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Our announcement yesterday that we’ve revamped our Country, R&B/Hip-Hop, Rock and Latin Songs charts to include digital download sales and streaming data – joining the charts’ existing radio airplay component – has yielded an abundance of comments on Billboard.com and e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Views have ranged from applause to appalled. So, let’s dig deeper into the intricate process that went into revising these venerable, industry-standard charts.
Because we’ve received such a large volume of opinions, instead of posting any here, I’ll start with a thorough note that our editorial director Bill Werde posted yesterday on Billboard’s tumblr page. I fully agree with it (and not just because he’s the boss …) I’ll add my own take following it.
Here’s what Bill wrote, spurred by readers’ passionate reactions:
Music. And its business: Chart Attacks pt. 71 – or – I Really Like Brandy, Too!
I’ve been watching the feedback online regarding the Billboard chart policy changes that went into effect today. If you’re unaware of these changes, you can read this.
An excerpt: “Billboard unveils new methodology today for the long-standing Country Songs, R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, Latin Songs (and Rock Songs) charts. Each receive a major consumer-influenced facelift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by BDS. The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100.”
While we discussed these changes at length with the music industry, and the feedback from that quarter has been supportive, there is some confusion – and yes, occasional foaming-at-the-mouth outrage – from fan camps who have seen some of their favorite stars drop down the charts. I hear you, fans, and I’m really gratified that our charts are so very meaningful to you. I wanted to take a few minutes to engage on your points, which seem to fall into a couple of baskets. If you’d like we could schedule a Google Hangout to discuss this further. I really love the dialogue.
Basket 1: I really like Brandy, and she just dropped from No. 3 to No. 16 on your R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Obviously, this isn’t just about Brandy. And if it is, for you, let me assure you, I really like Brandy too! I had a chance to speak with her at the Billboard Music Awards after-party in May and, I assure you, I walked away thinking there couldn’t possibly be a more lovely person. But, here’s the way I think about this: the former R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart was effectively 100% based on radio. And basing the primary chart on radio play only feels out of touch with what’s actually happening with music. The fans have no direct voice with radio. It’s a push format – someone else decides what you’re going to listen to and with what frequency. Are those of you upset about this rule change suggesting that what fans are streaming on Spotify or buying at iTunes shouldn’t count? Fans have the power today – more than they have ever had in the history of the recorded music business – and these chart changes honor that reality, above all else.
Basket 2: Now the country chart will only ever be topped by Tay Tay.
Alternate Basket 2: Now the R&B chart will only ever be topped by Ri Ri.
I have empathy for fans of deeper genre cuts that will likely slide down the charts a bit, to make room for the juggernaut digital track sales of more mainstream stars. This week, for example, Taylor Swift’s “Red” debuts at No. 2 on the Country Songs chart, based largely on the strength of her digital downloads. Truth? A hit doesn’t just look like one thing anymore. Mumford and Sons are getting some nice triple A and alt.-rock radio play, but they are setting streaming records on Spotify. That’s a hit. PSY – and, before him, Cee Lo – launched a song that was viewed more than 100 million times on YouTube before radio ever touched it. That’s a hit. And, if an established country act like Taylor Swift releases a song like “Red” that sounds like a country song, and that becomes the No. 2-selling digital track in the U.S., well, that song is a hit, and yes, by our standards, a country hit, also. Radio remains an important part of the equation, but it’s no longer the only part. A song isn’t a genre hit only if that genre’s radio stations decide or are incentivized to play it.
Basket 3: But I love Carrie Underwood so much that it makes me hate anything that’s good for Taylor Swift, even if it’s only good for Taylor Swift in the short-term and, at some point, will almost certainly be good for Carrie Underwood, also.
I suggest a deep breath and some therapy. I like chocolate (vegan) ice cream. It’s never once made me launch a campaign against vanilla. Why can’t we all just get along?
Basket 4: PSY as the top Rap Songs track?! You are a racist who is trying to gentrify the rap charts.
I’ll spare you my rap cred, and say this: every week, Billboard makes dozens of calls about the various charts a song should be eligible for. Take dance: what makes a track a dance track? Is it the BPM? Is it “electronic sounds”? Is it “I don’t know, man, this just sounds like a dance track”? What is a song that’s a ballad but then has an electro chorus? The point is, we make these calls. We’ve been doing it for 50-plus years. We’ll make a bunch more next week. We take it very seriously. We work at codifying the process, so that anyone who assumes the job of a genre chart manager can inherit guidelines for making these decisions.
As for PSY, if you Google “PSY” and “rapper” you get millions of hits. No less an authority than Wikipedia identifies him this way: “en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psy_(rapper).” So, we’re not going out on a limb here. In fact, I’d ask this: how is it anything but racist to exclude PSY from the Rap Songs chart?
Always happy to engage further. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to take part in a Google Hangout on the topic. If there’s demand, we’ll get one scheduled. Thanks for reading!
Hard to disagree with any of the above. And, we’ve also seen several readers’ comments echoing those thoughts. A sampling from Billboard.com:
“this is actually a really good decision, I always thought it was weird that only airplay was factored into the genre charts.”
“Billboard did a great job I think with trying to show who has a hit song and who (has) just a radio song.”
“This is 2012 people. Sales are a big part of today’s modern music culture. If anything the question should be why (weren’t) they incorporated sooner.”
“Now the people have more to dictate the truth, and not just accept what radio politics dictate.”
“i’m glad they are keeping the simply airplay chart for genres as well.”
