My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

So what is a music chart actually for?

In the past couple of weeks the decision by Billboard magazine to introduce a new country singles chart encompassing radio airplay (of ‘country’ singles on all genres of radio), sales and Internet streaming has aroused a lot of debate among fans, most whom are fervently against the new chart. Some have even started petitions for the move to be reversed. The existing chart based on country radio airplay remains alongside the new chart, but the latter is to be the premier chart for Billboard.

It is only in the past 20-odd years that sales have not been included in the singles charts, and they were dropped only because singles sales were in sharp decline. In the 90s, most hit singles were not even available for purchase but were solely promotional for radio. In many countries, airplay has never been considered a factor and only sales have been allowed to count, even when the single seemed to be a dying format. The decline of the single as a commercial product in its own right came to an end with the rise of digital music. Nowadays it is not uncommon for a bona fide country single to be registered platinum based on its downloads.

The existing airplay chart is not a complete record of what is played on country radio in any case. It is based on a sample set of radio stations who report to Billboard, with the results then weighted by audience of the stations involved. Rival charts like Mediabase use a similar formula, but based on different stations, and with different calculations, which explains why there is sometimes a discrepancy between the differing charts. Paul Dennis’s fascinating article “The case of the ‘Groovy Grubworm’ (and other chart confusion)” told us about the battles between Billboard and Cashbox and some of the shenanigans which went on in the past. Manipulation of the charts is nothing new, and for many years all the major labels and some independent ones have employed teams of promotion staff to encourage radio stations to play their records. A new trend appears in recent deals by which Clear Channel affiliated stations have agreed to give massive airplay boosts for new releases, allowing them a high chart debut inevitably followed by a slump as soon as the deal ends.

Almost worse, singles are automatically dropped from being recorded on the charts after they have been out for a certain length of time, just a couple of weeks after they cease making active increases in airplay. The reason this practice was introduced was that many stations are notably conservative and only want to play proven hits, making it exceptionally hard for new songs to break in, and making the charts look very stagnant week to week. However, this means that what the audience is actually exposed to in a given week, is not what is being measured by the chart. Furthermore, it has not solved the problem – the very slow progress of singles up the charts has only got worse in recent years.

So the existing airplay charts are far from pure or perfect in the first place, and changing the things they measure is not a betrayal of a lost Eden. One may question some aspects of the new formula; the inclusion of non-country airplay seems to be the most controversial. Yet if a genuinely country song was to cross over, why not acknowledge that as part of its success as a country record – particularly as it is impossible to divide up sales by classifying the purchaser’s tastes in music?

The basic problem this move highlights is not, it seems to me, a problem with chart methodology at all, but rather the way Nashville has allowed country music to be taken over by acts appealing largely to crossover artists. If the new methodology omitted pop-leaning songs, there might not be very many left. Outrage over Taylor Swift’s pop song ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’, which was played fairly well on country radio but peaked outside the top 10 and has now disappeared from the airplay charts nonetheless topping the new chart thanks to sales and pop airplay must be muted when one considers that Carrie Underwood’s ‘Blown Away’, which fans thought was the most “robbed” by the move is also pop rather than country in its melodic and rhythmic structure. It’s a bit like saying spinach has less meat in it than cheese. If the records played on country radio, and released by major labels, were less pop-leaning as a whole, then the differentiation of genres would be a non-issue. However, I might suggest that remixes of records should be regarded as different records, so that where someone like Taylor Swift has “country” and “pop” versions of a song, only sales and airplay of the “country” mix should be recorded on the country chart.

While Billboard has been generally regarded as the most reliable chart, Mediabase is the source for today’s popular syndicated radio countdowns, so the Billboard changes will not have a direct effect on the average country listener’s perceptions of what is doing well. We will have to wait and see if the existence of the new chart has any effect on radio playlists but pending evidence to the contrary I am skeptical – the existing sales charts do not appear to do so to an appreciable degree, so it will only be if the new chart being given the prominence of Billboard’s premier country chart impresses programmers as a big deal.

What is the chart actually for? It is a measurement of how successful country records are, and the actual placement on the chart is not in itself that significant. What really matters is the underlying figures – the chart numbers are based on those but are comparing songs to others getting airplay/sales at the same time. Comparisons over long periods are not really fair – how can you say a single which was a multi-week #1 in an era when the chart encourages several such long running singles a year be truly compared to one which managed two weeks in an era when there was change at the top almost every week? Even in a shorter timeframe, a #5 hit, say, one week may have received more or less airplay (or sales) than one at the same rank another week. A slow-moving single which never makes it to the top can end up with more airplay over the course of the year than a fast burning one which debuts high due to its performer’s star power, races to #1, then drops off the chart. In addition, from the record labels’ point of view, airplay is important only insofar as it leads to sales. Songwriters are recompensed for their songs being played on the radio, but the benefit to the artist and their label is by getting the record exposure so that listeners are inspired to buy it, or better still the full length album.

Whether an artist is credited with a #1, or “robbed” because other factors are taken into account makes no difference to the amount of airplay received, or to the number of fans inspired to buy a record. It’s all just a way of keeping score.

What do you think? All opinions are welcome.

One response to “So what is a music chart actually for?

  1. Razor X October 23, 2012 at 10:41 am

    I agree with most or what you said. “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” does not deserve to be acknowledged as a #1 country hit since it underperformed at country radio. It should have never been marketed as country and had it been accurately labeled as a pop single, there wouldn’t be any controversy. I imagine that it is an outlier and that most of the time there will be kore of a correlation between sales and airplay.

    I really don’t think Carrie Underwood is being hurt by having her record peak #3 instead of #1. It makes no difference to her sales figures. The real problem is that the new methodology will encourage more and more crossover-style music. For that reason I would like to see Billboards take the non-country airplay component out of their formula.

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