sam hunt, men of style 2015

Sam Hunt photographed on Aug. 12, 2015 at Industria in New York City.

David Needleman

If the Hot Country Songs chart were an actual human being, it would have had plenty of cause for celebration when 2015 came to a close.

The year-end list of 2015’s top country titles — factoring in airplay, digital sales and online streaming — ranked Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” Hunt’s “House Party,” Luke Bryan’s “Kick the Dust Up” and Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn” as the genre’s top five songs.

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The more traditional Country Airplay chart, based solely on airplay at country stations, graded Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class,” Frankie Ballard’s “Young & Crazy,” Brett Eldredge’s “Lose My Mind,” Dustin Lynch’s “Hell of a Night” and Cole Swindell’s “Let Me See Ya Girl” as the year’s top singles. (Both year-end lists are based on cumulative activity for each week a title appeared on the chart.)

All 10 of those releases were unquestionably hits during 2015. But if you had to pick which set best defined country music last year, nearly everyone seems to agree that the Hot Country Songs list, which measures both terrestrial 
programmers’ decisions and the marketplace reaction to music by consumers, more accurately reflected reality.

“It kind of brings everything in and combines it all into one chart,” says WBWL Boston PD Lance Houston.

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The results were something of a victory for Hot Country Songs, which came under fire when it was introduced with the chart dated Oct. 20, 2012. Billboard received a number of letters from conspiracy theorists among the consumer base who were convinced the new chart was an effort to favor Taylor Swift over Carrie Underwood. Some Music Row executives were frustrated because, as one marketing executive put it, it’s not possible to “work” the chart and get specific, predictable results.

But that’s also the most positive selling point for Hot Country Songs, since readers who want an accurate assessment of what’s happening among consumers are less apt to be manipulated by the data.

“If you can move the needle by influencing YouTube views and digital sales and airplay in the same week, you’re pretty damn good at what you do,” Dot GM Chris Stacey, a former promotion executive, says with a laugh. “I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s capable of it.”

Thus, movement on Hot Country Songs can often tell a bigger story. The Country Airplay chart is still important — when Dierks Bentley’s “Somewhere on a Beach” debuted at No. 29 the week of Jan. 25 on the chart, it sent a message that the programmers who shape the music that gets introduced to the biggest mass of country fans strongly believe in both the artist and the song. But that same title debuted even higher, at No. 26, on Hot Country Songs, in part because “Beach” also debuted at No. 8 on Country Digital Songs. Consumers felt passionate enough about it that they invested in it immediately.

“Certainly a lot of careers have been built around [airplay] No. 1s,” observes Big Loud president Clay Hunnicutt, a former iHeartMedia executive. “But we’ve seen a lot of No. 1s that haven’t really sold anything, that haven’t really created a lot of passion in the end. What we want — what we all want — is passion and action by the listeners.”

Since radio first began to take research seriously in the mid-1970s, measuring consumers’ feedback has been paramount as programmers decided what songs to add, the frequency that they play them and when to retire them. During some periods of time — particularly the CD-dominated era of the 1990s, when songs were often not released as singles — callout research and national charts were weighted more heavily than almost any other factor.

But in the Internet era, the world has changed dramatically. Consumers have more places to find music, and their digital footprints make it easier to quantify reactions. Thus, programmers are looking at more sources of 
information than ever, often narrowing the data to focus on the behavior of listeners in their own local market.

“The younger generation uses media differently,” says WYCD Detroit 
operations manager/PD Tim Roberts, who will be presented as a 2016 
Country Radio Hall of Fame inductee during Country Radio Seminar, set for Feb. 8-10. “There’s more avenues to discover music, although radio’s still the No. 1 discovery [source] — 95 percent of people listen to regular old terrestrial every day. But you can never have too many tools, and if you’re not looking at all the tools, it’s a mistake.”

Hot Country Songs, of course, measures many of those reactive behaviors, thus offering a good national picture of how songs are performing against each other across a spectrum of media.

“This is good information,” says Roberts, “and you should use it accordingly.”

That’s essentially what Dot did in 2014 when it introduced Maddie & Tae’s debut single, “Girl in a Country Song.” Radio was notably supportive, especially since the act didn’t have a track record. But when the video debuted, heavy streaming gave it a large Hot Country Songs spike. The label was able to use that information to cement it as a hit for programmers even before reliable callout research was available.

“The quick takeaway is that the bigger, more powerful hits will probably more quickly reveal themselves on the Hot Country Songs chart versus a 
traditional straight-airplay chart, because it’s getting info from so many sources,” says Stacey.

That doesn't demean airplay or the way the Country Airplay chart works. There’s value in knowing what broadcasters are thinking, and there’s a certain rhythm to the way music moves up and down that list.

By taking in audience response directly, the Hot Country Songs chart invariably has more quirks — it’s more “mercurial,” as one radio veteran puts it — but over the long haul, it seems to do a better job of accurately measuring the marketplace, as those 2015 year-end lists proved.

“A great programmer is already looking at all of the metrics,” says 
Hunnicutt. “But it’s nice to see it all gathered up into one place.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.