JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. 10/27/12 NY Times
Three weeks ago, the editors at Billboard, who for decades have defined what makes an American hit, shook up the song charts for various genres.
The magazine started counting digital sales and online streams along with radio airplay in its tallies for most major formats. It also created two new charts using the same criteria, breaking out rap songs in one and R&B songs in a second.
The results have given stars with a pop-oriented sound and broad crossover appeal an advantage over other artists, upsetting and puzzling some music fans. Take Psy, the pudgy South Korean pop star with the infectious dance moves whose video “Gangnam Style” went viral on the Internet. Since the new rules took effect, “Gangnam Style” has been the No. 1 song on the new Rap Songs chart for the last three weeks, even though Psy does not rap on the track and most American hip-hop radio stations have yet to embrace him as a bona fide rapper.
On the Hot Country Songs chart, Taylor Swift’s pop single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” has held the No. 1 position for three weeks, even as many country stations have rejected it, and Rihanna’s pop hit “Diamonds“ has remained atop the Hot R&B-Hip Hop Songs chart, causing dismay among R&B purists.
Bill Werde, Billboard’s editorial director, said the shake-up was necessary to reflect changes in the way people consume music these days. There was a time when radio programmers — and the record labels who lobbied them — largely defined the charts, using surveys of their listeners and their gut instincts to select hits. Now the Internet gives fans a greater say, as people buy music from online stores, stream it through services like Spotify or listen to it on video sites like YouTube and Vevo.
“Three weeks ago, the main genre charts only reflected FM radio play,” Mr. Werde said. “Every fan out there in the world knows and everyone in the music business knows that is not the business we are in anymore, that a stream on Rhapsody or Spotify, or a download at iTunes or Amazon — all these different things — are a meaningful part of the fan experience. And to have genre charts that don’t reflect that? I can’t believe anyone would be arguing for that.”
Still, some people did. The changes caused a backlash on Twitter and other online forums from some purists among hip-hop, country and R&B fans. A headline on one commentator’s blog was “Billboard Chart Changes — R.I.P. R&B Music.” The Web site Saving Country Music lamented that “these new rules could cause the largest wholesale power shift to superstars that music has ever seen.”
Psy’s climb up the rap chart was also criticized. “Trust me when I tell you hip-hop does not consider Psy rap,” said Ebro Darden, the program director at Hot 97 (WQHT, 97.1 FM) the leading hip-hop station in New York. “Billboard has pull, but they cannot make people who live hip-hop believe Psy is rap.”
Most of the criticism, however, has come from fan groups with narrow interests. Carrie Underwood fans were furious that her song “Blown Away” was blocked from No. 1 by Ms. Swift’s pop tune, even though Ms. Underwood’s track is being played far more on country radio stations.
Some R&B and hip-hop fans were dismayed that Rihanna’s song jumped abruptly to No. 1 from No. 66, and that it has remained at the top of the chart ever since. Fans of R&B singer Brandy were particularly incensed, because her song “Put It Down,” featuring Chris Brown, which had been in the Top 10, dropped like a stone after the rule change, even though it remains a favorite on urban radio stations.
An online petition was started to persuade Billboard to undo the changes and has gathered 625 signatures, a small number for an Internet-based campaign.
Mr. Werde characterizes the detractors as a “vocal minority” and has stood firm in the face of the criticism, arguing in columns and online discussions that the definition of a hit has changed and Billboard must keep up with the times.
Similar changes were made a few months ago to the Hot 100 song chart, the main chart that measures popularity across genres, and they have been widely accepted by the industry. Some critics have said there is a subtle price to pay for the new rules. For starters, it becomes harder for artists of a traditional bent, or whose work lacks crossover appeal, to attain a No. 1 hit in their genre.
Billboard made one other change to its methodology that rewards crossover hits. Previously, the magazine only counted airplay on country stations for the country chart, and spins on R&B stations for the R&B chart, and so on. Now it is counting all the plays a song receives on 1,200 stations across genres.
Kyle Coroneos, who writes a blog for the Saving Country Music site, said Billboard’s decision to count the airplay a country song gets on other formats is important. This means that traditional country artists, whose songs are played only on country stations, will be pushed down deeper into the charts, while pop-oriented stars, like Ms. Swift or Lady Antebellum, crowd the Top 10. Labels in turn are likely to encourage artists to make country records with a pop flavor, he said.
“It erodes the autonomy of the country charts in general,” he said. “I have a theory all the genres of music are coagulating into one big monogenre and this emphasizes that.”
Kyle Bylin, an analyst for Live Nation Labs, a blog about technology and music, said that the new rules also mean artists who enjoy a high volume of online sales or streams can remain at the top of the charts for longer periods, even after radio programmers have taken their songs out of heavy rotation.
What’s more, the emphasis on streaming and sales of digital tracks makes it easier for an act with a blockbuster album to dominate a genre chart. One example is Mumford & Sons, the folk-rock group from Britain. Their album “Babel” has sold more than 900,000 copies since it was released a month ago, most of them digital, and it has also broken records for streaming on Spotify.
The first single from the album, “I Will Wait,” has remained in the Top 10 of the rock songs chart all month, mostly on the strength of airplay on alternative rock stations. But when the rule change came, seven more songs from “Babel,” buoyed by streaming on Spotify and digital sales, entered the Top 20 on the rock chart.
At the same time, Fun.’s “Some Nights,” which had been sliding down the chart but was still selling well online, surged back to the No. 1 slot and has stayed there.
Mr. Werde acknowledged that the new rules may make it harder for artists with little cross-genre appeal to get a No. 1 song, but the new rules also provide a “clearer reflection of what’s actually being consumed in the music space.” Modern charts need to take in more than radio to measure a song’s popularity, he said, and Billboard has plans to go further, folding data from YouTube and Vevo into its charts as well.
“A hit doesn’t just look like one thing anymore,” he wrote in a recent column answering critics.