NEW YORK, NY - MAY 27:  Singer Rihanna performs on NBC's "Today" in Rockefeller Plaza on May 27, 2011 in New York City.  (Pho
Mike Coppola

For about 60 years, Billboard magazine has tracked the sales of singles, then albums, spinning off those lists into more topical charts such as the Hot 100 (which factors in single sales, radio play, and downloads) and R&B/Hip-Hop Songs—as well as more head-scratching specialized offerings such as Bluegrass Albums, Regional Mexican Songs and Tropical Albums, among countless others.

Though the publication doesn’t exactly spur the music-industry zeitgeist, it has attempted to catch, however cautiously, music fluctuations at their crests. So it was puzzling that no chart addressed online buzz and its impact on an artist’s career. That changed in December when Billboard debuted its Social 50 chart, or in their words: “a ranking of the most active artists on the world’s leading social-networking sites.” The idea here is that hard sales don’t necessarily gauge an artist’s relevance. Fair enough.

Until now, emerging music has pretty much been observed by mp3 aggregator sites like iLike, Last.FM, We Are Hunted, The Hype Machine, and BigChampagne. Some of these destinations are more scientific than others—calling into question just how the heck one quantifies such traffic.

Let’s attempt to draw some distinctions between these sites. iLike (owned by MySpace) and the Facebook friendly Last.FM are music-sharing services. The former tracks which user plays what tune to gauge the “fastest-spreading songs,” while the latter recommends and charts both the most streamed tunes on its site as well as those tracks showing the most upward growth in popularity.

We Are Hunted, which lists the “99 most popular emerging sounds,” claims to base its charts on the activity of blogs, message boards, forums, P2P networks, and social-networking destinations such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. It also works with the music download/streaming platform SoundCloud to help users create playlists, which undoubtedly fuel more analytics. The HypeMachine, meanwhile, monitors key music blogs to determine which artists are on the rise.

By virtue of their grassroots-iness, all of the above have the tendency to promote indie artists. There are some cool finds here, but most of these artists won’t make seismic reverberations in the industry.

BigChampagne, meanwhile, was one of the first ambitious companies to (controversially) measure hype on file-sharing networks and has gone on to become a “technology-driven media measurement company.” In other words: Their Ultimate Chart attempts to legitimately quantify artist growth online, crunching numbers delivered by Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, VEVO, Pandora, Facebook, MySpace, and more. More comprehensive, it’s also more pop, rap, and R&B driven, and thus tends to be the industry’s source of choice.

Billboard’s chart isn’t too different from BigChampagne. It factors in how many fans or friends an act attracts online, as well as how many page views and song plays he or she gets on sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, iLike, and YouTube. The aforementioned data is compiled by Next Big Sound, possibly BigChampagne’s most vigilant competitor.

What’s interesting about the Social 50 chart is that there’s nothing really interesting about the Social 50 chart. This week, Rihanna comes out on top, followed by Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas, Eminem, and Michael Jackson. The fact that Rihanna topped the chart when it first debuted over a month ago—and that these other ranked artists were represented as well—merely underscores the reality that the Social 50 was a necessary gesture, while the statistics it charts might not be as dynamic or compelling as assumed.

This is because it doesn’t seem to be about the music per se, with the chart echoing (frequently tabloid) newsworthiness. The Social 50 hasn’t proffered any surprises and probably won’t unless, say, a particularly tragic or eccentric action should happen to bolster a marginal act up the chart. But would that mean said act’s cultural impact is really any more legit or sustainable?

What I’d like to see is a chart that falls somewhere between HypeMachine and BigChampagne’s Ultimate Chart, an analytic that observes the type of viral web traction—adding in, perhaps, consideration of licensing and other exposure—of lucrative, emergent artists. It would be something more ambitious that’d attempt to forecast the next Nicki Minaj or Wiz Khalifa or even Lykke Li or Black Keys, and not document what we know: that they’re already big. “We continue to adapt the way we chart the changing landscape of music,” Billboard’s editorial director proclaimed upon Social 50’s launch. If only it actually reflected that.