HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

Hello Fred,

I'm afraid it might get lost in the shuffle but it certainly was a milestone at the time. But it is just 10 years since the Hot 100 dropped its rule of commercial availability. On Dec. 5, 1998, the Hot 100 featured, for the first time ever, radio-only singles and album cuts.

Hard to believe in the era of iTunes and all the other download shops that only 10 years ago the Hot 100 was given the green light to be dominated by what the program directors thought was popular. And in my opinion the quicker turnover at the top over the last couple of years is a direct result of the advent of legal downloading, which is essentially the singles market of the 21st century.

At least it brings the Hot 100, in its 51st year of existence, back to what it was supposed to be at its launch: a combination of listening impressions and sales - even if it is a stream of 0s and 1s instead of a disc of whatever material and color.

Hopefully it will stay this way despite recent attempts by record companies to experiment with holding back or withdrawing downloads. Luckily the internet has corrected the mistake made by those companies in the '90s of canceling the singles format.

Happy holidays!

Jochen Tierbach
Willich, Germany
jotmail@yahoo.com

Dear Jochen,

The Hot 100 has undergone many changes during its half-century, but this week is indeed the 10th anniversary of one of the most dramatic changes in the chart’s history. At the time it seemed very radical to have album tracks and airplay-only singles appear on the survey, but as you point out, with the advent of digital downloading, it now feels very natural.

The changes in 1998 were made in response to changes in the music industry – specifically, the trend of radio stations playing hits like “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt and “Lovefool” by the Cardigans even though the record labels didn’t release those titles as commercial singles. Too many of the most popular songs of the day weren’t showing up on the Hot 100 and finally it became necessary to readjust chart policy to keep the tally relevant.

At the time, no one could have predicted that the singles market would be revitalized by the eventual introduction of paid digital downloads, which led to another change in policy to integrate the sales of paid downloads into the Hot 100.

Of course, every change in chart policy affects how songs move on the Hot 100. And that ties in nicely with the next e-mail. Read on.

A MULTIPLICITY OF SINGLES

Hello Fred,

The recent Hot 100 successes of multiple singles by the Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift have gotten me thinking about the days when I first started watching the charts in the mid-1980s.

Back then, blockbuster albums with multiple hit singles were only just starting to become commonplace. Fleetwood Mac had set the multiple-singles bar fairly high in the late 1970s with four top 10 singles from “Rumours” and then Michael Jackson knocked it out of the park with seven top 10 singles from “Thriller.” This success was matched by Bruce Springsteen, with seven top 10 singles from “Born in the U.S.A.” a year or two later.

In those days, it took some time for this success to unfold, because each single was released to radio and retail stores and then went up and down the charts before being followed up by a new single. I remember the thrill of watching my favorite artists rack up hit after hit from a single album over a year or two, and started making a list of these mega-albums which were able to spawn five or more Top 40 songs. For the most part, this was an elite group of superstars: Madonna, Billy Joel, Janet Jackson, Lionel Richie, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Huey Lewis and the News, George Michael, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, etc. In recent years, many other artists have joined the club the old-fashioned way, by getting airplay for five or more songs over a year or more, including Justin Timberlake, Nickelback, the Pussycat Dolls and Fergie.

I don’t mean to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but it seems that the availability of paid downloads is starting to take the oomph out of this kind of success. The week after the first airing of “High School Musical,” five songs from the soundtrack entered the top 40 in a single week, and I knew that something had changed for good. “Hannah Montana 2” and “Camp Rock” had a similar sales blip the week after the release date of those albums.

But now the labels seem to be intentionally (and artificially) goosing the singles charts by releasing individual tracks from an upcoming album one at a time with no intention of promoting the songs at radio or video outlets. The strategy worked well for Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers, who received a lot of attention in the press for their multiple high debuts on the Hot 100. And instead of waiting for a year or two to collect five Top 40 hits from their new album, both of them did so over a couple of months.

I know that Billboard’s rules do not preclude this kind of multiple-release strategy, and certainly the artists deserve to be recognized for the massive sales of each song as it became available to consumers. But isn’t the Hot 100 supposed to track ongoing trends at radio and retail? Many of these songs drop off the charts after a couple of weeks and get minimal airplay, so it ends up as fodder for press releases instead of useful industry data. I know that tracks like “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey and “Hallelujah” by Jeff Buckley were not allowed to chart on the Hot 100 even when they were riding high on the iTunes chart because they are catalog recordings that were not being actively promoted by their record labels. Has Billboard ever considered a similar policy against these new singles that are not really being “promoted” apart from the digital release?

Brendan Howard
Boston, Mass.

Dear Brendan,

When I received your e-mail a few days ago, I hadn’t yet received Jochen Tierbach’s letter, posted above. But his timing was fortuitous because to answer the issue you raise, I really have to go back to the change in chart policy that happened on the Hot 100 dated Dec. 5, 1998, that first allowed album tracks and radio-only singles to debut on the list. Once that happened, the chart changed from a singles chart to a songs chart.

A lot has happened since then, especially in terms of digital downloads, as discussed in Jochen’s missive. One thing is sure – whatever the chart rules are at any given moment, record labels will adjust their marketing strategies to maximize the chart potential of their releases. I don’t know that every label and every artist is going to follow the model set by the Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift of releasing one track per week for a number of weeks leading up the release of a complete album but I’m sure we’ll see more examples of this kind of marketing.

You ask if the Hot 100 is supposed to track ongoing trends at radio and retail, and my answer would be yes – and this is a trend that is being tracked, which is why it’s fair game for the chart. I know it looks and feels different than the way songs used to chart, but as long as that is what’s happening in the real world, you’ll see those real trends reflected on the Billboard charts.

I do have one thought about the effect of these multiple-single releases. As a result, it’s hard to know what an act’s current single is. If I didn’t know that Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” was being promoted to country radio, I wouldn’t have a clue as to what her latest single is. But maybe that’s not important anymore (although it is to me).

‘GOLDENEYE’ OF THE TIGER

Fred,

I just read your story on all of the James Bond themes that charted and I could have sworn that, although not a big hit, Tina Turner's “Goldeneye” did hit The Billboard Hot 100 for a couple weeks peaking at No. 86 or No. 88. I bought the CD single for the song and still have it, as it was one of my favorite Bond songs.

I still can't believe it wasn't a bigger hit in the U.S. I'm sure it was big in Europe where Tina still charts whenever she releases anything.

Thanks.

David Creighton
Atlanta, Ga.

Dear David,

I was a little surprised myself, but Tina Turner’s turn at a James Bond theme didn’t chart on the Hot 100. What you might be remembering is that made a brief appearance on the separate Hot 100 Sales chart in 1995, where it stalled at No. 71. It was a different story in the United Kingdom (as you surmise), where the single peaked at No. 7.