Chart Beat Chat

Fred discusses slow turnover of No. 1s, digital sales, chart methodology and more with readers.


Dear Fred,

There's another piece of trivia for which the slow turnover of No. 1 hits on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart is partially responsible. This year is the first since 1989 that a No. 1 song on the Hot 100 has not also been No. 1 on the R&B singles chart this deep into the year.

Using dates that the song reached No. 1 on the R&B chart (and assuming that the qualifying songs had to reach No. 1 on both charts during the same calendar year), the last time we had to wait this long to have a joint No. 1 on both charts was when Prince's "Batdance" reached No. 1 R&B on the chart dated Aug. 12, 1989 (having been No. 1 pop a week earlier).

The closest any 2006 No. 1 Hot 100 single has come to reaching No. 1 on the R&B chart this year is when Nelly's "Grillz" peaked at No. 2 R&B back in January. And it looks as if T.I.'s "What You Know," based on its Hot 100 peak, will not be the first.

Darrell J. Roberts
Bethesda, Md.

Dear Darrell,

Good observation. We are certainly in a cycle where pop is resurgent. And since Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You" spent a record-setting 15 weeks at No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs without also topping the Hot 100, there haven't been many candidates eligible to achieve pole position on both surveys.


Dear Fred,

Why does it look like the digital format is the new determinant of which singles are going to be No. 1, and in fact, top 10 hits. Can singles no longer achieve top 10 status on airplay and ordinary sales? Please educate me.

Thank you.

James Obi
Abuja, Nigeria

Dear James,

There really haven't been "ordinary" sales to speak of for some years now. The singles market in the United States had shrunk to the point where a single could top our sales chart by moving 1,000 copies in a week.

This week, Rihanna's "SOS" sold 170,000 digital downloads. That's why sales is once again a strong determining factor in chart position. Songs that are receiving a lot of airplay but are not selling as well no longer have such an easy path to No. 1. It's down to sheer numbers.


Dear Fred,

I discovered Casey Kasem counting down [the hits on] "American Top 40" in 1971 when I was 14 years old, living in Ontario, Calif. Months later I came across Billboard magazine at the public library. I was immediately hooked on the charts. I bought a money order with three months worth of my paper route money, and sent off for a subscription. I continued to subscribe for almost 20 years.

I continually received surveys from Billboard asking me what my position/interest in the music industry was -- a DJ? Promo Person? Rack Jobber? None of the above. I always checked off "Other" and wrote in "Chart Freak." I couldn't wait to get home on Monday or Tuesday afternoon when Billboard would arrive in my mailbox. It always bothered me that the issue I received on Monday contained that Hot 100 for the week ending the coming Saturday. Weren't these the Hot 100 hits for the week that just ended, rather than the week that hadn't even happened yet? Occasionally Billboard would arrive on the Saturday before the usual Monday or Tuesday. That would make me say "hmmmm."

One Sunday the radio station played the wrong set of records (the countdown was distributed on record albums then) -- it was Casey's countdown for the week after the current week -- a week into the future. (The next week they acknowledged their error, and played the "old" countdown that everyone had missed). Now I was really puzzled, mystified and irritated. How far in advance did they calculate the Hot 100? Was it even real? But every week Casey insisted that Billboard was the most trusted name in the music business, so I kept buying the magazine, and studying the charts.

Every time Billboard changes their computation methodology I question if the charts are really accurate. For instance, one week "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive fell from 8 to 34, after peaking at No. 1. The next week Billboard announced that they'd discovered a better way to calculate the Hot 100, and now "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" was No. 8 -- again. Say what? This was in the days when a song rarely zig-zagged on the chart, and if it did it was only a notch or two, not 26 places. Nevertheless, there was "no other more authoritative source" so I kept buying, and kept reading (and kept listening to Casey every Sunday).

The chart methodology changes since 1990 have been well documented and discussed in your column, so I won't rehash all of that, but I would like to make the following comments, which aren't really questions requiring an answer, just points to ponder.

Each chart should be considered unique to itself, and not compared to other charts. (This is a point you've made repeatedly, but people are constantly pointing out the biggest leaps and drops and the most and the shortest this and that). This is really evident on The Billboard 200 album chart where a title selling 500,000 copies in December might only land at No. 3, and a title selling only 110,000 copies can hit No. 1 just about every week in January and February. A flagrant example is the most recent Marilyn Manson album -- it debuted at No. 1, then crashed and burned. Nevertheless, during that one week, his album was No. 1 even though it has been outsold by just about every album who stayed in the top 10 longer than five weeks.

As for the Hot 100, it's really impressive that a song remains at No. 1 for weeks on end, but as I look back over the years, it's clear to me that impressive chart runs today don't make a song better than one from yesteryear. If you ask people what their favorite song is, most teenagers will tell you it's one from today's top 10, but if you ask anyone older, just about every person will name a different title. And sometimes I think of a song that was a huge hit in the past, and I wonder what we were thinking -- that song is terrible. (So I'd rather hear "Paperback Writer" a one-week No. 1 by the Beatles that was only on the Hot 100 for a total of 10 weeks than "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John that was No. 1 for ten weeks.)

