The Top 40 has long been the holy grail for pop music. With a song into the Top 40, an artist has a chance at becoming a household name, establishing a bigger fan base, and making her dream of becoming a famous musician a real possibility.
Top 40 is, essentially, shorthand for popularity. It's a phrase that dates back to the 1950s and radio disc jockeys who chose to count down the absolute Top songs in America for their listeners. As the physical format for music production shifted from the ten-inch 78-rpm record to the 7-inch 45-rpm in 1949, music became more and more focused on the single — one song — than on a full album. That became even more true when the iTunes store started allowing consumers to purchase singles separate from the full album.
In the past twenty years, everything about music has changed. We've transitioned from cassettes to CDs to digital downloads to streaming platforms quicker than the industry could figure out how to make a profit in every realm.
The Top 40 hasn't changed at all in importance — the best way to reach American listeners, hands down, is the radio, and the easiest way to get on the radio is to have a Top 40 hit. But the Top 40 home of The Beatles and Elvis doesn't exist anymore. Streaming changed the Top 40 and made it a less diverse, less interesting place.
Top 40 music is losing its genre divide.
The Billboard Hot 100, the most commonly used metric to determine Top 40 songs, has undergone several different iterations during its more than 60 year life-span, but none as drastic as the one currently happening. In 1991, Billboard partnered with Soundscan to better reflect digital sales. In 2012, the chart changed to include digital sales and streaming.
The Billboard Hot 100, because it for so long has been dominated by radio airplay, has for almost all of its existence been very pop- and dance-centric. For years, that also meant that the Top 40 in American radio was almost always very, very white. In the '50s and '60s, even, a song that was doing well on black American radio would be "covered" by a white band instead of just receiving airplay on a white-dominated station. Because the Top 40 took radio play and purchases into account — both areas with very white consumer bases — songs by white performers performed much better.
In order to survey all potential fan bases, the music charts have been divided into genre-specific charts. There are hip-hop/r&b charts, country charts, rock charts, Latin charts and Christian charts. These genre charts were meant to track the audience of these musicians work as much as the genre of music being produced. That, of course, divided the charts based on racial lines.
Since the 1940s, Billboard has had a chart tracking what black people in America are listening to. It's been called various things (Race Records, Hot Soul Singles, Rhythm & Blues, and—most recently—R&B/hip-hop). Collecting accurate data for that chart, because of race relations in the United States, has always been troublesome, and data was often wrong, resulting at least once in a song by a white group topping the chart. After that, Billboard reformulated the chart. As Chris Molanphy wrote for Pitchfork in 2014:
"Billboard refined the R&B chart’s formula to impose careful limits on what airplay and sales counted. It was clear that only radio stations specializing in R&B—and not Top 40 stations or other formats that might play rhythmic music — had their reported airplay baked into the chart…[sic]…Ultimately, what this approach meant was that the R&B chart was qualitatively different from the Hot 100 pop chart—both the songs on it and where they fell."
Occasionally throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, a hit could cross from the R&B chart to the Hot 100 or vice versa, but it was rare. Once Billboard shifted the way it counted songs in the early '90s, songs began to shift from other charts over to the Hot 100 chart more easily. In 1993, for example, 23 of the top 25 pop singles were crossovers from the R&B chart. Before the age of digital, black music had taken over the Hot 100. Every no. 1 single in 2004, in fact, was performed by a person of color.
The introduction of digital music changed the R&B/hip-hop chart substantially. As Molanphy argues in his piece for Pitchfork, the problem isn't that black listeners are no longer buying or listening to a different group of artists, the problem is that "There’s no such thing as a “black iTunes” or a “black YouTube.” African-Americans — and hardcore hip-hop and R&B fans of any ethnicity — mostly go to the same sites to purchase and stream songs as everyone else."
