BILLBOARD MAGAZINE Downloads put new spin on hits
Fans are pulling up to 6 million tunes every week.
By JIM FARBER
NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Pop used to be so simple.
You had a No. 1 single and everyone in the country hummed your tune.
But over the years, trends began tearing away at the old notion of a hit.
People started buying fewer and fewer singles -- to the point where someone could go No. 1 in sales with as little as 5,000 copies purchased.
Radio stations kept splitting into ever-narrower formats, based on genre, taste and demographics.
All of which made it increasingly hard to form a consensus on what was truly the biggest song in the land.
Then came downloads, adding even more confusion.
The legal version of this practice has been growing by leaps and bounds of late -- listeners draw up to 6 million tunes into their computers or portable players every week. While the music industry's bible, Billboard, introduced a Digital chart in July 2003, the magazine still had no way to reflect those sales on its far more influential pop song chart.
This week, Billboard began figuring in download sales in its main pop singles list, mixed with the two other factors it long leaned on -- radio play and retail sales.
At the same time, the magazine has introduced a new, download-enhanced chart that more accurately measures those songs that truly are the most popular.
Dubbed the Pop 100 list, the new chart -- with Ciara's "1, 2 Step" at the top -- takes the radio portion of its data solely from Mainstream Top 40 stations. (The old Hot 100 list draws from a far wider variety of formats).
Adding downloads has already had a striking effect.
The Killers' "Mr. Brightside" didn't even make the previous Hot 100 Song list. This week, it's in the Top 40. Last week, Lenny Kravitz's "Lady" was at No. 40. The download factor boosted it to the mid-20s. Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" shot from No. 8 to 4.
On the other end, the rapper Lloyd Banks has felt the sting of stingy downloads. His "Karma" plunged from the teens to the 30s.
"The new system brings the consumer's voice back onto the charts," explains Silvio Pietroluongo, who manages the new chart for Billboard. "Radio play is really important, but nothing replaces the consumer who actively buys a single."
Over the years, that voice has been quieting to a whisper. While single sales were huge in the '60s and '70s, by the mid-'90s they had faded -- a trend greatly encouraged by the labels themselves.
"The companies felt they were cannibalizing album sales," explains Billboard's Geoff Mayfield.
Increasingly, radio singles weren't even released to stores. When a song like No Doubt's "Don't Speak" was one of the nation's biggest songs in the '90s, it wasn't anywhere on Billboard's chart because the magazine would list only singles fans could buy in stores.
By December 1998, the magazine ended the ban on nonretail songs. But it still allowed sales of singles to account for fully 25 percent of its Hot 100 Song chart. Only in the last 18 months has that ratio plunged to roughly 1 percent, where it remains.
That left room for downloads, which have been escalating at a breathtaking clip. Right after Christmas, Billboard's chart mavens noticed a spike, from an average of 4 million or 5 million to more than 6 million for the week.
"Everyone was getting iPods and [download services] gift cards for presents," Pietroluongo explains.
Adding downloads has the potential to broaden the types of songs that enter the single chart, because listeners can choose any song from an album -- old or new.
While radio's influence on the chart is reduced, Mayfield says, download information could help programmers choose a more popular mix. "It shows them directly what people really want," he says.
The new, two-fisted singles lists give everyone more, and different, information about what's popular. With its broad list of stations, the Hot 100 shows us which songs are getting the widest airing. With its sharper mainstream focus, the Pop list tells us which songs have the most popular appeal.
This can result in some notable differences in a song's position on the two charts. Currently, T.I.'s "Bring 'Em Out" is Top 12 on the Hot 100, but it's only No. 51 on the Pop list, because its play is far stronger on niche hip-hop and R & amp;B stations.
Teen pop's Jesse McCartney's "Beautiful Soul" stands at 6 on Pop but 16 on the Hot 100, because he gets more play on mass-market Top 40 stations.
Observers expect the downloading factor on both charts to grow significantly. Pietroluongo wouldn't be surprised if it one day reached a 50 percent parity with radio. (Right now, downloads account for 33 percent of the overall chart.)
Regardless of how you measure popularity, adding downloads, and creating the Pop list, helps the charts get closer to their ultimate goal -- accuracy.