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Billboard’s Hot Mess

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Billboard’s Hot Mess

Beginning next month, Billboard, the Bible of the music industry, will once again tool around with the formula that comprises their Hot 100 Singles chart, moving back toward the standard model of a 60/40 split between airplay and sales, respectively. In recent years, Billboard had adjusted the ratio to reflect the then-burgeoning digital download format, which replaced the traditional commercial single, by giving more weight to sales (at one point, a whopping 70%) and less to increasingly corporate-controlled radio. With radio playlists shrinking by the day (less songs played more frequently than in any other time in rock history), the change made practical and logical sense. Theoretically, the chart should be an arbiter of what people want to hear, but in the first half of this decade, when traditional sales had declined and were being replaced with illegal downloads (largely facilitated by the industry’s own cannibalization and resistance to change), the chart instead became almost solely a measure of what radio programmers felt inclined to play.

Billboard’s new changes are a step back toward the not-so-distant past when hip-hop and R&B ruled the pop charts due to heavy airplay and the top tier remained virtually immobile for weeks. A quick scan of the songs that hit #1 from 2002 to 2005 shows exclusively urban artists and a few American Idols thrown in for good measure. (In that period, there were no more than 12 chart-toppers in any given calendar year.) Favoring sales creates a more diverse chart, reflecting the eclectic taste of the people who are willing to actually go out (or, in this case, stay in) and pay for a song they like. One recent study showed that airplay and sales aren’t necessarily correlated (in other words, people often listen to the radio as a substitute for purchasing music), but it’s more likely that, in 2007, airplay influences sales more than sales influence what radio stations play. So, in effect, airplay is also reflected in the sales portion of the Hot 100’s overall ratio, which means big, interest-fueled corporations like Clear Channel have even more control of the most influential singles chart in the country than a rudimentary 60/40 split would have you believe. Would the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready to Make Nice” have been able to soar up the charts following their Grammy sweep last February under this formula? Would other artists deemed unsavory to Clear Channel even have a shot at the exposure they deserve in a free, purportedly consumer-driven nation?

There’s no doubt that a change is necessary when a song can leap all the way to the top of the chart in one week based almost entirely on digital sales, and I always found the weight given to downloads as compared to commercial CD singles (yes, some still do exist!) problematic, but—at worst—the new ratio should be an even 45/45 split between airplay and sales, with 10% coming from streaming audio (the new model gives streams 5%). Being that Billboard primarily serves those within the industry and since the government has cracked down on payola, one would think sales would matter even more to the suits at the incredibly shrinking record labels, but that’s simply not the case. While Billboard’s actions suggest that they’re ahead of labels when it comes to adjusting to the changes in the market, it also points to an entire industry still reluctant to let go of the old paradigm. That or they’re simply divorced from reality.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.