As speciality radio dropped off throughout the 00s, Billboard failed to modernize the charts from their original (non-digital formats), which allowed them to continue their autonomy from the Hot 100, even if they were a little outdated. In 2012, they updated the charts to incorporate digital sales. In 2013, they included streaming. Suddenly, the music that pop fans were buying en masse was messing up not only the R&B charts, but the country and Latin charts too.
Taylor Swift's pop hits started charting on the Hot Country list. Eminem, Macklemore, and Justin Timberlake started appearing on the R&B list. After 2012, instead of measuring the audience, the Billboard charts reflected plays and downloads. So what's popular on the Hot 100 chart becomes a chart-topper on the genre charts as well. Initially, the R&B chart measured black radio and black business plays. Now the R&B chart just measures which songs have been downloaded the most.
Streaming combined musical audiences into one large group, and smoothed out their intricacies. It's a change that can be seen as progress, but it's also one that drowns interesting information in a sea of popularity.
Music videos matter again
The most recent change in the Billboard charts is one that harkens back to an era when MTV was still one of the leading music discovery platforms, and a good — or controversial — music video could help rocket a song to number one. When Billboard changed the chart formula again in 2013, it added YouTube views to the way it calculates hits. "Generally speaking, our Hot 100 formula targets a ratio of sales (35-45%), airplay (30-40%) and streaming (20-30%)," Billboard editor Gary Trust wrote in January 2013.
That change meant that immediately, Baauer's "Harlem Shake" rocketted to no. 1. "Harlem Shake" is not a number one song. It was not played on the radio very often; it's annoying. Download sales were high, but videos made "Harlem Shake" a hit. The innumerable parodies made turned it into a viral video sensation. But each of those plays of each of those parodies, in the new system, counted toward the Hot 100. Without the YouTube views, "Harlem Shake" would have made the Top 15 on downloads alone, but it never would have hit number one.
“We want to measure how much consumption is going on, in whatever form a consumer chooses to consume something,” David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen told The New York Times in 2013. Most of the conversation around streaming services centers around Spotify, Pandora, and now Apple Music, but YouTube is one of the biggest music streaming services today.
YouTube has 1 billion unique viewers every single month. To put that in perspective, Apple has about 800 million accounts and Spotify has somewhere around 60 million. That means having a great music video matters again. A clip that's poignant or controversial can drive a single up to the number one slot.
Take Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," which hit number one in 2013.
Billboard said its charting came "50% from streaming, 43% from sales and just 7% from radio airplay. No surprise: the song drew a whopping 14.3 million U.S. streams in the chart's tracking week, according to Nielsen BDS." Thanks in part to the attention-grabbing visual of Miley Cyrus naked on a wrecking ball.
Videos continue to have an impact. As Chris Molanphy wrote for Slate when Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" hit number one:
"On its debut, it set a one-day Vevo record of more than 20 million views. Those video views, coupled with nearly 400,000 in digital sales of the single, the vast majority of them for the Kendrick remix, combined to pole-vault the song to No. 1."
While the YouTube play counter can do wonders for a song that has intense virality and isn't necessarily from a well-known artist — like Carly Rae Jepsen's 2012 hit "Call Me Maybe" — the numbers can be manipulated by pouring enough money and superstar status into a song. "Bad Blood," for example, isn't the strongest single on Swift's 1989 (even with the Kendrick Lamar remix), and the video itself isn't all that interesting. It's certainly nothing new. Yet it had enough hype and promotion behind it to snag Swift another number one single.
Ultimately, having streaming affect the Top 40 makes the chart-toppers a little less exciting. Instead of a new, unknown band topping a genre chart, gaining attention and crossing over to the Top 40, the charts look like clones of each other. Only four songs have topped the chart this year so far: "Uptown Funk," "Bad Blood," "Blank Space," and the ubiquitous "See You Again," which has also been at the top of the R&B/hip-hop chart since April.
The shift isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean there's a substantial risk that the only music being appreciated in the United States is whatever's popular.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.