How Reliable Is The Billboard Hot 100?

Contributed anonymously:

With so many comments recently centering on how well certain artists (Mariah, Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera) did on the Billboard Hot 100, I thought it might be interesting to see just how reliable that is as a barometer of a song’s popularity in the US. It might seem at first to be a no-brainer: it measures sales, doesn’t it? It is the traditional gauge of a song’s success, isn’t it? Well, the answers are sort of and yes, but some traditions can become outmoded.

Billboard does use sales in the Hot 100 figures but this is one factor among others. Equally, if not more, important is radio airplay. In the past this was a good barometer. It would give faster access to breaking songs (listener requests precede purchases) and you couldn’t really rig it since there were so many radio stations. Generally, airplay and sales pretty much coincided in the end with the rise and fall in sales lagging slightly behind that in airplay. There could be glitches but it was a good system for the time.

Today, the same system has multiple problems. The first is that radio is now controlled by fewer than half a dozen companies and it is cheaper to have them centralize the playlists. The larger stations are in cities and tend to converge to the tastes of an urban market and this is used as a one size fits all for all their stations. If they decide boy-bands are hot, that’s all you hear. If they decide hip-hop is all that, you get noting but rap songs on top 40 radio.

The net result is that if Clear Channel decides to play a song to death, it is bound to make the Hot 100 on airplay even if sales are relatively week. Even if sales are strong, it will tend to exaggerate the song’s popularity.

Let’s take an example: Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together.” I’m not arguing here whether it’s a good track (I happen to think it is a great pop song for what it’s worth). The point is whether it’s months at number 1 are really indicative of it being one of the most popular songs of all time or whether it is a creation of airplay.

WBT is certainly immensely successful. It is certified platinum for over a million…but given its claim to be the most successful song of all time, it should be doing a lot better than that. By comparison, a more legit claimant of that title would be Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind (1997)” which is certified at 11 million. Hundreds of other songs have also outsold WBT. Even if you want to include album sales, Mariah’s 3 million (certified for 2 but it should be over 3 by now) in sales of Mimi as counting for part of the popularity, it still doesn’t add up. And then you open a real can of worms. Numerous Beatles’ albums have sold over 10 million copies. Do we add that to their singles totals? Even earlier Mariah songs end up beating WBT by that method.

Let’s forget the past and concentrate on the present. Surely WBT is the most successful song now, right? If you mean airplay, emphatically yes. If you mean sales, well…no. In fact, songs with miniscule chart success have done as well or better. Take a look at the top 50 songs in the singles charts:

The best seller is the Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” with over 4 million. Next is the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” with over 3 million – both far outselling WBT. Yet Kelly only hit #2 and the Killers only made it to #10!! Why? One word – airplay. Certainly Kelly had it but not as much as Mariah. And the Killers didn’t come close. Of other platinum singles on the list, Kelly Clarkson’s “Behind these Hazel Eyes” peaked at #6, as did Rob Thomas’ “Lonely No More”, while “Scars” by Poppa Roach hit only #15 and “The Best of You” only made #18. How could million sellers not make the Top 10 in a low-selling period? Simple – no hip-hop, no airplay. It is the new paradigm. The only other million seller to make #1 is Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” – which definitely fits in with Clear Channel’s current operating strategy.

Go from platinum to gold and more of the same. Lifehouse’s “You and Me” did get to #5, but Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” only made #13 despite its sales. On the other hand, the Black Eyed Peas – who meet the standard du jour – got to #3 with “Don’t Phunk With My Heart”.

How can radio be so out of touch with the public? When the programming decisions are being made in an office in NYC or LA, they are getting a skewed representation of the market. I like some hip-hop in the mix. But when that is the mix, it gets old real fast…and the hip hop they choose to play is usually of the predictable variety. Frankly, keep Kanye West and Outkast and send the rest packing.

What is happening now is that people – particularly teens, college students, and young adults – are bypassing traditional radio and going to the internet radio, satellite radio, and other outlets where they have more control. On many internet stations, there are no commercials and you can bypass songs. With this new technology, traditional radio and its tightly controlled play lists are doomed. Good riddance.

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11 thoughts on “How Reliable Is The Billboard Hot 100?

  1. jazzprofounder says:

    Well for one I don’t really understand why people center their fav. artists (and other artists) so much on the Billboard Hot 100. I don’t take it that seriously, I just listen to what I like and who I like regardless of what the charts say. The chart statistics will come and be forgotten eventually, but as long as I still enjoy the music then why does it matter?

  2. joshuas805 says:

    Your numbers are a little wrong. With the advent of digital sales and singles, a gold single is now 200,000 and a platinum single is now 400,000. Seeing as how Kelly was 4x platinum, she had 1.6 mil in sales of the single, and the Killers had 1.2 million. This would explain why WBT, with sales of about 550,000 copies of the song, it has gone platinum. This all changed when physical singles stopped mattering and have become almost obsolete. However, I think that the way to judge these people is based upon how the song has affected album sales. Mariah has easily outsold all of those artists (Kelly came out last year in November with Christmas sales and she’s also beating labelmates The Killers) and hence why her singles, in particular, are great barometers of success, unlike singles from the likes of Rihanna, etc.

  3. ihatehilary says:

    most read story of the day. go astrange1! now if only MM would post a Hilary and Joel story, the battle for most read story would be interesting!

  4. disisme_2004 says:

    Well, well, well. Nothing has changed in the long time I’ve been absent from here. Astrange is still being intellectual, Ihatehilary is still hung up on Hilary and Joel, RPL hasn’t died yet.

