Gaming The Charts

Pondering the way that gaps in Billboard’s music charts have, for decades, created opportunities for bands and artists to maximize their exposure.

Today in Tedium: In a way, a decision by Rolling Stone to create its own version of the pop charts—in direct competition with Billboard, which has been doing this for 80 years—is something the magazine was probably destined to do at some point. (It probably helps that there was a synergistic excuse: The magazine was recently bought by Penske Media Corporation, the same publishing giant that owns trade outlets Variety, Deadline Hollywood, and the music data company BuzzAngle, the latter of which will be supplying the data for Rolling Stone’s charts.) It’s a little early to tell exactly what Rolling Stone’s charts will look like (they’ve already been delayed!) but if they’re anything like Billboard’s, they’re going to be fun to watch as musicians repeatedly take advantage of the charts’ quirks in every possible way. Today’s Tedium ponders the way the music industry jockeys for position on the Billboard charts. — Ernie @ Tedium

Today’s GIF comes from a YouTube clip of a collector who has every Billboard year-end issue dating back to 1973. By the way, today’s issue is sponsored by Lemonade. More on them in a second.

How Casey Kasem made the Billboard charts important to more than insiders

I learned something really interesting when researching the very first episode of American Top 40, which fittingly aired the weekend of July 4, 1970.

That interesting thing? If you take out all the songs and commercials, a three-hour program becomes just 20 minutes long. Its host, Casey Kasem, a veteran DJ and television host who by this time was dabbling in voice acting, was adept at filling this 20 minutes with banter, interesting facts, and perspectives about the music that was soaring on the charts. He would continue to do so on American Top 40 for 18 years—then, after a decade-long gap in which Shadoe Stevens was handed the baton and he was hosting a competing show, another six more.

It was infotainment—and while odds are low that people were listening to the show straight through, all three hours, it was perfect for grazing.

(In case you’re wondering: Yes, Kasem ended the very first broadcast by saying his signature line: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”)

That three-hour program evolved but never changed significantly in structure over the years, but its format was quietly important for a few reasons: It got people interested in consuming information in a list-based form, and it didn’t play to the biases of the day—instead, focusing on the objective goals of the chart.

As a 2014 piece published on Splinter (then known as Fusion) and timed to Kasem’s passing notes, the first chart featured “Ohio,” a song by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young that was successful (ranking at number 30 that week) despite the fact that some AM stations actively were not playing the song about the National Guard shootings at Kent State.

In introducing the song, Kasem didn’t sugarcoat it. Instead, he highlighted the vocal quartet’s pedigree and the fact that such a message was not out of character for the group.

“Those are heavy credentials, and you expect heavy stuff from them,” Kasem stated over the song’s introductory riff.

Billboard writer Rich Appel, speaking to Splinter, noted that the decision to stick to the chart reflected a noble goal: “That was one of the things ‘American Top 40’ did: They wanted to just play the top 40 songs, regardless of what (mainstream) radio was doing.”

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Casey Kasem, on an episode of “The People Next Door,” circa 1989. (via IMDb)

And it’s worth noting that, for decades, Billboard was not exactly a publication known outside of the music industry—for one thing, you couldn’t buy it at a local grocery store. Kasem and his broadcaster were providing a basic resource to the public: He was counting down the charts, often on AM stations, and helping to make listeners aware of music that the station wasn’t playing any other time of the week.

“Because Billboard’s formula back then took overall album sales into account, listeners who generally stuck to AM radio got to hear music off albums that hadn’t necessarily produced hit singles yet,” writer Jessica Roy wrote.

Eventually, the information on the chart would become more democratized—particularly during the late ’90s, as the internet helped to make Billboard easier to access. (The magazine once paywalled many of its more obscure charts, as well as the lower half of its most popular ones, but now nearly all charts are available online for free, though the magazine maintains an industry-only offering.)

