Over the past several months I’ve been engaged in a Vision Quest on this tiny slice of the Internet, attempting to locate and suitably disparage the worst Number One songs of the Rock Era. That quest will reach some sort of fruition next week with a rundown of the worst-bests of our current decade; however, the process of reviewing the top songs of the last two decades has compelled me to focus on the myriad changes that have rocked the music industry – and the pop singles charts – since my brief tenure as a copy editor and writer at Billboard in the early 1990s. In order to understand those changes more clearly, I decided to enlist the guru himself – Geoff Mayfield, Billboard’s Director of Charts and Senior Analyst.
If you’re a chart obsessive like I am – and if you’re still reading this, you probably are – you likely are aware that, beginning around the time I worked at the magazine (really, I swear it’s not my fault), dramatic changes rocked the seemingly well-oiled machine known as Billboard’s Hot 100. The magazine began using computerized analyses of both airplay and sales at that time, in an effort to make the Hot 100 and its other charts more accurate than ever; paradoxically, though, changes in the practices of those who spun, manufactured and sold music conspired at that time to make the magazine’s flagship chart a less-accurate reflection of the public’s musical tastes.
By the end of the ’90s, the chart which had defined American popular music for four decades would be, arguably, a shadow of its former self – victimized by advancing technologies, fragmenting radio formats, declining sales and panicking record companies. These changes manifested themselves in ways that were clear to anyone who followed the charts closely. For one thing, singles began achieving longer stretches at Number One than had previously been the norm; whereas exactly one song (Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”) had spent as many as 10 weeks atop the Hot 100 between 1958 and 1991, no fewer than 15 have done so since then. Similarly, since 1995 a dozen singles have debuted at Number One; no single had done that in the first 40 years of the rock era.
On the other hand, since the ’90s it has been common for singles to advance all the way to the top of the Hot 100 without receiving airplay on hundreds of the stations that participate in the chart’s radio panel. And, in the development that was perhaps most disturbing to chart-watchers, during the ’90s many of the biggest radio hits – particularly songs by rock-oriented acts – failed to chart at all.
They were songs like the Rembrandts’ theme from Friends, “I’ll Be There for You,” which topped the airplay chart for eight weeks; Sugar Ray’s “Fly” (six weeks); and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,” which was the Number One song at radio for a whopping 16 weeks without ever hitting the Hot 100. The problem was, those songs were never released as commercial singles, and Billboard’s chart policies at the time precluded radio-only hits from being included in its flagship “singles” chart. The problem with this policy was perhaps never more pronounced than in the summer and fall of 1998, when the duet between teen R&B stars Brandy and Monica, “The Boy is Mine,” spent 13 weeks atop the Hot 100 without ever topping Billboard’s complementary Hot 100 Airplay chart. To make matters worse, the biggest hits at radio during that period were two of the biggest radio hits ever: Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” which was Number One on the airplay chart for 11 weeks, and the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” which replaced “Torn” atop that chart and went on to become the biggest hit in its history, remaining at Number One for 18 weeks.
“Historically, you could never get onto the Hot 100 unless a physical single actually came out,” Mayfield says. “The lack of single releases on major hits became a big problem in the mid-’90s, first with pop and rock hits, but then even with hip-hop. The most striking example was ‘Don’t Speak,’ which was the biggest hit of its year but was never released as a single and never made the chart. That was when we began to recognize that our chart rules were creating a real problem based on an artificial construct of needing a single release, and eventually we changed the Hot 100 from a ‘singles’ chart to a ‘songs’ chart so it would reflect everything that reached critical mass at Top 40 radio.”
As a result of that change in late 1998, “Torn” and “Iris” finally charted, though it was too late for either song to have much impact on the Hot 100; “Torn” peaked at #42, “Iris” at #9. For years afterward, radio-only hits would appear on the Hot 100 but usually were outperformed by songs that had been given a single release. “To accommodate the radio-only songs we reduced the impact of sales on the chart – we adjusted the weighting given to airplay and sales from 60-40 to about 80-20,” Mayfield notes. “Songs that got a single release still had an advantage, but at least it was less of one. Since the advent of iTunes and the trend toward downloading of individual songs, we’ve adjusted that weighting back to about 60-40.”
Mayfield notes that the problem of non-charting hits was rooted in the reaction by major labels to a flattening of album sales (and a corresponding decline in singles sales) during the late 1980s and early ’90s. “The debate within the record companies dated back to the mid-’80s, when Arista began aggressively promoting cassette singles with [Whitney Houston’s] ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody,’” he notes. “That was the first single to go gold that had a big portion of its sales on cassette. Up until that time, the industry had a growing problem where it hadn’t figured out how to update the singles market — the only way to get an individual song was to buy a 45 [RPM record] in a marketplace where a lot of kids didn’t own turntables anymore. The configuration wasn’t addressing the needs of the core constituency for singles.
“But when cassette singles started doing well in the late ’80s, early ’90s, the fans and the stores were happy but the labels started wondering if singles sales weren’t cannibalizing album sales. They considered rock acts, in particular, to be susceptible to that problem – hip-hop acts not so much, because a lot of their fans hadn’t made the leap to buying CDs yet. So they began experimenting with sending rock and pop hits to radio without releasing singles, and it became much more prevalent through the ’90s.”
