Here are a few recent data points from chart bible Billboard and data provider Nielsen Soundscan as we move into the second half of 2012:
• In its midyear music-industry report card, Soundscan reports a return to the dismal album sales climate; year-to-date disc sales are off 3.2% from the same period in 2011. Last year saw the first annual rise in sales in nearly a decade, with albums eking out a 1.4% gain in 2011 over 2010. In the first six months of 2012, only one album sold more than a million copies, and it didn’t come out this year: Adele’s 21. Among the Top Five best-sellers for the year so far are a pair of stalwart acts from the 1980s: Lionel Richie, who on Tuskegee reupholstered his old hits as country songs and wound up with the year’s second-best seller to date (912,000 copies); and Whitney Houston, who passed away in February, fueling sales for her 2000 disc The Greatest Hits which is now the year’s fourth-best seller (818,000 copies).
• On the current album chart, Chris Brown debuts atop the Billboard 200 album chart with Fortune, the sequel to his petulantly titled 2011 smash F.A.M.E. (Forgiving All My Enemies). That prior album also debuted at No. 1, in April 2011, with first-week sales of 270,000 copies. The 2012 followup disc debuts in the penthouse with just under half that total, 134,000 copies.
• Just last week, Usher’s 2004 megasmash album Confessionscrossed 10 million in lifetime sales. Billboard reports that it’s the first album to reach the diamond-sales mark since Eminem’s 2002 album The Eminem Show, which quietly crossed the line last October. That makes the eight-year-old Confessions the newest album to move 10 million. An eye-popping 1.1 million of those copies were sold way back in the album’s debut week, in March 2004, when Usher’s hit “Yeah!” was riding high. The last few hundred copies that sold this summer were probably inspired by a flurry of promotional activity surrounding Usher’s latest album, Looking 4 Myself. That disc, his seventh studio album and his fourth straight to debut at No. 1, arrived three weeks ago with first-week sales of just 128,000.
Conclusions? Well, for one thing, music sales are a bit like the U.S. unemployment rate: Just when you think we’ve pulled through the worst of it, the stagnation sets in again. That story cuts across all artists (who aren’t Adele) and all musical genres.
But a lot of media outlets over the past week have homed in on the weak sales by Usher’s and Brown’s latest albums and noted that R&B music, in particular, seems to be in a slump.
I would go further than that: Black music, in its various forms, is in a commercial funk—and it’s even worse than those album sales figures indicate. More than three years after Top 40 radio took a hard right toward dance-pop, urban music has been left to founder. We’d all be better off if it snapped out of its depression.
To appreciate what an aberration the current state of popular black music is, it’s worth walking through a few decades of chart history.
Usher feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris, “Yeah!”
One perennial problem has been what to call this music that’s primarily recorded by, and aimed at, African-Americans. Billboardhas been charting it since the 1940s, when it was still called “race music.” When the magazine launched a black music chart in 1942, it went by the colorful name “Harlem Hit Parade.”
After a few years with the wince-inducing name “Race Records,” starting in the early ’50s the chart adopted various forms of the coinage “rhythm and blues” (thought up by legendary record executive Jerry Wexler). But it took Billboard a while to get the data behind the R&B chart right. During one strange period in the early ’60s, the chart was studded with dozens of decidedly nonblack records by such acts as the Four Seasons, Lesley Gore and the Kingsmen; it got so bad that Billboard eliminated the chart for a little over a year in 1963-64 to overhaul it. Finally, in January 1965, the chart was rebooted with a reliable sales-plus-airplay methodology, and the modern R&B chart was born.
There have been a bunch more chart names since then, including Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles (1965-69), Hot Soul Singles (1973-82) and Hot Black Singles (1982-90—my favorite, for its brevity and lack of pretense). The current name, adopted around the turn of the millennium, is Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs—very precise, if a bit of a mouthful. To this day, the chart still has a sales-and-airplay methodology, similar to the one established in 1965; and since 1973, it has been 100 positions deep.
That makes Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs the only Billboard chart with a size and formula similar to the magazine’s 54-year-old flagship, the Hot 100, which also combines sales and airplay. It’s an indication of how vitally important R&B music has been to the music business; most other Billboard song charts are either all-sales or all-airplay, and few are larger than 50 to 75 positions.
The difference between the Hot 100 and the R&B/Hip-Hop chart is that the latter’s 100 songs are all (broadly) the same format. While the Hot 100 is nominally a pop chart—a term the public generally equates with “white music”—it is actually an all-genre chart of current music. Anything receiving airplay on a radio station that plays current hits can chart on the Hot 100.
Hence songs on the Hot 100 range from pure pop to country and rock. And, of course, R&B and hip-hop: Throughout the Hot 100’s history, black music in all its forms has been a key element—at times, the dominant element.
