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The Day the Music (Chart) Died

“300” height=”80″ />So, Billboard decided to completely change its chart methodology today:

Billboard unveils new methodology today for the long-standing Hot Country Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Latin Songs charts. Each receive a major consumer-influenced face-lift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS. The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. After all, the country singles chart included both sales and airplay data for decades, until

switching to airplay-only in 1989. Declining availability of retail singles made this change necessary.

Since the digital market emerged, I’ve been an advocate for bringing sales data back into the mix. There have been a few songs that were very popular with country audiences that radio didn’t embrace, like “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, “Hurt”, and “Not Ready to Make Nice”, but were mainstays on country video outlets and sold plenty of digital downloads alongside impressive album sales. The digital singles market also indicated the budding popularity of acts like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, who have since become core radio acts.

So what’s the problem with the change? This:

The immediate beneficiaries of this week’s methodology change are Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Mumford & Sons.

Swift, who holds down the top two slots on Hot Country Songs with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “Red.” Her new country radio single “Begin Again” jumps 37-10. The pop-crossover No. 1 title ranks at No. 36 on Country Airplay (but also gets points associated with its pop-crossover play) and No. 1 on Country Digital Songs, while “Red” is absent from the Country Airplay list, but ranks No. 2 on Country Digital Songs. “Begin Again” appears at No. 29 on Country Airplay and No. 3 on Country Digital Songs.

There are so many problems here. First, and probably worst, pop airplay is now counting for the country genre chart. This week’s “#1 country song” would’ve been #36 if the methodology hadn’t changed. A song that was most notable for being the first song that country radio refused to play by Taylor Swift, because it had no business being on country radio in the first place. It is not a country hit that crossed over to pop. It’s a pop hit that failed to cross over to country.

#2 isn’t even a country single. It’s an advance download track previewing Swift’s new album. It will drop like a stone next week, much like it will on the Hot 100, where it enters at #6. But the Hot 100’s breadth is able to absorb tracks like this more easily, and it is almost impossible to get that high without at least some radio support. The #2 country single of the week wasn’t played on country radio this week.

Billboard says it’s modeling the new genre charts after the Hot 100, much like the way the genre album charts mirror the Billboard 200:

The move to the Hot 100-based formula will ensure that the top-ranked country, R&B/hip-hop, Latin and rock titles each week will be the top titles listed on each genre’s songs ranking. This will be in line with how the Billboard 200 albums chart aligns with the albums charts for each corresponding genre. Because of the switch to new methodology, the week-to-week movements on the charts for some songs (in either direction) could be quite dramatic.

Until now, only country stations contributed to the Hot Country Songs chart, or R&B/hip-hop stations to Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs; the same held true for Latin and rock. The new methodology, which will utilize the Hot 100’s formula of incorporating airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS, will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on a multitude of formats. With digital download sales and streaming data measuring popularity on the most inclusive scale possible, it is only just the radio portion of Billboard chart calculations that includes airplay from the entire spectrum of monitored formats.

Big mistake. Albums sales are album sales. If x sells more than y, it’s higher on the album chart. Apples to apples. Each genre singles chart has its own idiosyncrasies, reflecting the different ways that music is received by the audience.

Despite all the new methods of delivery, country music’s primary method of distribution remains the radio. It may be the only thing left that is identifiably “country” in mainstream music. The vast majority of country artists do not pursue the pop market in lieu of the country market. At most, they pursue pop as well as country, but usually wait until the song’s a hit at their home format first.

The big crossover hits of years past – “Need You Now”, “You’re Still the One”, “Before He Cheats” – would’ve done very well under this new format, but would likely have spent more time at #1 when they were dominating top forty radio and the song was already a recurrent at country stations. Instead, they went #1 on the country chart when country radio was playing them, then flew up the pop charts a few weeks later, while a new single was hitting the country market.

This new chart methodology is bad enough as it is now. But what will happen when the labels realize the only way to have a #1 country hit is to get your song to be a pop hit, too?

There are so many other problems with this, including the increased challenges of breaking new country acts and the likelihood that digital single releases will now become more strategic than ever. (Remixes! Acoustic versions! Buy them separately so they each count as their own sale!)

I guess I just don’t see the point of having a country chart at all if it isn’t going to measure just the country market.

 

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