Labels began playing more overt games with the Hot 100 as well during those years. More and more frequently, beginning with Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” in September 1995, they delayed releasing a single until airplay was cresting – and then often put the singles into stores at a huge discount – so that a song’s combined airplay and sales figures would result in a Number One debut. Sony employed this strategy with Mariah Carey three times between ’95 and ’97.
“After that happened a few times, those of us who cared about the charts began to believe the trend was unhealthy in more than one way,” Mayfield says. “Some of the biggest artists began to see a Number-One debut as a measure of their popularity, something else to brag about. But to us, it looked really artificial to have songs climb the airplay chart, then suddenly appear the Hot 100 so late in their lifespan and at such a high position. So one of the changes we put into effect in ’98 was that if a song had enough airplay points to chart, it would chart, and that took care of the artificiality of those debuts.” (In fact, since that change was put into effect, only four singles have debuted at Number One – all debut singles by American Idol favorites Clay Aiken, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Taylor Hicks which achieved astronomical sales in their first weeks.)
While debuts atop the Hot 100 are no longer prevalent, long stays at Number One have continued. While no single has surpassed Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and its 16 weeks atop the chart in 1996, the current decade has seen runs of 14 weeks for Carey’s “We Belong Together,” 12 weeks for Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Usher’s “Yeah!,” and 11 weeks for Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women Part 1.” “That’s a trend that’s not going away, and it’s completely related to the use of SoundScan and BDS [Broadcast Data Systems] data,” Mayfield says. “Now we can measure the actual number of copies a single is selling through point-of-sale data research, and we can register the exact number of times a song is played on radio stations, rather than relying on the reports that we used to get from stores and stations.
“In the old system, a single got points based on how the stations self-reported their airplay, with the most points going to the most-played song and then declining for other songs based on a sliding scale. The same type of points system was used on the sales side. And what happened was that once a single achieved the maximum number of points in a certain week, it would hit an artificial ceiling and there would be no place to go but down. There wasn’t room for growth once a song was already Number One, if it was already getting all the points it could get.
“Some stations and stores that reported to us were prone influence from the record companies. You know, it’s the record company’s job to get the song or the album to Number One; once they’ve achieved that, they don’t give it so much attention anymore and they start pushing the next thing. So in order to please the labels, a station might raise a new single higher on its reporting chart than actual airplay would indicate, and songs would fall from the top of their charts while they might still be receiving the most airplay.
“SoundScan and BDS resolved those issues – but what they have shown beyond any question is that some Number Ones are bigger than others. There’s room for a song to grow once it’s already reached Number One in the system we have now, and you see that in the long amounts of time singles are remaining at the top.”
Even as computerized data has made chart-gathering more precise, however, the changes that have transformed radio over the past 20 years have made Billboard’s job much more difficult – and made the Hot 100 more perplexing for pop-radio listeners who only hear some of the chart’s biggest hits on their favorite stations. The segmentation of the pop radio format picked up in earnest around 1990; in October 1992, Billboard split its pop airplay chart into two separate lists: “Top 40-Mainstream” and “Top 40-Rhythm/Crossover.” The move reflected a growing chasm in the format between stations that played a mix of rock-based pop songs and black “crossover” artists, and other stations that focused more intensely on R&B-based music with a smattering of uptempo white pop.
“Traditionally the Hot 100 radio panel was married to Top-40 radio, back in the days when Top 40 reflected everything,” Mayfield notes. “When I was a kid, the same Top 40 playlist could have country, Motown, rock – whatever songs people were into. I’m not criticizing Top 40 for segmenting the way it has – they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do – but we began to recognize during the ’90s that the format wasn’t a reflection of as many tastes as it used to target.
“Rhythmic Top 40 stations were essentially playing hip-hop and R&B records exclusively, but we continued to include them even though their playlists were, in many cases, almost identical to the biggest R&B stations in their markets. That made the Hot 100 lean heavily in that direction, and it became more difficult for music that appealed to older pop listeners and other demographics to register on the chart, in part because rock- and country-oriented stations don’t rotate songs through the playlist as rapidly. So to counter that situation, which was becoming out of balance, we brought onto the airplay panel stations that were focusing more on adult contemporary, or country, or whatever was outside the narrowing realm of what the Rhythmic stations were playing.”
The divergence of the Hot 100 from the playlists of many Top 40 stations resulted, among other things, in the weekly syndicated countdown show American Top 40 ending its association with the Hot 100 in late 1991. Instead it used first the Billboard Airplay Monitor chart, then the Top 40-Mainstream chart. “When hip-hop was starting, pop radio couldn’t stand it,” Mayfield notes. “American Top 40 lost clearance because a number of stations couldn’t stand to let a rap song play during the countdown.”
Today, as hip-hop has become more established as the mainstream of pop music, its chart dominance is based less on the circumstances that propelled such hits as Puff Daddy’s “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” in 1997 – which were available as singles at a time when many of the biggest hits on radio were not – and more on actual across-the-board popularity. “Digital distribution changed the discrepancy between sales figures for different genres of singles, and we’ve been very aggressive at including as many of those methods of distribution as we can, from iTunes to subscription services to peer-to-peer,” Mayfield says. “We’re also trying very hard make sure we keep up with all the ways that people experience music these days, beyond the radio – from streaming music video at AOL to search and recommending services.
“We’re very confident, since about the time that legal downloads became a significant chunk of the market in ’04 or ’05, that we’re getting a better reflection on the Hot 100 of what high-rotation formats are playing and what people are buying.”