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Call me Jolly Rancher…
Kelefa Sanneh’s article in the Times yesterday made much of the fact that D4L, a group that will probably not have another hit and can’t seem to sell a whole lot of albums, has the number one song in the country this week. Sanneh highlights how the singles chart has changed since singles were phased out of record-label marketing plans about ten years ago and how it’s changed again since Billboard began counting iTunes downloads on the singles chart last year. It’s a pretty substantive change, but the Billboard charts still don’t offer a particularly accurate picture of what people actually want to hear at any given moment. It’s still heavily dependent on radio play, and radio stations don’t necessarily play the most popular stuff in the country, based on a weird and impenetrable matrix of independent-promoter pseudo-payola and don’t-upset-anyone conservative playlist-structuring. And still we have “Laffy Taffy,” a song that seems to annoy the piss out of about 90% of the population, as the #1 song, and that has everything to do with the song’s status as the most downloaded song in the history of iTunes. It’s not the first song to be catapulted to a Billboard #1 since the magazine started counting downloads; that eternal honor belongs to “Hollaback Girl.” But it is the first time that downloads have managed to propel a previously unknown group to the top of the charts, and that’s something.
But the Billboard charts are still way behind the iTunes chart; “Laffy Taffy” has already slid down to #8 on iTunes. And so the iTunes chart emerges as a much better indicator of the most popular songs in the country, since it shows which songs people are actually willing to pay money to hear, rather than which ones people don’t mind zoning out to on their commute home. There’s plenty of crossover between the two lists, of course; both top tens include six of the same songs. But there’s still a strange sort of democracy at work on the iTunes chart. The #1 song on iTunes today is Beyonce’s “Check On It,” a ridiculously catchy little jam that’s notable in all sorts of small ways: it’s the absolute pinnacle of Swizz Beats’ utterly inexplicable commercial comeback, it’s got the sexiest video I’ve seen in probably a couple of years, it’s given Bun B a chance to get on VH-1 at 9 a.m. just a year and a half after we were lucky to see him on BET in the middle of the night. Bun and Slim Thug’s unsubstantial cameos are the only indication Beyonce has publicly given that she’s from Houston other than that one time that Lil Flip jumped on the “Naughty Girl” remix. Slim Thug seems to be staring at something just off-camera in the video. But here’s what stands out the most: it peaked at #7 on the Billboard chart, and this week it’s slid down to #10, even though more people are willing to pay 99 cents for this song than for any other. Meanwhile, Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” still somehow holding on at #9 on the iTunes chart, is still way up there at #3 on Billboard. Gavin DeGraw’s “We Belong Together,” which I guess is from the Tristan & Isolde sountrack or something, is #4 on iTunes but nowhere to be found on Billboard.
All this adds up to mean something. Radio stations basically haven’t cared for years what people want to hear, at least not more than they care about any number of financial considerations. I’m not sure if the difference between the two charts shows that people are going to stop listening to the radio altogether and just download stuff. But there are alternatives now, and these alternatives are starting to put a hurting on the companies that have played gatekeeper for years. Labels are losing money; maybe radio stations will too. One can hope.