the way.
As Billboard magazine's social-streaming chart manager, William Gruger has observed, explored and reported on the chart since its launch, watching it daily, even hourly. He told me that he's watched as young acts, especially rap teams, have adapted by pushing new music not in expensive, album-long chunks but in a constant flow.
Citing the example of budding rapper Migos, Gruger marveled at the current pace of releases. "It's like, 'Boom! Here's a song. Boom! Here's a song!'" He described an organic process "that's not really beholden to release schedules. If you're not putting something on the shelf and delivering it to retailers, and you're just shuttling it out every week, there's this constant keeping-the-ball-rolling thing that these guys are doing — keeping their fans engaged every week by putting stuff out."
Since Trending 140 was unveiled in May, more than 16,500 artists have tallied tracks on the chart. That's compared with just over 250 on Billboard's definitive weekly pop chart, the Hot 100. As a result, the 140 slots are a shape-shifting chart oblivious to genre, good looks, label backing or mainstream potential.
All the Trending 140 tallies are title and artists mentions; by late Tuesday afternoon, "Yesterday's Tomorrow" had peaked in the top 10, just below British rock band Django Django's highly anticipated new track "First Light" and, oddly, horror movie director John Carpenter's new song "Night." Throughout the day, Phony Ppl's album had tracked alongside work by artists both famous (Ne-Yo, Trainor, Big Sean, Drake) — and not (Earlly Mac, Fetty Wap). It was at No. 31, then hovered in the low 20s. After a few well-positioned tweets, it eased to 19, then 15, where it hung before peaking. By dinner, Phony Ppl's mentions had dropped, but it had hit No. 6 on the iTunes R&B charts, and the band was celebrating.
It had been a crazy day, Phony Ppl guitarist Elijah Rawk said on the phone from Brooklyn. "We tried to keep our hopes lowered, keep ourselves humble so we could be pleasantly surprised. The only thoughts were, 'Just go hard on social media. Make sure everyone sees it.'" That's been the mantra of the rollout, he added. "We've had really limited resources the entire process of this album, so we really had to pull everything out ourselves." The group got corporate help in the form of studio time from Converse's Rubber Tracks facility in New York.
That Tuesday morning started normally for the six-piece band. Its members went to rehearsal for a show at S.O.B.'s later in the week and checked Twitter during breaks. The tweets and texts started coming: "'You guys are at No. 6 on the iTunes album chart!,'" Elijah enthused, "and we'd go check it ourselves." A friend texted them news of the Billboard placement.
Members of the band were floored. "It was something that we created from nothing," said drummer Matthew Byas. "It was really, really crazy. Everybody was ear-to-ear grins the whole day. It was fun, exciting, and we're still going through it right now." Twenty-four hours later, the band delivered an all-cap tweet to its fans announcing that "Yesterday's Tomorrow" had earned a new badge of honor: a spot on the iTunes store's New Release landing page.
According to Gruger, however, all of Phony Ppl's online efforts can't compete with one well-positioned social media mention by the right person. Take Ryn Weaver, who broke out on Soundcloud in the fall with a song called "Octahate." Gruger said that after artists including Paramore's Hayley Williams and How to Dress Well shared enthusiasm for the track, it hit No. 1. "The new Maejor Ali hit No. 1 because Justin Bieber tweeted about it. Of course, a Justin Bieber tweet is going to get you a No. 1 on anything," added Gruger.
That may be true, but the way Phony Ppl and thousands of others are doing it is way cooler.