One of my online acquaintances created a music chart that helped to coin the neologism I would like to talk about today. What is instantiation? The term refers to the time when a given song reaches a widespread radio audience, currently calculated at around 40 million listener impressions during the seven-day rolling period, which demonstrates that a song has been played where enough people around the United States have heard it. Such a song requires either widespread appeal and heavy rotation on one format (like country or pop or adult contemporary) or at least some play on a variety of formats. The particular chart that my acquaintance created specifically looks at uninstantiated songs, which is songs that have not met a certain threshold of airplay yet and therefore have gained their chart position on the Billboard Hot 100 through either streams or sales.
There are, at present, three ways that a song can gain the points that allow it to chart and be seen as a “hit.” One of these is for people to go to a website (like iTunes) and to purchase the track and download it to their device. The second way to gain points is through streaming a song. Although the rules are somewhat complicated and one gains more points for streaming if one has a premium paid streaming service as opposed to a free streaming service, and streaming may not count if one is watching the wrong User Generated Content on YouTube, a certain number of streams equals a sale and counts for the song’s popularity. The third means of a song achieving popularity in the United States is for it to be played on the radio, something that is usually in the hand of corporate program directors and not “on-demand” in the way that sales and streaming can be. For a variety of reasons, certain types of music is consumed differently based on factors like the genre, age of the music listener, and the particular promotion strategy of the singer/management/label. So it happens that some songs are immensely popular on streaming but get no radio play at all (a common fate for late-period Eminem songs, for example), other songs sell well the first week and then crash after that (as happens to songs released by BST or Nicki Minaj), and still other songs achieve a high degree of popularity through massive radio play. Many songs combine these qualities, such that “You Say” was weak on streaming but strong on radio as well as sales, and some songs even manage to be strong on all categories, even if sales and streaming are often leading indicators of popularity and radio is frequently a lagging indicator.
Why does it matter when a song is instantiated, or if a song reaches that status? It so happens that by tracking the speed at which a song does (or does not) get promotion at radio helps us to understand something about the promotion behavior of a given artist, something that can change dramatically over time. For example, the recent song “Yummy” by Justin Bieber was widely panned upon release as being a terrible song, and yet when it was released it had an instant radio promotion deal that gave it “instant instantiation,” despite the lack of positive feedback from listening audiences, which sent the song crashing down the charts despite its initial push. At other times, though, it takes some songs, like Hasley’s “You Should Be Sad,” or Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go,” a fair amount of time before they reach a large enough listening audience to hit the mainstream. With Capaldi’s song, which has the possibility of being his second hit, as it has just hit the Top 50, it is likely that slow and steady radio gains are responsible for the song’s rising position given its general lack of power in other metrics like sales and streaming. Still, the power of Capaldi in radio given the massive and lengthy success of his first hit, “Someone You Loved,” which has spent about a year on the Billboard Hot 100 so far, is not to be underestimated.
What is the point of seeing the gap between sales/streaming and radio? A large part of the reason why one would want to know which songs were popular without a large degree of radio support is that such artists are frequently judged as being more “organic” in their appeal. Given the highly controlled and centralized nature of contemporary radio, it is hard to break into the radio without the support of a promotional budget. Labels can only push so many artists and so many songs at a time, and radio stations like playing a small number of popular songs on heavy rotation rather than a larger number of songs less often. The end result is that while a lot of tracks from a given artist can stream or sale because the customer can listen to an album over and over again, increasing streaming numbers to a high degree across the whole album, or purchase a song or album easily, a radio listener is likely to only hear a very small amount of songs from a given artist, unless different songs are being promoted to different formats. Instantiation marks the moment when a song has broken through enough on radio that it is going to be heard passively by a lot of people, and that it has passed through the gate of program directors at radio stations and has achieved enough status to be on at least some level of rotation at radio formats. Achieving that status is frequently a sign that the song has been judged as being accessible to a mainstream audience.
There are some artists who do not have a good time achieving this success at present. I noted that contemporary Eminem has not had a great deal of fortune having his songs played on the radio. Sometimes artists at the beginning of their career have a hard time getting played on the radio. For example, the first few hit songs by Post Malone took a very long time to achieve a high degree of radio airplay, and it was not until he had several big hits that radio got on board with him and started adding his songs faster, at least some of them. Some people have commented that trap production tends to alienate mainstream radio listeners, and so songs that have an EDM (electronic dance music) or pop production are an easier sell because such songs sound more melodic and pleasant, thus giving them an advantage for radio play. Meanwhile, trap songs stream extremely well, meaning that sometimes there is a substantial divide between music that younger people stream by choice and music that older people listen to by choice on the radio. This divide can be seen in the different numbers a song achieves through various channels, and provides the chart watcher with insight as to what it is that is allowing some songs to immediately pass through the gates to radio and keeps other songs outside and unable to reach a radio audience.