Thursday, August 7, 2008

Fixing the Billboard Hot 100 chart: Part I

As many of you know, when I cite the positions of popular songs, I rarely even mention the word "Billboard" here in this blog. Usually, I will use the radio airplay charts from Mediabase (old Radio & Records), and occasionally, I will cite sales figures from iTunes or Soundscan. For those of you that don't know the reason why I don't care for Billboard, it's because I don't recognize their main chart, the Hot 100, as being realistic or even close to resembling what is truly popular.

Once upon a time - think back about 20 years - you could buy pretty much any song you wanted to that you heard on the radio in the form of a physical single. Singles were pretty cheap back then, ranging from .99 cents to $1.99 depending on where you went to buy them. If you liked a song, it was much better for the consumer to spend a couple of bucks on a single instead of $9-10 or more on a full-length album. And for the real music fan like me who actually collected singles, it was a GREAT hobby. If I really liked an artist or multiple singles from the album, then I was more likely to buy the album in addition to the single.

At that time, Billboard's Hot 100 chart was comprised of Pop radio station airplay and physical sales, unlike today where they combine the airplay from stations of all formats (more on this inherent problem later). For a very long time, this method of combining pop airplay and sales produced very reliable and informative charts which represented what was truly popular. Sometimes you'd have songs not be such huge airplay hits such as Golden Earring's "Twilight Zone" (which never even cracked the top 30 in pop airplay) be such huge sellers, that they would end up in the top 10 of the Hot 100 chart. Conversely, there were songs such as Billy Joel's "Allentown" which were huge in pop airplay (#3), yet only sold well enough to get to #17 on the Hot 100. And of course, you had other songs that did well in both areas such as "Every Breath You Take" by the Police, which was #1 in airplay for eight weeks and also #1 on the Hot 100 for the same eight weeks as a result of it's dominance on the sales front.

In the late 1980's though, the first signs of true corporate greed within the music industry began to take hold. Record companies were looking at ways to generate more revenue. Short-sightedly, they inferred that sales of singles cut dramatically into album sales. As a result, the physical single started to become harder to come by in 1989 as record labels began to limit their releases. By 1991, this trend got to the point that even releases by very popular artists such as Mariah Carey were affected. Mariah's hit "Emotions" reached #1 on the pop airplay chart for four weeks late in 1991, and #1 on the Hot 100 for three weeks. However, due to the fact that the label didn't release a ton of copies of the single, it only reached #10 in sales. Songs that weren't even reaching the top 40 in either sales or airplay were becoming top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. For example, Nelson's "Only Time Will Tell" reached #28 on the Hot 100, yet only reached #42 on the airplay chart and #51 in sales. Cher's "Love and Understanding" reached #17 on the Hot 100 on the "strength" of reaching #38 on the pop airplay chart and #45 in sales. Clearly, the once reliable Hot 100 chart had some major problems... and it only got worse! 17 years later it's STILL trying to recover!

The main reason the Hot 100 lost it's accuracy in the early 1990's is that Billboard was slow (and I mean VERY slow) to react to the fact that the record companies were phasing out the single. "Airplay only" hits became more and more prevalent as a result. In 1994, the Counting Crows had a HUGE #1 pop radio hit called "Mr. Jones." Their follow-up single, "Round Here" also cracked the top 10, peaking at #9 on the Radio & Records airplay chart. Not surpringly, their debut album August and Everything After was a huge success here in the U.S., eventually going 7x platinum. If you were watching the Billboard Hot 100 chart during their 1994 run though, you would have completely missed out on the Counting Crows. Since neither song had a physical single released, neither was eligible to chart on the Hot 100.

Remember the T.V. show Friends? Of course, you do!!! And yes, it's true that I've been known to recognize Courtney Cox-Arquette just from seeing her amazing blue eyes on a magazine cover. Anyways, a band called the Rembrandts had a song called "I'll Be There For You" which turned out to be used as the theme for the show. The song spent eight weeks at #1 on the R&R pop chart in mid-1995, but once again didn't chart on the Hot 100 while it was huge on the radio. Over 3 1/2 months after it peaked at radio, the song was finally released as a single. By that time, most of us had shelled out $10 for the Rembrandts' LP album and didn't need a copy of the single. As a result, it only reached #35 in sales, and a #17 Hot 100 peak.

In 1996, a band from Southern California called No Doubt was gaining national prominence... Their debut song, "Just A Girl" hit #22 on the R&R pop airplay chart. The follow-up, "Spiderwebs," hit #11 on the chart. Late that year, the song which probably more than any other single song caused Billboard to FINALLY start to rethink their Hot 100 chart policy, "Don't Speak," spent nine weeks at #1 on the R&R pop airplay chart. As with the Counting Crows, none of the No Doubt songs was available as a single and of course none of them charted on the Hot 100. By the end of 1997, their Tragic Kindgom album was 11x Platinum here in the U.S...

To further add insult to Billboard's injury, the Cardigans came from across the Atlantic to have their hit "Lovefool" spend six weeks at #1 on the R&R Pop airplay chart in early 1997... once again, no single available, so no Hot 100 chart appearance. The next year, Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" would spend 11 weeks at #1 on the Pop airplay chart. Later that year, "Iris" by the Goo Goo Dolls would spend four weeks at #1 and an amazing 28 weeks in the top 10 of the R&R pop airplay chart. On December 5, 1998, Billboard FINALLY made the change to their Hot 100 chart which had been many years overdue - they allowed airplay only hits to chart... but did that fix the problem? No. In fact, the colective record company greed of the 90's decade finally caught up with them, creating it's own "piranha" so to speak the very next year in the form of a little thing called NAPSTER.



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