Archive forMay, 2005

iTUNES: SAVING ROCK, ONE HIT AT A TIME

    Adding iTunes sales to Billboard’s venerable singles charts may make them more exciting. But more than anything, it smells like affirmative action for white rock stars. And that may not be a bad thing.

Two notable things occurred in the Top 10 of this week’s pop charts. When I say charts, I’m of course referring to Billboard’s – specifically the Hot 100, the granddaddy of all singles charts.

First, Gwen Stefani scored her first #1 pop hit ever – with or without No Doubt – as her goofy stomp-along ditty “Hollaback Girl” knocked Fitty Cent from the top slot.

Second, much-beloved U.K. wimp-rockers Coldplay scored their biggest U.S. hit, as “Speed of Sound” debuted all the way at #8. If you’re a chart-watcher, you appreciate how rare Top 10 debuts are – most singles debut somewhere below the Top 40 and work their way up.

At first glance, these two chart feats are notable achievements for both acts. But they’re notable for less obvious reasons, too. Neither feat would have even been possible without a change Billboard made to its charts about 10 weeks ago.

In February – less than two years after the launch of Apple’s phenomenally successful iTunes Music Store – Billboard started adding sales of digital songs into its singles charts. This includes not just iTunes sales but also sales from competitors like Napster, Rhapsody and so on – any legal digital song-seller (read: no Kazaa). Of course, iTunes is by far the market leader.

This move by Billboard signals that the legal digital-songs market has come of age. It’s a welcome improvement to the charts, especially after the virtual disappearance of the physical singles market – 45s, cassingles and CD-singles – during the 1990s. But who knew the change would produce results so fast?

Bluntly put, Stefani’s hit is the first #1 song by a white person, any white person, since June 2003, when American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken had a lone week at the top with his flash-in-the-pan single “This Is the Night.” If you exclude American Idol songs (which is fair; the show is a chart aberration, and its “hits” get little radio airplay), the last honkie to top the Hot 100 was Eminem, with 2002’s “Lose Yourself.” Leave off white people who rap, and the last chart-topper that never even appeared on a corresponding R&B or hip-hop chart was Nickelback’s 2001 faux-grunge smash “How You Remind Me.”

As for Coldplay, they’re the first British band of any kind to debut in the Billboard Top 10 since the Beatles in 1970. Coldplay sells truckloads of albums, but limeys with guitars don’t usually have exploding pop singles like this. Or any group of people this pale.

What’s going on? And what’s with my obsession with race? I’m less obsessed with race than I am with genre – but it’s impossible to talk about one without the other. (No, seriously: Billboard’s first-ever R&B chart, launched in the 1950s before the term “rhythm and blues” had been coined, was called “Race Records.” Ugh.)

The 1980s were a fun time for pop music but, in retrospect, a somewhat embarrassing time for music charts. That’s because hip-hop – the decade’s most important musical development, and the most influential black-music movement since Motown – was sorely underrepresented on the Billboard charts. Rap songs began crossing over to the pop charts as early as 1979, but the records’ chart positions hardly reflected their popularity. That’s because the ’80s was the tail end of the Bad Old Days of untrustworthy charts: the “data” going into Billboard was based on phone calls to radio programmers and record store owners, and boy could that “data” be fudged (bought, influenced, massaged).

For whatever reason – I’ll let you infer – radio and retail mucky-mucks in the ’80s were reluctant to report just how many rap songs they were playing and selling. Countless rap hits – “The Message,” “White Lines,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” “The Show” – missed the Top 40 altogether. In 1986, Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” did make the Top 10; but ask anyone who was a teenager in ‘86 and they’d tell you that was the song of the summer. (Meanwhile, the Hot 100 was being topped by Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love.”) In 1988, Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” barely scraped Billboard’s Top 20, and yet it sold two million singles – more than every single in the Top 10 combined. In 1989, Tone Loc peaked at #2 with “Wild Thing,” impressive until you consider that it sold four million copies and was, briefly, America’s third-best-selling single of all time, after “White Christmas” and “We Are the World”; by all rights, it should’ve been #1 and stayed there for months.

