Question of the Day: What is the definition of a hit?

544853_22199986.jpgI was reading this week’s Billboard when I came across an article about Nada Surf, the alt-rock band that had a big hit with “Popular” back in 1996, but hasn’t been played on the radio since.  This quote caught my attention:

“We always put out singles, but I’m more interested in putting out songs that are hits.  I don’t mean radio or MTV hits, but the type of hits that get lots of downloads or kids sing along to at every show.”  – Matthew Caws, lead singer/guitarist of Nada Surf

For the last two decades,  country hits have been labeled as such by radio play, with the country singles chart being the only major genre hit list based solely on airplay.   But what if a song is popular in the way that Caws describes, but isn’t played on radio that much?  Is it still a hit?

Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” and Johnny Cash’s “Hurt’ became signature songs, but the former missed the top ten and “Hurt” barely dented the chart.   “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow” powered O Brother to eight million units sold, but it peaked in the thirties.

“Not Ready to Make Nice” is one of the few country songs to sell more than a million downloads, and the Dixie Chicks get their biggest ovation of the night when they play it, but it wasn’t a radio hit.    “Life is a Highway” also sold more than a million downloads, but it’s the lowest-charting single for Rascal Flatts to date.

Then there are artists who have a signature song that peaked noticeably lower than their other singles from that time, like Reba McEntire (“Fancy”), George Strait (“Amarillo by Morning”), Kathy Mattea (“Where’ve You Been”) and Alabama (“My Home’s in Alabama.”)   Those same artists have had #1 hits that are barely remembered today.

So my question is this:  What is the definition of a hit?


  1. And you haven’t even touched on those songs, which might be too racy or controversial for Country radio which might make for great live or bar sing-along songs, the deep album tracks that play well for an audience.

  2. Good question – there are many instances of songs charting poorly or not charting at all and yet becoming huge favorites. Carl Smith sold 500,000 copies of “I Overlooked An Orchid” without the song ever charting at all. It was a steady seller for an extended period of time during a period when the charts only were 15 positions deep. Many of Jimmy Dickens best selling songs, especially ballads such as “Farewell Party”, “Life Turned Her That Way” and “Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)” didn’t chart since they since they were steady sellers rather than flash hits

    A song may peak in different markets at different times preventing it from reaching the top spot. Gene Watson’s “Love In The Hot Afternoon” reached #1 in virtually every market but was released initially on a small regional label before Capitol purchased the master. It only got to #3 on the national chart but was assessed as the 4th biggest country hit of 1975. “Groovy Grubworm” , an instrumental by Harlow Wilcox and the Oakies only reached #42 on Billboard’s Country Charts (it reached #1 according to the Cashbox Country Chart ) because Billboard tracked it as a pop single (it reached #30 on the Billboard Pop Chart and was a top ten hit in Canada).

    Then there are those songs that were hits only regionally and never broke in many markets or were hits for different artists in different parts of the country. One of Eddie Rabbitt’s first successful songs as a songwriter was “The Sounds of Goodbye” which in 1968 reached #31 for George Morgan, #41 for Tommy Cash and was also released by Vern & Rex Gosdin, not charting nationally but being a regional hit out west. Morgan’s version was a top three hit in some markets while not airing at all in others.
    Another example: Johnny Bush’s “Undo The Right” spent six weeks at #1 on WCMS in Norfolk, VA, three weeks at #1 on WTID in Hampton, VA and had similar results through out the Carolinas and Texas but didn’t register at all in the Northeast and Midwest with its unique (for 1968) twin fiddle sound, so it got only to #10 nationally.

    There are also songs that DJs (or more likely, station owners) refuse to play as being “too country”. LeAnn Rimes’ “Blue” sold multiple millions of copies as a CD single but in some markets the only airplay it received was on the the syndicated countdown shows played on Sunday. It only reached #10 on the Billboart Country Chart.

    As for barely remembered #1 singles, during 1973-1989, Billboard was essentially spinning the #1 position on the County Charts. Even a monster hit such as “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” spent only two weeks at #1. During 1989 a total of 49 songs reached #1, which was a fairly typical year for the period (51 songs made it to #1 in both 1985 & 1986 – during this period Billboard didn’t print charts the last week of the year so, by default, whatever song was at #1 in wek 51 stayed there for week 52 ) which means that not every song that made it to #1 was a legitimate hit. In 1990 , Billboard went to a computerized scan of actual airplay, and the number of #1 records dropped to 24 (and has stayed in the 18-32 range since then)

    The point about downloads is legitimate – I won’t comment on those songs other than to say that “Not Ready to Make Nice” is one of the Chix most liked AND most disliked songs – I consider it the worst piece of trash they ever released and I am not alone in my assessment – since my friends are mostly the over-30 set, I don’t actually know anyone who liked the song, although most liked the rest of the CD .