The very first No. 1 hit on Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles in 1965 was the Temptations’ “My Girl,” which was also a chart-topper on the Hot 100. By 1970, half the songs that topped the R&B chart also went on to top the Hot 100. The number of double-chart-toppers fluctuated year to year for the next few decades, but it never dropped below at least two songs a year (and often ranged as high as seven or eight).
By the early 2000s, urban music was pop music. In 2004, 80% of the songs that crowned the R&B chart did the same on the Hot 100. That was the year of Usher’s streak, as well as “Slow Jamz” and “Lean Back” and “Goodies.” In the Hot 100’s penthouse that year, all 12 songs that reached the top, from “Hey Ya!” to “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” were by persons of color (including that year’s American Idol winner, Fantasia). This early-naughts period was the all-time peak for R&B and hip-hop on the Hot 100, and hence on Top 40 radio.
The ratio of urban-to-pop crossover began sliding back a bit in 2005—and then it just kept sliding. In 2010, for the first time since Billboard established the modern R&B chart, not a single R&B chart-topper reached the top of the Hot 100. The same thing happened again in 2011.
Wale feat. Miguel, “Lotus Flower Bomb”
Halfway into 2012, the steak of non-crossover continues—and it’s getting worse: None of the half-dozen songs that have topped Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs so far this year have even made the Hot 100’s Top Five. Only one of them, Drake’s “Make Me Proud” featuring Nicki Minaj, spent even a single week in the pop Top 10 (it peaked at No. 9 before tumbling down the Hot 100).
For non-urban radio listeners, the songs that have topped the R&B/Hip-Hop list over the last couple of years are a parade of “Huh?” Wale’s “Lotus Flower Bomb” featuring Miguel, an R&B/Hip-Hop No. 1 in December and January, barely scraped the pop Top 40 (No. 38). A pair of chart-toppers from early in 2011, Trey Songz’s “Can’t Be Friends” and Jamie Foxx’s “Fall for Your Type,” missed the Top 40 on the Hot 100 altogether.
Mind you, it’s not bad at all for R&B and hip-hop radio to have hits to call its own. Even in the heyday of urban radio, in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, the format produced stars like Parliament, Freddie Jackson and Jodeci that never made the pop Top 10.
What’s unusual and downright bizarre about the last three years, however, is the utter paucity of black-music crossover. What exactly has happened to black music, and to Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, that has left these songs at the margins of centrist pop?
Essentially, the R&B/Hip-Hop chart is under attack. Its two pillars, airplay and sales, have been undermined in the last decade by technology.
On the airplay side, there is the scourge of the Portable People Meter, the audience-measuring device developed by radio ratings service Arbitron. After decades of tracking ratings through a primitive diary system, about five years ago Arbitron began outfitting respondents with a cellphone-size device that actually tracks their radio exposure by the minute. The result: a steady decline in ratings for urban radio, whose listenership was reportedly overstated by the diary system. Early findings of the system show that blacks are indeed heavier radio listeners than virtually any ethnic or socioeconomic group—but they don’t listen to as much urban radio as previous Arbitron diaries claimed.
This PPM issue would seem rather technical, but it has begun to draw mainstream media attention and even political protest. Here in New York, PPM-decimated ratings for rival urban-contemporary stations Kiss-FM and WBLS led to a merger of the stations and the shuttering of the 30-year-old Kiss.
(As a chart nerd, I am a big fan of accurate data, and it’s hard to argue that PPM isn’t an improvement in radio-measuring technology. Much of the protest against the system has focused on Arbitron’s under-recruiting of young listeners of color to wear the devices, a valid complaint. But the launch of Soundscan two decades ago was plagued with early glitches too, and even at Soundscan’s inception in 1991 it was a massive improvement over the laughably fudgeable old system for compiling music charts.)
However unfortunate the effects of the PPM on urban radio, the technology is clearly here to stay. But as a result, core urban-radio hits are being heard by fewer people.
Radio is not only a vital service to the black community, it’s also essential to the R&B/Hip-Hop chart. I mean really, really essential: According to Billboard‘s formula, airplay is supposed to account for roughly half of the results on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, but nowadays the proportion is closer to 100%. That’s because sales of singles, the chart’s other component, are largely dead.
Nicki Minaj, “Starships”
For decades, the sales data that went into Billboard‘s R&B chart formula came from “core” urban stores. Only retailers that catered to the black community were factored into the chart. What has happened to black-owned and urban-based music stores is that same thing that’s happened to record stores across the board—virtual extinction. Billboard still tracks sales of physical singles at the few core urban stores remaining and factors those sales into the big R&B/Hip-Hop chart—but the effect is miniscule. A top-selling single in 2012 might move as little as one to two thousand copies.
