Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Decides the Hot 100?

The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" is the number one song in the country, according to Billboard's Hot 100 chart. Before that single climbed to the top of the charts, their hyper-literate treatise "Boom Boom Pow" occupied the spot. With the songs combined, the group has been at number one for seventeen weeks, which is the longest since Boyz II Men was king of the hill in the mid-'90s.

This post isn't Black Eyed Peas snark. There's enough of that to go around. Instead, I think it's worth analyzing what this chart means in the 21st century, if anything. Certainly top 40 popular music is as important a part of our zeitgeist as anything else, even in a period of such diverging musical options.

Still though, I think the cachet of having "the number one song in the country," as touted by Casey Kasem or yelled as you're being chased down the street by screaming girls, is pretty much gone. For one thing, with the current setup of the music industy, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're making any money. And with the generation gap widening every day--trust me, I work with conservative people in their fifties--it doesn't have the cultural recognition it used to have either. Hell, Drake has the number two song in the country, and he isn't even signed to a major label.

At least there's an attempt for the chart to accurately represent things like popularity though. At its earliest, this same chart was tabulated by, literally, how many times songs were played on jukeboxes across the country. You don't think any of those numbers were rigged? Even in the '90s, before the advent of SoundScan, this stuff was largely a guessing game.

So how are the Hot 100 decided? On their website Billboard explains that the chart is: "The week's most popular songs across all genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen BDS, sales data as compiled by Nielsen SoundScan and streaming actitvity data provided by online music sources."

Has Nielsen ever called you and asked you if you like particular songs on the radio? How do they decide who to call? If it were a random sampling of listeners, something tells me we might have acts more interesting than Black Eyed Peas, or at least something more interesting further down the list. Furthermore, what if the person called just says, "Yeah, I like all of those songs." How does the company arrive at a ranking from this?

Or does "radio airplay audience impressions" mean on-air requests? If that's the case, when is the last time you ever called a radio station on the telephone to request something? It was fifth grade for me, and even then it was a prank call. I called B97 as a stoned hippie and requested Jimi Hendrix. This system is only slightly less antiquated than that joke.

Billboard's top music of 2008 by genre. Good thing there's no overlap in any of those categories. Plus, I examine stuff like this all day and have no idea what "post-grunge" is. Any rock music that has come out since Nirvana?

Note that "sales data" is not digital download sales. Thankfully, a year-and-a-half ago, Billboard finally came up with a separate ranking for that, but they had ignored it until then. So sales of what? CD singles, which don't even exist anymore? MiniDiscs? ZipDisks and Jazz Drives?

The data from streaming sites might be the most helpful because it is the truest representation of which songs people want to hear if all other factors are equal. Still, this is a weird mixture of people. People who use streaming sites are--and I'm generalizing but not really--a) computer-illiterate or honest enough to not illegally download, b) too poor to buy music, or c) bored at an unimportant job that requires a public/community computer. This is the sub-set of people who direct the music industry? No wonder it's going under. The only group it seems to benefit is the Black Eyed Peas, which means the world is losing.

The Hot 100 might be ageist, because older people don't call into top 40 radio stations or even listen to them. It's probably outdated because no one buys physical singles anymore. And it's definitely inaccurate because of the confusing audience that ranks the songs. Maybe the Hot 100 isn't important anymore for a reason.


Ally Brown said...

I woulda thought that "radio airplay audience impressions" means a similar thing to... page views. Like, how many people are estimated to be listening to a song as it is played on any particular radio station (based on the listenership data of that station). Add them all up and you have 'hearings' - how often has the song been HEARD because of radio play - which gives a measure of popularity only on the assumption that if someone didn't like a song, they'd switch off the station and never switch it back on again, thus impacting their listenership data 6 or 12 months down the line. They acquiesce to a bunch of songs, and 6 months later that's used as evidence that they like a wholly different bunch of songs.


tray said...

"Has Nielsen ever called you and asked you if you like particular songs on the radio? How do they decide who to call? If it were a random sampling of listeners, something tells me we might have acts more interesting than Black Eyed Peas, or at least something more interesting further down the list."

Has Gallup ever called you and asked you who you're going to vote for in a presidential election? No? Does that fact raise doubts in your mind as to the accuracy of polling? I think the charts are reasonably accurate; there's little doubt in my mind that I Gotta Feeling (which I actually really like) was, for a couple weeks, the most heavily played song in America. As, no doubt, was Boom Boom Pow (which I hate).

Zman Michael said...

While we are told that listener input is important in determining the top 40 and top 100, the fact is that listener input has absolutely nothing do with songs that go on to become hits. Songs are chosen by corporate radio and labels long before a song is even heard on the radio. Repeated air play is solely and has since my first year as a radio jock in 1972 always determined the hit status of every record...and who determines which songs go on to become hits? I can assure you that it's not the listeners! Shocking isn't it?

Zman Michael
The World's 1st International Disc Jockey

Anonymous said...

Well 1st of all, the radio stations are owned mostly by 1 entity-Clear Channel Radio. And it is very obvious airplay is rigged. Mariah Carey releases a couple of records that go nowhere and then suddenly, she just magically appears on the radio with every single from her latest record or the overwhelming prominence of American Idol alumni on the radio. There are clearly connections among artists and their associations/record labels and Clear Channel Radio that permit them to get on the radio over what people actually want to hear. "Call out response" exists, but only in theory to pull out of the closet only when someone is crying out "payola!" It's not seriously put into practice.

The consequence is that now no-one listens to radio. In the 80s, with such diverse artists as Springsteen and the Jacksons to Madonna and Prince, top 40 radio was not merely relegated to any 1 demographic. That isn't the case today at all as all artists fall into one of 2 or 3 cliches: American Idol alumni, ignorant ghetto thug or the flavor of the month exotic female diva using music as a medium to be a celebrity. And none of them speak to anyone.