Billboard Hot 100 Rant: PSY should be #1

25 Oct

As far as I can tell, the goal of the Billboard Hot 100 is to figure out what the most popular song in the country is.  However, the method to figuring out what that is is not always so clear.

Billboard has currently settled on some secret combination of radio play, digital downloads and on-demand streaming songs from a limited number of streaming services, including Spotify.  This computation is done through a compilation of a mystical quantity known as “chart points,”  which Billboard, in their articles on Wednesdays announcing the top 10, makes reference to.   Two weeks ago, Maroon 5 topped PSY by a mere 500 “chart points”!  What a close one!  Or is it?  They tell us it is, but who really knows, because it’s a completely proprietary measure, which makes it extremely frustrating to vent specific criticism for how the charts should be measured, because there’s no way to test it.

For comparison, imagine if major league baseball just released MVP standings every week, saying where the main candidates ranked in a couple of key categories (say hitting, defense, and baserunning as the digital downloads, streaming and radio respectively), but not exactly how MVP standings are calculated, so Mike Trout might lead Miguel Cabrera by 100 MVP points, and you might think that’s too many but it’d be hard to figure out exactly why, or test your assumptions and suggest ways to reweigh.  This actually even more closely resembles the BCS standings in college football, but for all the frustration with those standings, the weights assigned to each category are at least in public view.

This is particularly frustrating in recent days due to the unusual situation of PSY’s Gangnam Style, a rap song from an unknown artist in Korean, hanging in at #2, knocking on the door of #1.  PSY tops two thirds of the factors which go into compiling the Hot 100, digital downloads and on-demand streaming, which leads us to talk about the far more complicated third factor, radio play.

Radio play is an indirect measure of popularity; while individuals determine on-demand streaming and digital downloads directly, they only have an indirect effect on radio playlists, which are directly determined by corporate radio overlords (I don’t mean this in a negative way as much as a descriptive way).  This doesn’t necessarily mean radio shouldn’t count at all; it is indirectly controlled by music consumers (there’s a reason that radio and download lists most of the time at least share many of the same songs, if in a slightly different order) and it certainly is many people’s primary exposure to pop music.  Because of the indirect control, however, a song’s popularity on radio tends to lag behind its popularity with downloads and streaming, as radio starts picking up on things that people have shown interest in weeks and months after the fact.  This happens particularly with songs by artists who are not already superstars.  A Rihanna song is far more likely to get immediate airplay than say, a Carly Rae Jepsen song would have been eight months ago (or a fun. song or a Gotye song); in fact, mind bogglingly, 9 week Hot 100 #1 “Call Me Maybe” never actually topped the radio charts.

Still, this over-reliance on radio is magnified even more with PSY because Gangnam Style is, as previously mentioned, #1 on digital downloads and #1 on on demand streaming, it can only muster a relatively lowly #12 on radio play.

I’m not exactly sure if a song has ever hit #1 on both of those other charts while being so low on radio play, but I highly doubt it (note: several songs have charted #1 on downloads while being much lower on radio play due to huge first week download numbers while radio play lags behind, but not both download and on-demand streaming as far as I know).  I have absolutely no way of knowing exactly what’s keeping PSY at #12 on radio songs, far below its placement on the other charts, but it makes sense to assume at least part is the fact that it’s in Korean.  Rock and country songs have difficulty breaking onto pop radio, and take far longer than pop songs by popular singers if they do break through eventually, but this language issue is something entirely different and almost definitely more intractable.  It’s frustrating that the people have spoken so clearly by having PSY dominate the downloads charts most of the past month (only topped by weekly Taylor Swift releases before her new album, which faded fast) and having three straight weeks of atop the streaming chart, but there’s basically nothing people can do anymore to push the song to #1.

There’s a second huge caveat to Billboard’s method of determining the most popular songs in the US.  Youtube isn’t counted.  Youtube is the most used on-demand streaming service, and to not count it is to leave out a huge chunk of streaming music listens, more than any of the streaming services now included.

I don’t actually and never can know how much emphasis the Hot 100 formula currently puts on radio songs so I can’t say definitively it’s too much, but I’m going to say it anyway, because the abject lack of transparency gives me freedom to rant based on assumptions and guesses.  PSY should be #1.  The people have spoken definitively.

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