This sorry state of affairs continued until the music industry’s Big Bang moment in 1991: the chart launch of SoundScan. We now take it for granted, but the introduction to Billboard of accurate sales counts of CDs and tapes – made possible by UPC barcode scanning – changed the charts overnight.

Mostly, it uncovered a lot of dirty little secrets. For one, rap was big – bigger than any middle-aged white record-store owner had either noticed or been willing to admit. (The other big genre beneficiary: country. Garth Brooks’s entire career can effectively be credited to SoundScan.) That same year, Billboard added computerized radio counts to its charts, too. With the human element removed, Billboard’s charts became more accurate than ever and arguably became a model for all media industries. To this day, television ratings, book sales and movie attendance are still not tallied as accurately as music is.

Back in 1991, I thought hip-hop was going to need some kind of “affirmative action” to get a fair shake on the charts. When I was a junior in college in ‘91, I devoted a column in the school paper to hip-hop, bemoaning that it wasn’t more fairly valued by the music industry. Rap, I said, was more important than statistics suggested and deserved a leg up.

Boy, did I get my wish. As it turned out, hip-hop didn’t need affirmative action; all it needed to get its props was better data. The ’90s became the decade of the pendulum shift. Rock had its last hurrah thanks to grunge, but by the middle of the decade hip-hop and R&B were overtaking rock and pop on the charts. As early as 1993, Billboard’s top 20 pop singles of the year were all crossover hits from the R&B and rap charts. By the end of the decade, with the erstwhile Puff Daddy ruling the charts, white boys, whether rockers or crooners, had to restyle themselves as mini-gangstas just to make the charts. Even the Barenaked Ladies rapped…sorta.

At least there were rock hits in the ’90s. Halfway through the ’00s, I often look at the charts and gasp, what have we done? Fourteen years after I wished for hip-hop to get a higher profile on the charts, hip-hop has staged an all-out coup, relegating rock and pop to sideshows. It’s nearly impossible for a rock act to top the charts now, and very difficult for white pop acts. For an entire generation of young music fans, hip-hop is “pop,” and by all rights it should be ruling the charts. But a slew of culturally relevant songs by – again, to be blunt – white people have performed pitifully on the charts since the mid-’90s.

That U2 song you heard everywhere last fall, the one in the iPod commercial? It never even made Billboard’s Top 20. Neither did that Sheryl Crow song you keep hearing in the check-out line at the drug store. What about those Norah Jones songs that cleaned up at the Grammys and infiltrated Starbucks nationwide? She barely scraped the Top 30. Beck, Green Day, Radiohead, the Dave Matthews Band, the Strokes, the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand? In each case (at least since the mid-1990s), these apparently huge, radio-friendly acts have had no Top 40 pop hits at all.

I love hip-hop, but I love rock and pop, too. And it’s not fuddy-duddy or racist to suggest that white-people-with-guitars music has gotten the shaft in recent years. If you’re a fan of popular music, looking at the Billboard pop charts for the last decade has been a surreal experience. “These are the biggest songs in the country?” you ask yourself. “These sure aren’t the songs I’m hearing everywhere.” This must be how country fans have felt for decades – like the music that’s huge in their neck of the woods is actually in some ghetto, marginalized by the mainstream. Pop and rock used to be that mainstream, and hip-hop was in the ghetto with country (undeservedly, in both cases). Now the worm has turned: hip-hop is the Sound of Young America, and rock and pop look awfully small.

Except they’re not that small: rock and pop acts still sell millions of albums (i.e., full-length CDs). Billboard’s album charts are based purely on sales of CDs – no radio play, no singles sales – and here, rock and rap battle on a pretty even playing field (this week’s champ: Bruce Springsteen; three weeks ago, it was 50 Cent). Even as hip-hop and R&B make up an increasing percentage of the music business’s annual album sales, rock and pop albums still outsell them by a decent margin.

