How Island Def Jam Saved Justin Bieber's 'Boyfriend' at Top 40 Radio
How Island Def Jam Saved Justin Bieber's 'Boyfriend' at Top 40 Radio

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Radio's relationship with Justin Bieber's "Boyfriend" is back on track.

Nine weeks ago, the song debuted on Billboard's Nielsen BDS-based Mainstream Top 40 chart at No. 20 with 3,961 first-week plays, marking the best first-week sum for a song by a male artist in the chart's almost 20-year history. Just three weeks later, "Boyfriend" became Bieber's first format top 10 (after eight prior chart entries).

Justin Bieber's 'Boyfriend' Breaks First-Week Airplay Record on Billboard Mainstream Top 40 Chart

Over the next four weeks, however, "Boyfriend" registered decreases in plays, falling out of the top 10 and from 6,881 plays (May 5) to 5,699 (June 2). Similar drops showed on Billboard's all-format audience-based Hot 100 Airplay chart, where the song slipped from a No. 13 peak (57 million listener impressions) to No. 19 (45 million) from the beginning to the end of May. On the Rhythmic chart, the track likewise tumbled from No. 7 on the May 12 chart (2,941 plays) to No. 10 on the June 2 tally (2,541).

Early to rise, early to fall.

As it sets up Bieber's third studio album, Believe, due June 19, Island Def Jam still believed, however, that this "Boyfriend" was a keeper. Label president/COO Steve Bartels says that the song's fast start was powered by programmers' excitement over a big-name release. After playing it in heavy rotation initially, once early listener research revealed unfamiliarity, some stations eased off airplay, resulting in the song's chart retreats.

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How did the tide turn back in Bieber's favor?

"Radio needs to allow star artists the time to connect. Justin Bieber is one of those," Bartels says. "I went back with my staff and our friends at radio and promoted belief. All the signs were there: video views, huge single sales, monster streaming and requests." To date, the official video for "Boyfriend," which didn't premiere until early May, has garnered 60 million YouTube views. The song has sold 2.1 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and registered 5.5 million on-demand streams, according to BDS.

The label's resolve is paying off. For the second week in a row, "Boyfriend" boasts a bullet, ranking at No. 9 on Mainstream Top 40, up by 533 plays, a 9% gain. On Rhythmic, the song lifts 9-8 (up by 218 spins, an 8% increase). On the latest (June 9) Hot 100 Airplay chart, it rose from 48 to 53 million audience impressions (up 9%). Two weeks earlier, the song had collapsed from 51 to 45 million.

"With focus and determination by all involved, things turned toward the signs that we initially saw," Bartels says.

Notably, the song has turned around its radio fortunes without the aid of such modern traditional aids as a TV commercial synch or a cover by the cast of Fox's "Glee," the latter of which assisted the rebound of one of the more recent examples of a song that found new life at top 40 after an initial downturn, Cee Lo Green's "F**k You! (Forget You)"; after peaking at No. 18 in a nine-week chart run in 2010, the song returned in 2011, eventually topping Mainstream Top 40 the week of April 16, the "Glee" tribute having spurred sales and helped convince PDs of its hit potential.

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Bieber did perform "Boyfriend" on the season finale of NBC's "The Voice" (May 8) and the Billboard Music Awards (May 20). Still, Island Def Jam cites radio's faith as the main driver for the song's renewed momentum.

"Things are back in a place that is giving the song and artist his just due," Bartels says.

"Everyone (at radio) believed in the song and programmed this song to win," echoes Island Def Jam EVP of promotion Rick Sackheim. "When early callout looked shaky and confidence seemed to be questioned, we dug in and found a new positive story each day. The staff took each story and spread it throughout the country to rebuild our drive."

That "Boyfriend" is re-approaching its highest national audience reach is "due to the hard work, commitment and belief in the song and Bieber from both our staff and radio," Sackheim says.

Radio gatekeepers agree.

"Programmers underestimate the power of Bieber and his following," says Pattie Moreno, KHHM Sacramento, Calif., PD, who notes the song's popularity from "schools (to) clubs." That the song reveals a more adult-sounding vibe than Bieber's earlier efforts may also be adding to its staying power.

"('Boyfriend') was co-written by Mike Posner and was sung to me by Mike himself the day before selling it to Bieber," Moreno recalls. "This song is passionate, pop, catchy and has street cred all in one.

"Give him a hit and it will soar no matter what."

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"We are proud we listened to the only people who matter, our listeners," says WFLZ Tampa, Fla., PD Tommy Chuck. "From the beginning, listeners of all ages told us that 'Boyfriend' was a hit. Requests have consistently been huge."

WXKS Boston PD Dylan Sprague cites "consistent downloads and sales" for the station's continued devotion to "Boyfriend." "Over time, callout has continued to build. This was an event record release that our listeners were eager to sample, so we gave it to them.

"It makes sense that the spins would accelerate and then fall back as the song settled into regular rotation," Sprague says.

WVHT Norfolk, Va., PD/MD Paul McCoy likewise understands the chart fluctuations of "Boyfriend." "I think that the spin decreases were a little misleading. Many stations powered it early to ride the 'Bieber buzz.' Sales continue to be very strong here in Norfolk. This is one of those times where you kind of have to go with your gut."

Rhythmic PDs concur. "('Boyfriend') has been top five every week, females 18-34, in our research since our first test," says WKHT Knoxville, Tenn., PD Darren Stephens. "It's currently No. 2. The recent announcement of Bieber's concert in Nashville hasn't hurt, either.

"Phones are crazy for tickets... and the show isn't until January 2013."

With two weeks until Believe arrives, the stage is set for "Boyfriend" to continue to gain, as Bieber Fever is likely to reach precarious levels among fans. Radio promotions are even being treated with top-secret care, reflecting the album's high-priority status.

"We've got something planned for the album release," says a coy McCoy, "but, hey ... I've got a lot of competition here."

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboardbiz

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