By that time, the chart situation had complicated significantly on the radio dial: American Top 40 had been handed off to Stevens, who (no kidding) became famous by doing a series of fast-talking commercials for an electronics retailer. Stevens eventually ended his tenure at American Top 40, while Kasem had moved onto his own show, ‌Casey’s Top 40, and a number of secondary charts for different formats. In 1998, after a decade away, Kasem came back to American Top 40—and the show moved away from using Billboard entirely. These days the show, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, uses a proprietary chart.

But even if American Top 40, nearing its 49th anniversary, isn’t exactly leading the way with the charts anymore, you can argue it remains an important starting point for chart culture. The film industry’s box-office charts later gained similar cultural cachet. And while other charts, such as the New York Times Bestseller List, existed before then, you can argue that their influence probably rose in the years after the music industry gave charts a popular showcase.

And this can be seen in the fact that many modern services, such as Apple Music and Spotify, have built popular charts of their own that people legitimately care about, even if they can’t be considered quite the same way as Billboard because they don’t cover every nook and cranny of the pop charts.

And thinking more broadly: One can probably draw a line from the popularity contests of Billboard to the way it seems like we rank everything online, from Amazon popularity charts to listicles. We’re always counting on something, and it makes sense that we want to make the best possible appearance when we do.

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“Don’t Speak,” one of the biggest hits of the ’90s, not that you’d know it by its Billboard Hot 100 chart history.

The structural weakness of the Hot 100 that faced every major crossover rock hit of the mid-’90s

Imagine you’re at a sales job, and you’re working on commission. Sure, the base salary is OK, but if you really want to score the big bucks, you have to go the extra mile—and going the extra mile might involve getting clever or perhaps even sneaky.

In its own odd way, an impressive chart showing on Billboard is like scoring a solid commission. Which means, if you want to get a better commission, you might want to bend the rules sometimes just to make yourself look a little better.

And that’s what artists, their managers, and their labels often do. If there’s a structural weakness in the Billboard charts, artists and labels will find a way to use it to their advantage, whether to sell more records or score a useful PR win for an artist that’s aiming for maximum impact.

And even if Billboard makes changes to account for loopholes, it’s only a matter of time before something else happens that requires changes to the chart.

This has been happening for decades, and pretty much every time, the drumbeat of technology has been the biggest reason for it. Billboard can try to make a course correction as needed, but sometimes, the magazine can be a little slow on the draw.

Nowhere, perhaps, was this more obvious than in the mid-to-late-’90s, when rock bands (or more likely, their labels) decided not to even bother with releasing physical singles, instead just letting their songs chart where they were likely to get notice—the Modern Rock Tracks chart, which put no weight on a physical single. This, of course, worked out great for labels, which wanted to sell people the full album anyway.

I’ve touched on this quirk before—in part because this sometimes led the labels to release half-baked albums just to fill a quota. Hence the reason that Primitive Radio Gods were forced to sell a single in album form, with a bunch of demos attached.

But there was another side to this quirk—and it created enough of a problem for Billboard that it eventually had to remedy its methodology. Often, these big songs would be everywhere—massive hits on MTV and radio alike—but they would never appear on the primary chart the public used as a cultural barometer. It wasn’t because they weren’t deserving, but because Billboard required singles to have a corresponding physical release to appear on the Hot 100.

(In a way, the magazine arguably did this to themselves by choosing to include album-only tracks on the Modern Rock charts, which it started in 1988. As that chart gained cultural relevance, it led to a lot of those album tracks going mainstream.)

A great example of this is No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” The song was such a big hit that it is literally the seventh biggest song in the history of Billboard’s 27-year-old Mainstream Top 40 chart, and it topped the Hot 100 Airplay chart for four full months, or 16 weeks. But despite clearly being a pop-music juggernaut, it never charted on the Hot 100, despite a level of radio play that on its own would have made it a chart-topping hit. (Instead, all those listeners bought Tragic Kingdom.)

Billboard’s primary singles chart disqualified one of the biggest songs of 1996—one that might have had a massive reign at the top of the charts similar to that of the year’s biggest Hot 100 hit, Los Del Rio’s “Macarena.”

