On The Timing Of Charts

As I note from time to time, I spend a great deal of time pondering and analyzing music charts and their statistics, and have done so for a very long time.  Fairly frequently throughout the week I will note updates on a variety of people who attempt to estimate the annual charts and figure out which songs are locked on to Billboard’s yearly top 100 songs of the year.  One of the advantages to understanding which of the songs are locked on to it is that if a song is particularly good or bad in one’s personal opinion, it is an easy thing to prepare a bit early for what one is going to say about it, for better or worse, and this allows one to get content out much faster as soon as the top 100 list is created.  When one watches the patterns of these charts, it becomes evident that as the year progresses, it becomes easier and easier to note which hits are going to make it, to the point that the last few weeks, it becomes impossible for any new song, no matter how popular, to break through in a few weeks what has taken the top songs a year to earn in terms of points.  This happened last year, for example, when a new debut song by Ariana Grande, the title track of her latest album, “Thank You, Next,” was #1 for the final two weeks of the year, but could not earn enough points in those two weeks to make the list for 2018, although it has guaranteed a high spot in 2019’s list, when it comes out in December, due to having been #1 at the start of the new chart year.

In general, the chart estimators use one of two techniques to estimate the songs that will end up on the top 100 chart for the year.  Some of them seek to estimate the points that each song is earning from sales, streaming, and radio, making a note of any rule changes that Billboard makes that affects these metrics.  The rest of the charts seek in a far less complicated way to use the chart positions of a song to estimate its placement on the Hot 100 chart.  Speaking personally, I find the point estimation to be the most accurate of the approaches, not least because of the high degree of variation that exists at the top of the charts and the very low degree of variation that exists as you move down.  For example, the current #1 hit, “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, has averaged somewhere around 75,000 to 80,000 points per week at #1 over the course of its two month run (so far).  The second place song, in contrast, has often only gotten 30,000 points or less, and to get into the top 10 it has at times only been necessary to get slightly more than 20,000 points.  In contrast, a song that is around #50 on the charts often has around 10,000 points, and even songs around #100 that are barely on the charts at all typically have 6,000 points or more.  Yet when one does ordinal rankings, a song at #2 with 35,000 points would get 99 points where a song at #100, with around 6,000 points, would get 1 point.  It is easy to see where this estimation can fail spectacularly, when one fails to account for a dominant #1 hit or the relative equality of songs throughout the rest of the chart.

It is also worth noting that the average #100 song for the year typically earns a bit less than 200,000 points, usually around 180,000 to 190,000, over the course of an entire year.  The most dominant #1 hit of the past decade, Adele’s “Hello,” averaged about 110,000 points or so during its first seven weeks at #1.  (For the record, “Old Town Road” is #2 by that metric among the most dominant hits of the same period.)  If you average around 100,000 points per week as a historically dominant #1 hit that has a lot of sales, streaming, and radio, you might only need two weeks at #1 to clinch a spot on the year end.  If you are a marginal #1 hit with around 30,000 points, you would need six weeks at that pace to clinch a spot.  If you are a fairly average top ten hit, it would take you about eight to ten weeks at between 20,000 and 25,000 points to clinch a spot in the year end.  Likewise, it would take a song that hovered in the top 40 but was not a particularly massive hit around 20 weeks or so to clinch a spot on the year end charts.  Given the fact that historically dominant #1 hits are very rare, it stands to reason that there will be far more songs that will be able to ensure their place on the list of the most popular songs in a given year by virtue of longevity than by virtue of having had a high degree of chart success in any given week.  Sometimes this tendency can be taken to extremes.  For example, the song “You Say” by Lauren Daigle, a rare crossover from contemporary Christian radio, stayed on the charts for around 40 weeks, despite never having reached higher than #29 on the Hot 100 charts.  It is predicted to be between #50 and #60 on the year end chart, even with missing quite a few weeks to last year, because of that longevity and consistency, and this is a pattern that has been repeatedly rewarded on the year end charts for the last few years.  Those songs that manage to stay just popular enough over the long haul to avoid recurrency are able to end up in the year end charts, even a very modest performer like “You Say” or Lil Baby’s “Close Friends,” which spent most of its chart run in the 50’s and 60’s but managed to gain little by little to the point where it remains on the charts in the 50’s even after thirty weeks on the chart, or the similarly persistent but not very high charting “When The Party’s Over” by Billie Eilish, which has similarly charted with a high degree of longevity, earned a spot on the year end list, and never risen higher than #29 at all.

