We all have them. Songs we adore that radio manages to murder with heavy rotation. The problem has escalated in recent years, as multimedia conglomerates have gobbled up stations in every major U.S. city, directly and obliquely dictating syndicated-style radio playlists resulting in fewer songs played more frequently and less room for the discovery of new artists and songs that haven’t been prepaid for by the major labels. (Even MTV now has the “Big Ten”—10 videos MTV deems worthy of being played ad nauseum.) A new formula tracking “audience impressions” rather than the tried-and-true absolute number of spins magnified the trend, reaching critical mass with none other than Mariah Carey, the woman who dominated the Billboard charts for a decade. Her ubiquitous comeback single, “We Belong Together,” set records for the most impressions in one day and one week (32.8 million and 233 million, respectively, according to Mediabase, the company that tracks U.S. airplay). One year later, Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” broke records for being the most-played song in U.S. history (9,637 spins in one week, according to Nielson DBS).
The latest example is Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” which currently sits atop the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart for a ninth consecutive week. It’s impossible to turn on any Top 40, urban, or dance station and not hear the song within minutes. “Irreplaceable” certainly proves that radio can still be a relevant force in the industry, and Columbia, the singer-turned-actress’s record label, is undoubtedly pleased by all the exposure after B’Day struggled to find its footing following the lukewarm reception of its first two singles. Singles, after all, were meant to promote albums, right?
Record labels blamed the format, popular among young music buyers with little disposal income and fans skeptical of spending $18.99 on a full-length CD for one good song, for the decrease in album sales in the late ’90s. They also blamed illegal file-sharing, never once considering that the cannibalization of the affordable single format and the perceived poor quality of their overpriced product might be the real factors in their sinking bottom lines. The Recording Industry Association of America has filed more than 18,000 piracy lawsuits on behalf of the major labels against their own customers. But it was resistance to change, a complete lack of imagination, and an utter failure on the part of the industry to recognize, acknowledge, and ultimately capitalize on the technological advances of digital music that led to double-digit losses, not the shrewdness of online pirates, most of whom were college students who probably wouldn’t have wasted their pot money on most of those CDs in the first place.
But getting back to the issue at hand. It’s February and 2007 still doesn’t have its first new #1 single. It’s time for “Irreplaceable” to be replaced. Billboard has tinkered with its chart formula for decades, but it’s no secret that they’ve struggled to maintain the Hot 100’s integrity in recent years. Only recently did the chart regain its accuracy, as digital music sales were factored in, but they were weighted to overcompensate, making it possible for a $.99 single to reach the summit with practically no airplay at all.
Perhaps the British Recording Industry got it right when they started discontinuing commercial singles after a certain amount of time to prevent saturation. In the U.S., however, it’s airplay that kills a song, as evidenced by the hair-pulling ubiquity of “Irreplaceable.” The track needs to go ahead and get gone—if not to make room for a dozen other songs worthy of the attention, then at least for Beyoncé’s next single. So, until the day radio stations go back to being independent tastemakers, influencing the industry by taking chances and telling labels what people want to hear and not the other way around, or until Clear Channel starts self-regulating (ha!), perhaps songs should be forced into retirement with a cap on the number of times they can be played. Call it mercy killing. It might be the one thing TRL ever got right.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.