    Another good question is what constitutes a star ? Doc and Chickie Williams were huge stars as live performers yet never had a national chart hit. Ditto for Hal Lone Pine & Betty Cody, Kenny Roberts was a huge regioanl star for decades (and the world’s greatest yodeller, bar none) but aside from two million sellers in 1948, he had little chart action. Even Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff had minimal chart success, yet they are two of the most famous names in the genre

  3. Looks like you did your research, Paul. I liked “Not Ready To Make Nice” though. My husband, however, who loves The Chicks as one of the few country acts that he enjoys, hated that song. He has absolutely no issues with their politics, but the song didn’t do it for him; he didn’t like the melody or production..

  4. To me, a hit is a song that garnished enough airplay to chart at least in the Top 40. However, my opinion has been developed that way because I used to listen to Top 30 or Top 40 countdown shows a lot when I first started listening to country music.

    I think there could be different types of hits–airplay, concert, download, regional, etc.–but the industry is concerned about one thing–money. If a song makes money, then it’s a hit to them. That’s why they celebrate #1 on airplay charts or #1 albums.

    The term hit may need defined or redefined and other terms may be needed to categorize regional favorites, classic songs, etc., for everyone to agree.

  5. We haven’t even mentioned songs that you hear first on a TV show, movie or movie soundtrack, or in a TV commercial which gain cultural prominence. Getting away from Country for a second – who knew “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake before Volkswagen aired that TV spot featuring the song a few years ago? That song never charted in Nick’s heyday.

  6. I used to believe a hit was any song capable of a top 10. Now I think a hit is any song that either touches fans or become a signature song. Even if a song isn’t a big radio hit it can become a signature for an artist and give them a bigger following that they could have ever had. Radio airplay is all about money and popularity, but making a hit is all about song content, relativity to the fans and the ability to atract attension on your own whether or not you can do well on the radio. Martina became well known afte Independence Day, Johnny’s song is a signature song as well, as mentioned in the article. Others that i believe qualify include Diamond Rio’s “God Only Cries”, which barely hit the thirties, “Somebody Who Would Die For You” by Tyler Dean who didn’t even chart the single and barely got any attension for his only album, “Tennessee Girl” which was a very popular but poorly successful song for Sammy Kershaw and “Drinkin’ Me Lonely” from Nashville Star winner CHris Young that barely hit the top 40 but brought him in tones of classical fans that still support him even though radio doesn’t seem to care. I don’t think its radio that makes a song a hit, I think its the song that makes a song a hit.

  7. Given that most Grammy voters are over 30, Paul, my guess is that your survey of friends regarding “Not Ready to Make Nice” is not definitive. I personally know many in the “over 30” crowd who love that song, including my mom – and she’s no spring chicken! Then again, the over 30 distinction is a completely meaningless and arbitrary one anyway, and bears no relevance on the quality of the song.

  8. Maybe Kevin, and no one person’s circle of friends is definitive of anything (and most of mine are in the 45+ range) but very few of those I know care for the song at all although many thought the rest of the disc to be okay. Still, by some standards the song was not a “hit” and by others it was a hit.

    One of the most performed songs in my area by local country bands is “Little Did I Know” , an album track from a Sammy Kershaw CD. It wasn’t pushed to radio but escaped somehow nonetheless. I guess that makes it a local “hit”.

  9. Here’s what I didn’t like about “Not Ready to Make Nice:” Everyone knew that the focus of any Chicks interview surrounding Taking the Long Way would be about the aftermath of Natalie’s statements about the President and the subsequent reaction which took place here in the States. “Not Ready to Make Nice” sounded like an answer to an interviewer’s question, and the only question I have of any musical act is how does your song affect ME. I also didn’t like that it was seemingly the only single worked off the record during the life of the record, which was a wonderful record, whether it fit into a genre box or not.

  10. I think “Life Is a Highway” wasn’t officially released to country radio, just rock/pop stations. Country stations played it as an album cut, and it went to #17 in spite of not being a single, which would be impressive except their version sucks. Its existence hurt “Me & My Gang,” which was their actual country single at the time, that only peaked at #6 (which in itself is low for them).

  11. There are two definitions of a hit: the first is a “single” the record labels scratch and claw up the radio charts; the second is a “song” fans recognize and appreciate when they hear it anytime beyond that chart run.

    “Single hits” are manufactured, distributed, played during countdown shows, require assistance from “street teams,” are tested and re-tested in 30-second increments by marketing firms.

    “Song hits” only require a mass of people to coincidentally say, “I LOVE that song!”

    And I believe in that terminology. How many country fans do you know — those who care nothing about chart positions and monitored stations — sit around talking about their favorite new George Strait “single”?

  12. I’d say that the real definition of a hit is a charted hit but there are so many songs that hit home on a personal level. Also, it’s amazing how well songs like “Lost In The Moment” fail to sell many records for an artist but the same artist sold millions of records off of “Save A Horse Ride A Cowboy” which was barely a Top 20 hit. Which one would you consider Big & Rich’s “signature” tune? I think it’s the latter, even if I like the #1 more. Then there are artists like Blaine Larsen who sell records and ‘digital’ singles but fail to get much attention at radio. In the end, if a song impacts a listener, then it’s a hit for that person. So, while radio used to define what was or wasn’t a hit, now there’s videos, downloads, ringtones and other things that turn songs into hits.

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