  5. Nukleo says:

    The Hot 100 might have been taken seriously at one time but ever since they let the Sagging Hag score #1’s by selling her singles for 49 cents it turned into a joke. When airplay bombed for the Sagging Hag’s songs like Honey and Loverboy she sold the singles for 49 cents to get it to #1, real pathetic. The Hot 100 will never recover from that debacle.

  6. CharlotteNCusa says:

    The I-Pod and Clear Channel world..’, ‘You can give thanks to Apple and Clear Channel for screwing up the Billboard charts! Your posting actually is based on facts- and I find that amazing on this site! Thanks for a good article.

  7. kittykow105 says:

    Mariah has sold almost 600,000 copies of “we belong together” which will certify her 3x platinum.. they just haven’t done that yet so you don’t know. And also “We belong together” was a multi format hit b/c that’s how most of her hits have been in the past. And Mariah already has the #3 album on the year end chart AND the #1 female album of the year… so yeah I think her hits coincide with the success of the album. May I also remind you that albums don’t sell NEARLY as much as they used to.

  8. prodigy82 says:

    I don’t think that single sales should be the sole determinant of a song’s success. Some people buy singles because they don’t want to buy the album where it belongs to. 1st off, what constitutes a popular single? 1. A selling factor, 2. Play factor. These represent the two main groups of people who define what is popular: 1. People who buy music, 2. People who keep that music on rotation. Both actually have their own problems. In sales, the very reason why people buy or download singles is because either they like the song very much but don’t want the whole album, or because they want the remixes. In that sense, a single can only be popular through sales if the album is distasteful to the many consumers who particularly like the song. This is where airplay comes in, which I think measures public demand. Airplay, while controlled by a playlist easily manipulated by radio stations, can easily be controlled by public demand. Remember “Iris”? It wasn’t released as a physical single, yet it was played over and over again due to massive demand. With this, I think Billboard has a better system now than ever before. The combination of airplay and sales sort of cancels the disadvantages of each. It has included the two major components of song popularity, and rightfully in appropriate weights. If you’re looking for most popular songs in terms of sales, or most popular song in terms of airplay, or most popular pop/r&b songs, then go to the components charts. Billboard is actually very transparent about its charts. Billboard has made sure that the most popular song overall is a song that is bought by consumers, and listened to people. Back to your example… about Elton John’s song. It was bought because it had a particular significance in history. It was a charity single, if I’m not mistaken. And Elton had no album at that time. His song wasn’t even played on radio that much. It was just a song that people bought for some historical purpose, not necessarily because it was popular. If you check the internet radio, you see the same top 10 most played songs as that in traditional radio. Radio has not digressed in anyway, it has specialized in fact. Urban stations play urban, rock plays rock, and so on. This gives smaller, less popular, acts the chance to be played in their own respective stations. Props to Billboard for having a chart system that measures the “sellability” and “listenability” of a song!

  9. ihateoreilly says:

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on a website that is so stupid, that it makes me keep coming back for more! Anyhow, the HOT 100 has become a complete joke. I’ll give Mariah credit in that We Belong Together is a legit, number one song, but it is in NO Way a classic…it’ll be forgotten in one year. It was Mariah, however, who really ruined the charts by selling her songs for forty nine cents. Because of this, TRUE number one songs have not been taken seriously. To Mariah’s credit, Michael Jackson was the first to 99 cent a single with “You Are Not Alone.” Whitney Houston (far more talented than Mariah can ever dream of) did it with Exhale, Shoop Shoop. But it was Stuffedsausage Mariah who completely ruined the importance of charting singles. “Honey” never made it to the radio, but it was number one because of it’s 49 cent status.

  10. joshuas805 says:

    * Asterisk indicates retail single available. Airplay only songs are not eligible for the Hot 100 until they reach the top 75 of the Hot 100 Airplay chart. Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA) certification for net shipment of 100,000 paid downloads (Gold). RIAA certification for net shipment of 200,000 paid downloads (Platinum), with additional 200,000 indicated by a number following the symbol. Songs are removed from the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot 100 Airplay charts simultaneously if they have been on the Billboard Hot 100 for more than 20 weeks and rank below 50. Check the bottom of the Hot Digital Songs for that info…all of those songs you mentioned don’t have a physical single…as a result, I believe my numbers are correct. Btw, Mimi has already outsold “Breakaway” as well as “LAMB” which were released months earlier…this just goes to show you the importance of airplay…. also, I don’t necessarily agree with it being called the biggest single, but the biggest radio song of all time, might be a better title.

  11. prodigy82 says:

    Before you put out a crap comment like that, please check your info. Honey was #15 at airplay when it debuted at #1. Her video was at heavy rotation in MTV and VH1, which are indicators of positive airplay. Mariah has only sold a few of her singles at 49 cents, and those are the singles that have had already sold heavily even before the discounts were placed. Plus, discounting is an economy/ marketing principle to get people to buy it. The fact that many people bought it makes it legitimate. Besides, you cannot blame Mariah for Sony’s marketing agenda. And to your comment about Whitney being more talented than Mariah, I think your confusing tone with talent. True, Whitney may have a more beautiful tone than Mariah at lower range, but Mariah is waaaaaaaaaaay more talented than Whitney. Mariah writes the stuff she sings, and backs them with her own vocals. You’ll never see any other artist, besides Lauryn Hill, with more complex vocal layerings than Mariah. Mariah is also credited to have the widest vocal range for any pop singer. Whitney can battle with Barbra, Mariah, and Aretha for most beautiful voice, but sorry to say, Mariah is one talented ***** Whitney wished she’d be like.

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