Beyoncé and the surprising news about iTunes.

How popular culture gets popular.
July 21 2003 12:09 PM

Number 1 With a Whimper

What's it take to get your song on Billboard's newest chart? Not much.

The debut of Apple's iTunes online music store was widely hailed as a turning point in the mostly sorry relationship between the record industry and consumers who want to download songs. Now comes another noteworthy symbolic step: a digital download chart in Billboard. The official debut is in the July 19 issue, although the trade journal ran a "preview" chart in its July 12 edition. In both cases the No. 1 song was "Crazy in Love," by Beyoncé with Jay-Z—which also happened to be the No. 1 song on the general Hot 100 chart both weeks. (Nielsen SoundScan compiles the data for both charts.) That being the case, what does the new chart actually tell us?

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Maybe the most striking point is just how small the numbers are. The No. 1 track reached its perch on the strength of a mere 1,500 or so paid downloads. (Meanwhile, Beyoncé's new album sold 317,000 copies the same week.) The No. 10 song notched only about 500. Since these songs are selling for about a dollar apiece, you can look at these numbers and argue that all the trouble and effort of making the songs available hardly seems worth it if the top seller is only going to gross $1,500 a week—barely enough to buy Jay-Z a bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII. But of course the various parties involved in the download-for-pay game are positioning themselves for the long run; the point is just to (finally) get something viable out there.

In the short run, though, the numbers are so modest that a well-coordinated effort by a band with a devoted fan base and at least one song for sale on iTunes, Liquid Audio, Rhapsody, or one of the other services included in SoundScan's numbers could theoretically push that song to No. 1. (The chart doesn't track file-sharing services like Grokster.) For that matter, a moderately influential Weblogger could probably pick a song at random from the current inventory, harangue his or her audience to buy it during a particular time period, and put in the Top 10.

As it happens, the No. 10 song on the July 12 chart was Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time," from the 1984 album She's So Unusual. There's no obvious explanation for this, and the song isn't among the 25 entries on the July 19 chart. (It's one of just three that dropped out, meaning the chart is less volatile than one might guess, given those small numbers.) That's certainly the weirdest anomaly.

In general, the Top 25 on the digital and regular charts have only 10 songs in common, although the digital chart includes several tracks that were hits on the regular chart in the past year or so (such as "Lose Yourself," by Eminem, and "Beautiful," by Christina Aguilera). One striking discrepancy between the download chart and the top quarter of the Hot 100 is that the latter includes about twice as many hip-hop and R & B cuts. Another difference: Coldplay has no songs in the real Top 25 but three in the download Top 25.

It's silly to make huge generalizations too quickly, but here's one intriguing thought. Billboard says that Apple, the most aggressive player in this market so far, is selling an average of 500,000 tracks a week. If that's true, and it takes just 1,500 sales to be No. 1, then the variety of tracks that people are downloading must be extremely broad—particularly compared with, say, the variety of tracks that make up a typical Top 40 station's play list.

The real test for Apple's service will be the planned launch of a version for the PC market. But presumably the record industry is keeping a close eye on even these early figures. They may or may not learn the right lessons, but if Cyndi Lauper gets a big industry push anytime soon, you'll know why.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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