Saturday, August 9, 2008

Fixing the Billboard Hot 100 chart: Part II

By the early 1990's, physical sales singles were no longer a very accurate way to measure a song's success. Billboard in their infinite wisdom, decided to mess with the one part of the chart which didn't need fixing - the pop airplay component. Pop radio stations (also known as Top 40) were known as such because they played the songs that were popular regardless of format. Whether it be pop, rhythm and blues, country, easy-listening, etc. a song had a home at top 40 radio if it was truly a hit. That's always been the beauty of top 40 radio - it's the "melting pot" of POPular music so to speak. Instead of just tracking pop station airplay, Billboard would eventually combine the airplay of EVERY other popular format into one chart: The Hot 100 airplay chart. This created a whole new monster, one which I will explore in Part III.

In the meantime, while the "airplay only" hits were finally allowed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, they still faced a serious disadvantage to any song actually available as a single. The very first song that was #1 in pop airplay after Billboard revised it's chart policy in late 1998 was "Lullaby" by Shawn Mullins. Despite spending five weeks on top of the Radio & Records pop airplay chart, it only made it to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And this handicap was the norm for #1 pop hits without an avaiable single - they rarely ever cracked the top 5 of the Hot 100. Billboard would later revise it's formula from 60% airplay/40% sales to 80% airplay/20% sales, but the reality was even this wasn't good enough as for all intents and purposes, the single was dead.

There were so few singles available by this time, that even a song that didn't get much pop airplay could chart VERY high on Billboard's Hot 100 chart if it sold a lot of units, so the record companies decided to start the practice of deeply discounting CD singles to the point that they were actually losing lots of money on them. Typically, a deeply discounted single sold for only .49 cents.

The first artist to habitually exploit this loophole in Billboard's Hot 100, perhaps ironically, was Mariah Carey. As this GREAT article entitled "Hot 100 Blues" by Jon Cummings points out:

"Labels began playing more overt games with the Hot 100 as well during those years. More and more frequently, beginning with Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” in September 1995, they delayed releasing a single until airplay was cresting – and then often put the singles into stores at a huge discount – so that a song’s combined airplay and sales figures would result in a Number One debut. Sony employed this strategy with Mariah Carey three times between ’95 and ’97."

Up until the early 1990's, the Hot 100 had always been a chart that a song would naturally rise up and down based on it's popularity. As per the above, Michael Jackson's song was the first song to debut at #1 on the Hot 100. "Fantasy" would do the same for Mariah four weeks later, on September 30, 1995. Sony then began to even more blatently manipulate the chart starting with Mariah's duet with Boyz II Men, "One Sweet Day." And while "One Sweet Day" indeed was a huge radio hit, spending eight weeks at the top of R&R's pop chart, the record label manipulation (i.e: deeply discounting the song), to go along with the fact that so few songs were now available as singles allowed it to spend a ridiculous 16 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100!!!

In the modern era (1965-present), The Beatles were the first act to spend as many as nine weeks at number #1 on the Hot 100 with their hit "Hey Jude" in 1968. Debby Boone broke that record in 1977, scoring 10 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 with "You Light Up My Life." Olivia Newton-John tied that record four years later with "Physical." With the single getting phased out in the early 1990's, it became easier and easier for songs to have long runs at the top of the Hot 100. In fact, from 1992 to 1994, FOUR songs spent 11 weeks or more at #1! Those four songs would be "I Swear" by All-4-One (11 weeks), "I Will Always Love You" by Whitney Houston (14 weeks), and the Boyz II Men hits "End of The Road" (13 weeks) and "I'll Make Love To You" (14 weeks). Clearly, even prior to Mariah's first two chart manipulations in 1995, something was VERY wrong with the Hot 100 chart.

In 1997, Sony employed their shady chart tactics a third time as the song "Honey" was released from Mariah's Butterfly album. Unlike all of her previous releases, "Honey" was not accepted well either by pop radio or Mariah's huge fanbase. Indeed, at the time I was such a fan of Mariah's that I would buy her albums the day they came out. Well, Butterfly marked the first time that I was disappointed with a Mariah album. "Honey" was a very highly anticipated single, and within two weeks of relase, it had already reached #18 on the R&R pop chart. It struggled mightily after that though, peaking at #10 just four weeks later. Callout scores (numbers which measure a song's popularity amongst radio listeners) were also very low for the first time with a Mariah release. Seeing all of this, Sony rush released "Honey" to the record stores just in time to get it three weeks at the top of the Hot 100 chart, again discounting the song to .49 cents just to ensure that it got there.

Over the next three years, Mariah's label would continue this practice of chart manipulation. "My All" reached only #15 on the R&R pop airplay chart in 1998, "Heartbreaker" reached #21 in 1999, and "Thank God I Found You" peaked at #28 in 2000. Thanks to Sony stalling the release of the deeply discounted singles until the songs were peaking at radio and thanks also to perhaps only 5% of songs at that time even being available as singles, all three of these songs managed a #1 peak on Billboard's Hot 100. Have any of you out there even heard of these three songs? I didn't think so. None of these songs was a radio hit, nor the "most popular song in the nation" as the Hot 100 would lead you to believe.

While people could shell out .49 cents for the few singles that were available during the late 1990's/early 2000's, the fact of the matter was that for most popular songs, you usually had to purchase a full length CD to get the one song you wanted. So out of public frustation more than anything, the file sharing site called Napster came to prominence as more and more consumers became fed up with having to shell out $10-$11 for a full length CD for their favorite song. By 2001, many other sites, including Kazaa had sprouted up and tried to get a piece of the "illegal file sharing" marketplace. Several years after the illegal sites came into prominence, the record industry finally figured out a way to tap into this source of potential revenue. The single was re-birthed (for the most part) via iTunes, Walmart and many other online sites where you could legally download popular single songs to your computer for .99 cents or so. Unfortunately, Billboard didn't start using digital downloads in the Hot 100 formula until 2005. With this change, it finally looked like there was hope for the Hot 100 chart...

WEDNESDAY: Part III ... Just when things were looking better, Sony finds yet another way to manipulate the Hot 100.

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1 comment:

Jon Cummings said...

Hey, thanks for the link--and nice post! Great to see a fellow chart obsessive at work...