I used to think that only actual record sales should count for the Hot 100 since it took hundreds of thousands of different people spending their money to purchase a record to accumulate enough sales to top the chart. Airplay determined only by program directors and disc jockeys was far more subjective, and not truly a measure of everyone in the country. But actual records purchased -- who could dispute those numbers?

But alas, the single record/cassette/CD was pretty much abolished by the record companies, so what else could Billboard do, but give more and more weighting to airplay? What would the Hot 100 charts of the past look like if airplay only songs had been allowed? I can think of many songs by the Beatles and Elton John that would've charted, and of course, the grand champion of them all, Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" would probably have been No. 1 for a couple of years. There's no way to know now, but I can't help but wonder. Or what about the mid-1980s when there were far more country radio stations than any other genre? Naturally, more country songs were played than pop or R&B or dance, etc. Wouldn't just about every top 10 song on the Hot 100 in 1985 have been a country song?

Now that digital/online sales have become so popular there are more and more wild, unrealistic moves on the Hot 100 (like so many of the "American Idol" songs debuting in the top 10, then free-falling down the chart). Another problem is artificial circumstances created by the recording company. This week, Rihanna's "SOS" jumping from 34 to 1 is the latest ludicrous example. I don't think this is a recording company ploy to rack up great chart numbers, and set chart records. They are just doing what they think is best for their business. (Making the most money possible will always be their top priority.) Because of all this I think the days of combining the airplay and sales charts to determine the Hot 100 should be over. "Top Sales" and "Top Airplay" charts should stand alone, and never the two should meet.

Well, Fred, my fingers are worn out, and my mind has gone numb, so I'll sign off now. In spite of what happens to the charts, I'll always find them fascinating, and I'll always be a fan of your column. Thanks for "listening."

Don Helms
Norman, Okla.

Dear Don,

You've provided a lot of food for thought, which I appreciate. I agree with some of your points, and disagree with others. While every week's chart positions are only relative to the other positions on that week's chart, I've never said we shouldn't compare and contrast. If I couldn't compare charts, there wouldn't be any "Chart Beat!"

Here's how I view my mission. It's not my job to compare sales figures or airplay figures, which is why you rarely -- very rarely -- see those numbers mentioned in my columns. No matter what each week's sales and airplay figures are, one thing is certain -- one song is going to be No. 1 on the Hot 100, one song is going to be No. 2, etc., and it's fair game for me to compare and contrast those chart positions throughout the years.

You mentioned "unrealistic" moves on the Hot 100. Actually, they are very realistic -- that is, they reflect reality, not some artificial idea of how songs are supposed to climb and fall. Some of the "American Idol" singles experienced massive sales in the first week of release then took steep declines. So their free falls on the chart are accurate, even if they don't follow patterns we've seen before and are more accustomed to seeing.

The Hot 100 was introduced on Aug. 4, 1958, as a chart that combined sales and airplay information. Maybe someday it will be appropriate to change that, but I don't think we're there yet (and there is no discussion of doing so). It's true that the methodology has changed many times over the years, but that doesn't invalidate previous charts. In any given year, Billboard used the best methodology available at that time. In the weeks when there has been a sea change in methodology, there are usually some chart anomalies, like "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet" bouncing back to No. 8.

You mentioned record labels creating "artificial circumstances" and cited the 34-1 move of Rihanna's "SOS" as "ludicrous." It's not "artificial circumstances," it's called marketing, and it's been going on for years and years. I do agree with you that this wasn't a "ploy" to set a record for one of the biggest moves to No. 1 in Hot 100 history; it was a case of the label waiting for the album to be released before allowing the song to be sold online on its own.

Going back to the beginning of your letter, Billboard charts like the Hot 100 are completed on Wednesdays for publication in the following week's magazine. Those issues are printed on Thursdays and available as early as Friday, two days after the charts are compiled. With printing deadlines, I don't think you could have a magazine on the newsstands any sooner than that.

To sum up, I hope we can agree to disagree, and I'm glad that you're a fan of the charts. I also hope you enjoy "Chart Beat" for decades to come.


Hi Fred,

After reading your latest column regarding non-country acts on the country singles chart, I have to ask: Didn't the Pointer Sisters make an impression on the country chart back in the '70s?

Thanks for all the fun trivia! I absolutely enjoy reading every week!

Tom Haley

Dear Tom,

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoy "Chart Beat!"

Early in their career, the Pointer Sisters did record the country-tinged song "Fairytale," and were rewarded with a No. 37 ranking on Billboard's country singles chart. It was the sisters' only appearance on this list, making them one-hit wonders in the country field.


Hi Fred,

Regarding your list of non-country acts hitting No. 1on the country chart. I would have to put Julio Iglesias on that list as he and Willie Nelson hit No. 1 for two weeks in 1984, with "To All the Girls I've Loved Before."

You could also make a case for Ray Charles [who went to No. 1 in 1985 with "Seven Spanish Angels," another duet with Willie Nelson].


John Jayne
Des Moines, Iowa

Dear John,

And another reader wrote in about Sheena Easton topping the country chart, when she teamed with Kenny Rogers on "We've Got Tonite." That e-mail seems to have disappeared from my in-box, so apologies to the writer for not being credited by name.