Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Waxy and The Whitburn Project

Back in 2006 Hans Rosling (physician, statistician... and fallacy mortician?) gave a TED talk about the importance of making pretty pictures out of data. He used graphics and animations to bring data alive and debunk common myths about the state of world health. The man is an International Health expert and Swedish caricature, which makes him interesting to watch and impossible to disagree with. You can tell he really cares about his research. This post is not about Hans.

It's about blogger Andy Baio, who really cares about the Billboard Top 100. It's like Andy took Hans' TED lecture to heart and made all the possible graphic images he could muster about pop music. You're probably wondering where he got all his data.

No? I'll tell you anyway. Basically, a dedicated group has been working on the Whitburn Project, which aims to "preserve and share high-quality recordings of every popular song since the 1890s." To help themselves keep organized, they made a master spreadsheet detailing song name, artist name, song length, BPM, all that jazz. As Andy puts it:
"they've created a spreadsheet of 37,000 songs and 112 columns of raw data, including each song's duration, beats-per-minute, songwriters, label, and week-by-week chart position. It's 25 megs of OCD, and it's awesome."
So Andy took that data and made pretty pictures out of it. Have you ever casually wondered about song duration trends? No? Well Andy has, and does, and takes it to the pro level. Check out his chart:The cool thing about charts is they help humans see trends, and make inferences. Andy surmises that the reasons for the peaks and surges:
The capacity for 45 RPM records was about three minutes, setting the standard for pop singles well into the 1960s. By the late 1960s, those constraints were removed, and we start to see longer singles. But without artificial constraints, why did exactly four minutes become the de facto standard in the 1980s and 1990s?
Mystery! I can't help but think that "November Rain" and "Trapped in the Closet" must throw this chart off so much that Andy will need to recalculate with "median duration" to fix it.

Little known fact: Guns N' Roses is not working on Chinese Democracy; they're bunkered in a studio somewhere finishing up "November Rain." The 9 minute version you heard on the radio was a rough cut. (Tell your friends you read that on the Interwebs, so it must be true.)

I like Andy's analysis because it's boring enough to make you feel smart, but it's about pop songs so that makes it fun. It's even edumacational. I learned that:
  • Track diversity is down and thus despite what you may have taken away that movie, one-hit-wonders are not exclusive 1960s (especially when adjusted for lower overall track diversity).
  • The longest-charting one-hit wonder to appear anywhere in the Top 100 is Duncan Sheik's "Barely Breathing" from 1997, which peaked at #16 but stayed in the top 100 for 55 weeks.
  • Math is hard.
Viva pop!

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