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The physical single for “One Week,” whose release highlights the power of good timing when maximizing a stay on the Billboard Hot 100.

But what was interesting is that, eventually, labels would take advantage of this clear disparity between what was happening on the charts and what was being played on the radio to tip a success story over the edge. A prominent example of this is the Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week,” which had been a hit for months by the time the band’s label, Reprise, released the song as a physical single in the fall of 1998. And by the time the label did, the song was very close to topping the Hot 100, which it did. For one week.

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The Billboard Hot 100, as shown during the week of December 5, 1998, the first week the chart allowed songs that weren’t physical singles to chart. (Can’t really do much about who actually topped the chart that week.)

Two months after “One Week” peaked, Billboard made what, perhaps, might be the biggest change in the Hot 100’s history: It removed the requirement that radio hits have a corresponding single. (Which belatedly allowed “Iris,” the massive Goo Goo Dolls hit, to enter the top 10—months after its peak. It topped the Hot 100 Airplay chart for 18 weeks.)

Reflecting on the first edition of the Hot 100 from 1958, Billboard lamented the differences that had emerged over time. “That top 10’s eclectic mix reflected the wide variety of singles that were available at retail stores and the broad spectrum of genres that were heard at top 40 radio,“ the announcement stated. “Those conditions have changed significantly in the intervening years: Radio has become increasingly segmented over the past few years, and an increasing number of big radio hits have bypassed retail.”

This decision allowed the pop charts to make sense again—but it also opened up the floodgates for weirdness in the years to come.

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Amos Lee’s Mission Bell, a reminder that the easiest way for an artist to top the charts is to release an album in the middle of January.

Five other ways that artists and labels have successfully gamed the Billboard charts

  1. The January sleeper hit. In the early 2010s, an odd phenomenon kept happening at the beginning of the year—artists with cult followings were topping the Billboard 200 with extremely low numbers of sales. A great example of this is Amos Lee’s Mission Bell, a chart-topping album that sold just 40,000 copies in its first week in January of 2011—an impressive number for Lee, who has never gotten near that single-week sales number before or since—but at the time, a nadir for the album charts that’s since been lowered. A couple weeks before that, the ’90s alt-rock band Cake did the same thing with their first album in seven years. They sold 4,000 more units than Lee did. “The increasingly low bar for topping Billboard’s album chart suggests that it may not mean very much to have a Number One record anymore,” Rolling Stone noted at the time. Nonetheless, taking advantage of a lack of wattage on the charts is an effective way of building exposure for an artist on the charts.
  2. The iTunes effect. In 2005, Billboard changed its rules for single sales to allow digital downloads to count for the chart, and one of the biggest beneficiaries was a solo artist who, as a member of a alt-rock band, missed a chance to top the pop charts for a couple of months in a row because of Billboard’s dumb rules. Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,“ released two months after changes to digital download rules, was catapulted to further success thanks to users who were buying the single on iTunes en masse. “In the early months of the digital-powered Hot 100, no song benefited more from the new formula than Stefani’s bananas anthem,” music writer (and “Old Town Road” defender) Chris Molanphy wrote in the Village Voice. (Another direct beneficiary was piano man Ben Folds, whose biggest Hot 100 hit, to this day, is a profane cover of an NWA song.)
  3. The sales-only Hot 100 appearance. By the mid-’90s, bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Pearl Jam were established enough that they could release physical CD singles that would sell well enough in record stores that they would chart on the Hot 100 with a song or short EP clearly targeted towards their existing fanbases—without a smidgen of pop radio play. Their fans weren’t just listeners—they were collectors. Which is why NIN’s “The Day the World Went Away,” a particularly pop-unfriendly song, was very briefly a top 20 hit in early 1999, as well as why Pearl Jam’s Merkin Ball, a two-song EP intended as a companion to Neil Young’s Pearl Jam-featuring album Mirror Ball, is the band’s second-highest chart appearance on the Hot 100.
  4. The live album saturation strategy. Speaking of Pearl Jam, the band came across one of the most brilliant chart stunts in modern history in 2000, when is started releasing a series of “official bootlegs,” which aimed to provide a better experience to fans than poorly recorded stuff from the crowds. The band released 72 separate albums over a two-year period, in what can literally be called a flood-the-market strategy. The result of this trick, due to Pearl Jam being one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, was that the band managed to chart 14 albums in a single week. Which is a lot. “It’s good to throw a wrench in the way the record industry is run and do something different,” bassist Jeff Ament said of the endeavor in 2003.
  5. The chorus-only YouTube video. No matter your opinion of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” or PSY’s “Gangnam Style,” you must argue that the YouTube-driven songs played a key role in the internet’s growing influence on the Billboard Hot 100, even if they themselves never topped the charts in the U.S. Which is why it makes sense that, in February of 2013, the magazine announced it was adding YouTube streams to its mix, which seemed to directly influence the Hot 100 success of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” a song that generally wasn’t even played with a primary music video. The problem? The rules were loosey goosey—enough so that, in 2017, Post Malone gained chart mojo from a version of his single “rockstar” that was effectively a three-and-a-half-minute-long loop of the chorus. It was a brilliant move, but this was too far for Billboard, which adjusted the YouTube methodology in 2017.