Last point first: Our BDS-based genre airplay charts aren’t going away. They tell the story of each unique radio format. Pop Songs (which just celebrated its 20th anniversary) reflects mainstream top 40 radio and many of music’s top superstars which it plays. Maroon 5 is No. 1 on Pop Songs this week with “One More Night,” which registered 74 million audience impressions at the format; such a wide reach certainly continues to be worthy of our charting. Country Airplay, R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, Latin Airplay, Adult Contemporary, Adult Pop Songs, Alternative Songs and Smooth Jazz Songs are more of our genre airplay charts that will continue to show on Billboard.com, with such others as Adult R&B, Rhythmic, Mainstream Rock and more viewable to subscribers on Billboard.biz.
Ultimately, here’s what I think is the biggest point about – and main reason for the renovation of – Country, R&B/Hip-Hop, Rock and Latin Songs: they are meant to show the most popular songs in their genres among all pertinent metrics. Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is No. 1 on Country Songs because it is the country song that garnered the most airplay/sales/streaming points overall this week (And, remember, “Never” was a No. 13-peaking country airplay hit (granted, aided by Clear Channel Media and Entertainment promotional play its first week) and stayed in the top 15 until last week (its first six weeks). At its peak, it drew airplay on all but one station on the country reporting panel.) A main reader question has been, why count all-format airplay on these charts? Our reasoning is that we can’t count sales for “Never” among only those who may have bought it because they are country fans, because we (or SoundScan) can’t know the mindset behind a song’s purchase; we can’t count streaming for “Never” among only those who may stream it because they are country fans, again because it’s not feasible to discern whether someone streams a pop-leaning country song because of its pop or country nature. Thus, why count only the country airplay of “Never”? If we’re including all-encompassing sales and streaming, why segregate country airplay to help decide the most popular country song in the U.S.? Instead, why not reward a song for its entire reach? That’s the goal of these charts: to reveal the biggest songs in each genre across the many ways we now consume music.
Surely, it will likely be tougher for songs or artists that are more core-country, core-R&B, core-rock or core-Latin to top each respective chart. But, maybe not always. In 1996, LeAnn Rimes‘ Patsy Cline-influenced “Blue” stopped at No. 10 on Country Songs, a victim of polarity in radio research. But, the song spent 20 weeks at No. 1 on Country Singles Sales (the physical-sales chart of the CD/cassette singles era; now, Country Digital Songs serves as the genre’s sales list). History will show that “Blue” was a No. 10 hit on Billboard’s main country songs chart, which from 1990 through last week was based on only BDS-monitored country airplay. Had a country hybrid chart existed then, “Blue” might’ve ruled it. And, wouldn’t have that made sense? The same for Rimes’ “How Do I Live” a year later. The song peaked at No. 43 on Country Songs (as radio chose Trisha Yearwood’s version, which rose to No. 2). The public, however, loved Rimes’ song to the extent that it spent 32 weeks atop Country Singles Sales. Again, calling “Live” a No. 43 song on Billboard’s major country songs chart just doesn’t jell with its massive sales. A hybrid chart shows a song’s entire popularity – just as the revised Country Songs chart is doing now with another young country singer that has explored different sounds in her music: Swift.
As an avid chart fan myself going back to 1988 when I, at 14, discovered the magic of “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem (and Shadoe Stevens) and the Hot 100 chart that fueled it – how amazed I was to learn that this magazine also had charts for AC, rock, albums and more … many of which I made my brother, Michael, photocopy at the Boston University library each week, or browsed in smoky cigar shops where Billboard was available (under the menacing watch of owners who, correctly, doubted that I had the money to buy an issue …) – it’s logical to fret that fewer titles might top Country Songs, or the other hybrid charts, because star artists might make repeated trips to the summit, and/or stay there longer once they reign. We like reading our Joel Whitburn books and seeing 50 No. 1s in a year (as happened in pre-BDS times when labels fought to get to a song to No. 1, only to drop any promotional push immediately after). Would we rather go back to a chart where a song goes 2-1-15 over three weeks? Incredibly, just 25 years ago Country Songs was based on airplay and sales reported by stations and retailers in such ranks as “heavy,” “medium” and “light.” Which do we think is more accurate: that methodology, or the electronically-tracked airplay, sales and multiple streaming sources now available? Years from now, I’d rather flip through a charts reference book that shows the most popular songs in a genre from as many trusted sources as possible.
Just as history will now show that Swift has the top country song – with, granted, a pop-leaning one in “Never” – and two others in the genre’s top 10, Billboard charts have revealed acute superstar dominance before. The Beatles boasted the entire top five on the Hot 100 the week of April 4, 1964, at the height of Beatlemania. The Bee Gees set up shop throughout the Hot 100’s top five in the late ’70s, along with songs they’d written as recorded by other artists. And, as recently as 2010-11, Katy Perry resided in the Hot 100’s top 10 with at least one entry for a record 69 consecutive weeks. Now, Billboard’s genre charts will better reflect such supremacy when it occurs. Rock Songs already does, as all 12 songs from the standard version of Mumford & Sons‘ “Babel” (plus two more from the deluxe release) populate Rock Songs. Why do they? Radio is playing primarily only focus track “I Will Wait,” but fans are streaming the set’s cuts with the same speed and passion with which the band plays the banjo; the title cut amassed 851,000 on-demand streams last week, according to BDS, while each of those 12 songs totaled at least 372,000 on-demand streams. As Bill wrote above: that’s a hit.
We now have the luxury of experiencing music in so many more ways than before. I think it’s exciting that consumers now have a greater voice than ever in shaping these charts about which so many of us care so deeply. One reader expressed concern that our hybrid charts will become a “popularity contest” where only the biggest hits will now have a chance to reach No. 1.
We sure hope so.