On The Dial: Charting 2017

Photo by Randy Stern

Your infotainment system – OK, radio – has been an entertaining you all year long. You tune it in and your song comes on…

Then, someone records the playback of it. Another records the purchase of the song for your smartphone or other musical devices you use these days. In the end, Billboard magazine publishes a year-end music chart that tells you the best of the year. You compare your files to see if they match what Billboard has on their annual chart.

In the past, song sales were based on actual record sales. Actual vinyl records with a big hole in the middle. They were played on a turntable at 45 RPM. They called them “singles.” Some charts even took into consideration how many times those singles were played on their respective radio stations across the country. Then, Billboard publishes them in their charts.

And, remember when radio stations actually played those songs that made you buy those singles?

I can go on with the rituals of Gold and Platinum certified records of the past. However, a newer formula is in place, thanks to the changes in the way we listen to music.

Today, Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart is now based on each song’s radio airplay, sales on physical and digital copies of each song or album – depending on the chart – and online streaming traffic in the USA. Once compiled, then the charts are published every Tuesday based on weekly data of these songs and albums.

You are probably wondering who Billboard is and why they are the official music charts in this country. They happen to be the main publication of the music industry, similar to Crain’s Automotive News is for the – you guessed it – the automotive industry. It has always been since 1894 when it was first published. Today, Billboard is a powerful player in the entertainment industry, combined with the Hollywood Reporter, as the main resource for the entire music industry – not just one genre of it. To know what’s popular in today’s music, you have to go to the source.

Using many technologies, including real-time scanning at point-of-sale terminals that sell actual albums to real-time radio reporting software, the Billboard Top 100 is a result of a data crunch that the music industry takes for granted today. It used to be that the Billboard charts held a larger esteem and were an all-important instrument on music success. Sadly, the consolidation of music distributors, the presence of streaming and digital delivery services have changed the landscape of music to the point where an artist cannot rely on song and album sales alone for success.

Granted, an artist would be able to recoup more income from these revenue streams from their music if they self-produced, wrote, recorded, and distributed their own music. However, if you listen to SiriusXM’s Volume radio station, you will hear a continuous theme of the change away from reliance on music sales to net concert revenue as the way to make a living in the industry. Touring is where today’s musicians are having to cut their teeth away from the normal music sales channels.

The economic reality of digital and streaming music is why a concert ticket averages as much as they are today. Would you pay over $100 for an Ed Sheeran concert ticket, even though you spent $10-15 for his latest album, “Divide”? The truth is that his fans will do whatever they need to fulfill their love of this artist…

Speaking of the ginger-haired British pop star, Sheeran is on the top spot of Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 songs for 2017 – “The Shape of You.” He is followed by Luis Fonsi (with Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber), Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar, The Chainsmokers (with Coldplay), Migos (with Lil’ Uzi Vert), The Chainsmokers (again, this time with Halsey), Sam Hunt, Imagine Dragons, and Post Malone (with Migos’ Quavo) rounding out the Top 10 songs of the year-end Hot 100.

That last paragraph sounded like the late Casey Kasem, doesn’t it?

Back in my day, a lot of us could not get a copy of Billboard to see these charts. Nor did we have the Internet, so we can go on Billboard.com to actually see them. We tuned into our local Top 40 radio station and heard “America’s Top 40” which was the top 40 songs on that week’s Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The host, Casey Kasem, delivered not only these songs, but a little story behind each one. You learned a lot about these artists as the chart progressed from number 40 to number one. Kasem even told you which songs were gaining ground, losing ground, jumped the highest on the chart, dropped the most…and so forth.

Through the voice of Kasem, you saw the ebb and flow of the music industry. If you go back to when I was born, it was the explosion of the British Invasion with The Beatles taking the lead, trading the top spot with the musical movement from Detroit known as Motown. Then came psychedelic rock, a watered-down version of the popular music scene through the mellow 1970s leading into Disco, New Wave, Hair Metal, Grunge, and Hip-Hop.

It was almost that simple to follow. But, trends come and go. Yet, some genres remain today. Hip-Hop was seen as an underground movement coming up for air when Sylvia Robinson catapulted The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” onto Top 40 radio is some markets in 1979. Today, some of its most seminal artists now reside in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, much to the chagrin of fans of Judas Priest and other “rock” acts.

We have changed the way we consume music. Billboard changed the way they chart the music we listen to. We also have changed the way we find out who had the best-selling song of the year. Is this change good? What do you think…


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