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The number of albums that were listed on the the Pop Catalog Albums chart during its first appearance (the week of May 25, 1991) that are still on the same chart this week. Apparently, despite the fact that AC/DC’s Back in Black and The Eagles’ ‌Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 have continuously been sold during that entire period, people are still buying them at a regular clip. Back in Black has been on the Pop Catalog charts for at least 967 weeks over the past 28 years—which means 18 full years of the past 28 years have featured AC/DC’s masterwork somewhere on this chart. But compared to Bob Marley’s Legend: The Best Of …, which has appeared over 1,359 weeks, Journey’s Greatest Hits (1,202 weeks), and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle: The 20 Greatest Hits, AC/DC has been slacking. (Other catalog albums that frequently appear on the chart: Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album, The Beatles’ 1, Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.)

In some ways, Billboard is at the height of its influence, with a long-running awards show and a general interest in ranking stuff in general helping to give prominence to the magazine that did it first.

But there’s a problem that has emerged over time—for all the times artists have flipped the script on what has proven to be a fairly rigid chart, and for all the changes Billboard itself has made to the chart to account for structural changes to the music industry in the past 60 years, it remains hopelessly imperfect.

By watching this video, you slightly increase Lil Nas X’s chances of topping the Billboard Hot 100 next week.

Part of the reason for that is that Billboard is very much a part of the industry it reports on, meaning that it can be swayed by things such as traditionalist views on the country charts, which very notably sparked the controversy around the current top-ranking song on the Hot 100, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X.

In trying to explain itself, Billboard was caught flat-footed, with some blogs under the belief that Lil Nas X was trying to use his song’s genre labeling to trick Billboard’s algorithm-driven streaming methodology, but Billboard itself finding itself accused of racism. (I personally think “Old Town Road” wasn’t hurting anyone by appearing on the country charts.)

Quirks in the chart still emerge in more traditional ways, for reasons that have nothing to do with things going viral and everything to do with dusty old methodology. Even with the shift in the way the Hot 100 is measured in 1998, it’s still possible for major acts (particularly those that appear on the rock charts) to top the Billboard 200 but rarely appear on the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, Vampire Weekend, just this week, became the first band in Billboard’s history to have three chart-topping albums and no Hot 100 hits. (To be fair, Arcade Fire nearly set this odd record themselves two years ago, except they had one song clip the bottom reaches of the Hot 100 six years ago.)

Is it possible that the Hot 100 is weighted against indie rock? Or that there’s a general oversight in Billboard’s chart model that hasn’t been accounted for, much like the one that prevented many alternative rock songs from charting in the ’90s?

Perhaps the solution is more simple: Maybe Vampire Weekend hasn’t put enough focus on gaming the charts.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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