Clearly, even among the most active music fans – from middle-aged yuppies to obsessive teenagers – rock is still part of the pop landscape. It’s just that many of them buy full-length albums, and the singles charts don’t reflect that. Or maybe, if a CD looks overpriced or laden with filler, they buy nothing at all. It doesn’t help that the industry stopped releasing singles to record stores years ago, terrified of losing that lucrative CD sale. For all sorts of good reasons, rock hasn’t been a major force on the pop charts for a long time. But rock fans still live in a world where rock acts with big new rock songs dominate their radios, their iPods, their brains. The problem is, on a singles chart, how do you measure that?

Which brings us back to digital music. The magic of iTunes is that it unpacks the album. If a rock fan is interested in Franz Ferdinand, she can buy a CD, or she can, for 99 cents, download “Take Me Out” – or a non-hit, like “The Dark of the Matinee,” or anything that tickles her ear. Same goes for hip-hop acts – 50 Cent might pick out his next single by noticing what’s selling at iTunes. Songs that the modern music industry would never dream of offering for sale as singles in a regular record store are on-sale, a la carte, online. Meanwhile, songs that are getting the big label push are huge at iTunes. And all of these single-song sales can be tracked and, thanks to Billboard’s new policy, charted.

The upshot: hip-hop is still charting well, but rock songs have gotten a major lift on the pop charts. Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” already a rising pop hit before February, shot to #2 after Billboard’s switch. The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” wasn’t even on the Hot 100 in January, and in February, it instantly debuted in the Top 40; as of last week, it was creeping toward the Top 10. Some really interesting, kooky stuff has popped up on the charts: two weeks ago, “Hello Tomorrow,” a strange, two-minute ballad sung by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and featured in an Adidas commercial, debuted on the Hot 100, entirely due to iTunes sales.

When making the shift in its charts in February, Billboard argued that the digital song e-tailers are the new singles market – that an iTunes download is the modern-day equivalent of the 45-RPM vinyl our parents bought. Billboard is absolutely correct here, but this new marketplace is even more revolutionary than that. It’s not just a marketplace of “singles” – tunes that the record labels have decided to promote to radio and push on the public – it’s a marketplace of songs.

Consider that Coldplay song again: very few Top 40 stations are playing “Speed of Sound” yet; to radio, that song is not a “hit.” But to iTunes users, that song’s a smash – Apple reported that it broke digital sales records around the world. Why shouldn’t “Speed of Sound” rub elbows on the charts with Ludacris and The Game?

In short, adding iTunes sales to Billboard smells like affirmative action for white people, but it’s not. It’s a corrective, not just for the last decade of hip-hop dominance but for a problem that has bedeviled chart fans since rock’s birth: how do you measure the popularity of every song pulsing through the Zeitgeist? Can’t the Top 40 include everybody’s favorite song on the back end of an album? If a song doesn’t get played on the radio, but folks everywhere are singing it, is it not a “hit”? In 1991, I wished for genre balance on the charts, not for rap to marginalize rock the way rock had once marginalized rap. Now, balance may at last be achieved.

In 1971, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” never made the Billboard singles charts, because – any proud Zep fan will tell you this – the band refused to put it on a 45. (Dude, Zeppelin were too cool for that, man!) The most popular rock song of all time, and it never even made the Billboard Hot 100. Today, there’d be no way to stop it – in a year or two, “Stairway” will be on sale at iTunes, along with “Black Dog” and “Misty Mountain Hop.” Sure, there are always going to be rock fans who like their Zeppelin – or their Radiohead, or their Franz Ferdinand – off the pop charts, not crossing paths with those cheesy hits. Not me. I wish iTunes had existed in 1971 – “Stairway to Heaven” would have battled with Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” and Cher’s “Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves” for the top of the Hot 100.

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