Of course, top-selling physical singles of any genre sell poorly these days, and the Hot 100 uses sales data, too. So why hasn’t the big pop chart turned into an all-airplay wasteland? Because the Hot 100 has something the R&B/Hip-Hop chart doesn’t: digital sales. Since 2005, sales of songs at iTunes and other digital retailers have been factored into the big chart, acting as a vital counterweight to radio—even redirecting what pop programmers are willing to play.
OK—so why aren’t digital sales a part of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart? The days when only affluent whites were using iTunes are long over, and hip-hop fans are big consumers of digital music. Can’t these sales be baked into Billboard‘s black-music chart? This is, honestly, a very good question with a complicated answer.
Remember what Billboard‘s first black-music chart in the 1940s was called: Harlem Hit Parade. It’s a dated term, but an oddly accurate one—the chart was devised to cover the music of a specific black demimonde, an ecosystem of black-owned-and-oriented music commerce that persisted for decades, even as it spread beyond Harlem.
That ecosystem of urban radio listeners and core R&B music-buyers still exists, surely. But how do you track it, if urban music fans are going to the same iTunes to buy their songs as everyone else?
It’s probably not as simple as Billboard isolating sales at iTunes of African-American artists, or songs that are broadly related to hip-hop. In the last few years, we’ve seen the emergence of acts who “rap,” nominally— the Black Eyed Peas, Flo Rida—but are more popular with pop fans and thus don’t make the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 at all. A digital-fueled R&B/Hip-Hop chart would probably vastly overstate the urban popularity of will.i.am.
Or consider Nicki Minaj, who has had huge black-radio hits, but whose current pop smash “Starships” is so divisive among hardcore rap fans that it led to a Hot 97 beef and festival pullout by Minaj. I doubt very many of the three million digital buyers of “Starships” listen to urban radio, but who can say? The R&B/Hip-Hop chart would surely lose credibility with fans of core urban music if that song were riding the upper reaches of the chart—which it would, if all Billboard did was throw undifferentiated digital sales into the formula.
Beyoncé, “Love On Top”
The upshot of all this—PPM and dying urban music retail and a lack of tailored digital sales data—is an R&B/Hip-Hop chart that feels hollowed-out. Music charts are like feedback loops—they reflect popularity back at the industry that makes stuff popular. But the loop on this chart is getting smaller and more insular all the time.
Hit songs generally spawn hit albums, and the marginalization of current urban music goes a long way toward explaining this year’s drought of best-selling albums that owe their success to urban radio. It explains why superstars Usher and Chris Brown can’t muster even half the opening sales of their respective last albums. On R&B radio, Beyoncé is still scoring smash hits—her “Love on Top” crowned the R&B/Hip-Hop chart for nearly two months—but that hasn’t helped sell copies of her underperforming album 4, or gotten her back on Top 40 radio. As for the few hit albums this year by people of color, Lionel Richie’s fluke smash is all country music; and Whitney Houston sold big this year in the saddest way possible.
Could the marginalization of current black music even explain the weak sales of albums in general? That’s a stretch—obviously what’s happened to the CD over the last decade is almost entirely about illegal downloading and the unbundling of the album in favor of cheap digital singles. That phenomenon has affected all music—from pop to rock to R&B.
All that said, I would submit that the cratering of urban crossover is a cancer at the heart of the music business. Throughout the Rock Era, music made by and for African-Americans has been the music of the future. Rock & roll, girl groups, electric blues, disco, rap and its various offshoots—virtually anything the American masses would eventually come around to loving was pioneered by blacks first. Kanye West, self-proclaimed innovator, released an album in late 2010 that’s widely considered his best—but despite spawning a No. 2 R&B radio hit with “All of the Lights,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sold the worst of all of his albums. That can’t be good for other hip-hop acts looking to stretch on a major label’s dime—or indeed any major-label artist at all.
On this week’s upcoming album chart, Chris Brown is expected to be ushered out of the No. 1 spot by a country album, the Zac Brown Band’s Uncaged. But in the media, all eyes are on the album slated to debut at No. 2—Frank Ocean’s official debut album Channel Orange, which is expected to move more than 120,000 copies, an impressive number for an artist with no big radio hits to speak of. Like so many best-sellers these days, Ocean’s album is getting its boost less from his music than from the news cycle: the press frenzy earlier this month over his revelation that he’d fallen in love with a man when he was younger. It boosted awareness of Ocean broadly and may well have multiplied his album’s opening sales.
A hit album is great, but is there any chance we can get this dude a hit on both urban and pop radio to go with it? Like many coastal cultural critics, I am rooting for Ocean for reasons of personal politics. But I’m also rooting for him simply because he’s a talented singer who might help bring black music back to the center of the pop conversation, where it belongs.