All of this suggests that there are certain ways that one could, if one wanted, ensure one’s success on the charts.  One simply needs to find a way to stave off the chart rules concerning recurrency, by which songs that have fallen below #50 and are not rising in airplay after 20 weeks, as well as songs that have fallen below #25 after 52 weeks on the chart, are removed from the chart proper.  Obviously, the best way to avoid recurrency is to have enough points in order to stay in the charts long enough to make the year-end list.  There are three ways to get chart points–selling copies (almost all digital copies at this point), getting streamed on You Tube, Spotify, and iTunes (among other places), or getting radio airplay.  If one has a devoted fan base that will stream music videos or songs repeatedly, then one is likely to do well on the charts anyway, but most acts have a fairly large amount of casual fans who will listen to a song happily enough if it shows up on the radio but not stream it dozens of times per week.  Generally this means that for a song to do well enough it needs to be on the radio consistently enough to log in its full 20 weeks on the chart, with as many of those in the top 40 as possible.

Some genres do a better job than others with this.  One of the genres that is repeatedly slighted when it comes to hits is country radio, which happens because radio deejays for Country stations tend to change over songs at a much faster rate than that of many other genres of radio.  One can listen to adult contemporary stations and year the same songs day after day, month after month, and year after year, racking up points.  For a country song, though, one might only get ten to fifteen weeks to get points, which means that many country songs are just outside of the top 100 and fail to collect the points that would be necessary for them to reach the year end charts unless they have managed to cross over to adult contemporary or, less often, pop, where one can get more streams for a longer period of time and thus push a song over the top.  This is something that has happened for Dan & Shay’s “Tequilla” and may be enough to push their “Speechless” into the charts again as well.  The same would be true if a song manages to capture enough sales to get it more points than the average country song, something that could benefit a song like Blake Shelton’s “God’s Country,” which has had quite a few strong sales weeks as it has gained airplay.  Yet while artists in other genres are quite skilled when it comes to mastering the importance of chart timing and longevity, country has seemed to lag behind the times when it comes to charting strategy, and its artists have suffered when it comes to the year end chart rankings when compared with artists from other genres, like Latin or R&B or Adult Contemporary, where songs can just linger on for truly legendary lengths of time in order to ensure their placement in the year end list and their legitimacy as hits.  Given the rules that one has to work with, what is to be done, since one needs to time one’s chart run properly if one is to receive the full rewards of it, and needs to ensure a great deal of longevity so that one can have 30 or more weeks to gain the points necessary to guarantee a spot on the year end list and thus be better remembered in music history?

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Music History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On The Timing Of Charts

  1. Catharine E. Martin says:

    It appears to be a combination of name recognition, strategy, timing and luck. The record label and the minds behind it usually sort those things out, having been in the business long enough to sense the trends. But still, as you pointed out, the tastes of the public can be tricky because audience likes and dislikes are subjective. Even a favorite musician can be on top one minute and a has-been the next. New sounds can either be construed as catchy and cool or take a very long time to kick in. Public taste may easily surprise the label and cause decisions to be made about carrying a musician that may end up to be costly. The point system can be unfair to the artist, but it may also end up making him or her a household name. It’s a crap shoot.

    • Yes, and I must admit that I find both the fickleness of popular tastes and the efforts on the part of various business interests to try to manipulate those tastes to be very interesting areas to ponder and study.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s