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.