Fred Bronson discusses Madonna, chart methodology and Shania Twain with readers.

SOMETHING FAILS?

Dear Fred,

How would you rate 2003 in terms of chart success for Madonna: a failure or did she do well? Her "American Life" album is considered to be a flop, but it did reach No. 1, it yielded two No. 1 sales singles ("Die Another Day" and "Nothing Fails") and four dance chart No. 1 singles. So, it all depends on which chart you look at. Of course, she did not do well on the Hot 100.

Addressing the sales and airplay issue one last time, although "Nothing Fails" is No. 1 in sales this week, the song is not on the Hot 100. Shouldn't there be a rule that at least the No. 1 selling song in the country, even though sales are low, should automatically be given a spot on the Hot 100?

It seems a bit weird to think that in 20 years time, looking back at 2003, there's will not have been any mention of either "Hollywood" or "Nothing Fails" on the Hot 100, even though, to some extent, these songs were hits. Or does "Nothing Fails" still have a chance to make a Hot 100 debut?

Finally, will Madonna ever return to the top-10 of the Hot 100 or even the No. 1 spot?

Christian Kunze
Zwolle, The Netherlands

Dear Christian,

It's a mixed-results year for Madonna. She was Billboard's No. 1 dance artist for the second year in a row, but did not do well on the Hot 100, as you point out. The songs from "American Life" did not receive a very good reception at radio.

I do not subscribe to the theory that Madonna has been banned from the airwaves. I think we should wait for her next album and see what happens. And while I don't get a vote, not being a member of Billboard's chart department, I wouldn't be in favor of giving any No. 1 sales single an automatic free pass, no matter how few copies were sold.

While I'm not allowed to mention how many copies "Nothing Fails" sold per Billboard policy, I can say the sales figure was a fraction of what previous Madonna sales chart-toppers have sold. It simply wouldn't have been accurate or fair to put "Nothing Fails" on the Hot 100 if it didn't belong there.

The mention in "Chart Beat" of "Nothing Fails" not having enough juice to reach the Hot 100 generated more E-mail. See our next letter.



THE SALES AND AIRPLAY ISSUE

Hi Fred,

I've written on this topic to you many times in the past, but something in last week's "Chart Beat Bonus" appalled me -- the fact that the No. 1 on the Hot 100 Sales chart (Madonna - "Nothing Fails") could fail to merit a place in the Hot 100. I accept that conditions have been allowed to develop in the U.S. such that hardly anybody buys singles, but does it not strike you as odd that Billboard methodology can allow the song chosen by those few enlightened souls as their most popular to not even feature in the list of 100 most popular songs of the week?

I've always been against including airplay in any tally of what songs are popular as I firmly believe that heavily formatted and play-listed radio cannot give a true representation of what's popular, as its focus is far too narrow and slow moving. The public, after all, has no direct say in what gets played on radio, whereas at least they can affect a sales chart if they choose to go out and buy a CD (if it's available -- again another big problem in the U.S).

I really feel that the ever-increasing emphasis Billboard places on airplay has been a major factor in the failing fortunes of the singles market in the U.S., as evidenced by the dearth of commercial singles released, tiny sales figures and a slow moving chart. Just compare the tally of No. 1s for the year in the U.S. and the U.K. - and this was a fairly slow year in the U.K. by recent standards! Perhaps if Billboard had gone the other way, increasing the weighting of sales, it would have reversed the downward trend in the singles market -- it would definitely have encouraged labels to release more, rather than fewer, commercial singles.

I have never read a convincing argument as to why Billboard feels the need to mingle sales and airplay data together anyway. Why not just be happy with a sales chart, and an airplay chart, nominating one of these (and it would seem that would surely be the airplay chart) as the new official Hot 100? No one can question the veracity of a sales only chart, or an airplay only chart, but these tallies are tracking two very different things, so how can you accurately combine them? And as singles sales have dropped off so much, and the weighting given to sales is so small, and reduced further each time the methodology is updated, why bother to combine these charts any more?

The U.K. chart [on Sunday (Dec. 21)] threw up one of those delicious surprises that delight chart-watchers on this side of the Atlantic and are all too rare in the U.S. Michael Andrews and Gary Jules' sublime "Mad World" snatched the Christmas No. 1 crown from the Darkness, who had led all the midweek tallies. And justice was served as those wretched Idols couldn't even claim the third highest new entry. Won't someone join me in wishing for the rapid demise of the mania for glorified karaoke?

Regards,

Neil Fanning
Ireland

Dear Neil,

The Hot 100 has always been a chart that combines sales and airplay, since it was introduced in August 1958. It's true that as sales have declined, airplay has taken on a bigger role in determining chart positions. When 900 copies sold in a nation of 290 million people can merit a position in the top 20 of the sales chart, it's no wonder that sales figures don't mean as much as they once did.

But as I have said to others, you assign the Billboard charts too much power in influencing labels about releasing or not releasing singles. The bottom line for any business is money. These are decisions based on financial information and a company's bottom line, not how high a single places on the Hot 100.

Billboard already publishes separate sales and airplay charts, so I don't know what would be gained by eliminating the Hot 100. There's also a danger in implementing a change in the charts and then finding market conditions changing so that the "fixed" charts become irrelevant. With paid downloads increasing, sales may yet again carry more weight on the Hot 100. I think we'll be seeing some major changes in the Hot 100 in the months to come as paid downloads become an even bigger factor in the industry, making it way too premature to eliminate sales data from the chart.



SHANIA, CERTIFIED AT LAST

Hi Fred,

Being from Canada, I am especially interested in following Canadian artists, so I was surprised with Shania Twain's status on The Billboard 200. If I am not mistaken, for a year she had no symbol for a gold or platinum album, and then recently a symbol for 10 million copies. Does that mean Billboard mistakenly didn't progress from gold up to platinum gradually? Obviously the 10 million wasn't in the last month alone.

I am sure you can clear this up.

Edmund Gleason

Dear Edmund,

It's fitting to close 2003 with your E-mail, because the subject of certifying Shania Twain's "Up!" album generated more questions than any other subject this year (yes, even more than Clay Aiken). I didn't run all of the questions in "Chart Beat Chat," because they were all the same.

To answer your question, no, Billboard did not make a mistake. We do run symbols to indicate gold, platinum and diamond status, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). These symbols should not be mistaken for sales figures, for two reasons: we do not publish sales figures on our charts, and certification is based on units shipped to retail, not units sold to consumers.

So it's not a case of an album progressing gradually from gold to platinum to, in this case, diamond. As soon as the RIAA certifies an album, the symbol is added to our charts.

Certifications are not automatic. Record companies are under no obligation to certify albums. The record labels (or the artists) must apply and pay for certifications. They can do so at any time -- and wait years if they choose to do so, or never apply at all.

You are correct, "Up!" didn't sell 10 million in the last month alone, but certification wasn't issued until now, so the symbol wasn't added to Billboard's charts until now.