Brake The Drake? “Degrassi” Alum Scales Chart Despite Online Stumbling Blocks

When the music story of 2009 is written, the year’s debutante queen and king will be Lady GaGa and Drake, who have treated Billboard‘s Hot 100 as their playground lately. Each is a lock for a Best New Artist Grammy nomination next winter, because each is exactly the sort of not-too-innovative, chart-friendly act the Recording Academy routinely rewards. For both acts, however, the path to the Top 10 has been a bit of a slog. GaGa’s on a roll now, but she spent most of 2008 watching her debut “Just Dance” creep up the Hot 100 before its January 2009 triumph; each of her chart-toppers needed an abnormally long time to scale the list. Her latest, “LoveGame,” has had the easiest rise of all, even as it peaked below the top slot. Drake is poised to join GaGa as a debutante chart-topper with “Best I Ever Had” (No. 2), if he can get past the Black Eyed Peas. Compared with the Lady, the former Degrassi: The Next Generation cast member has had an easier time, exploding into the Top 10 with “Best” and the Lil Wayne-backed Young Money single “Every Girl.” But even Drake has had bumps along the way—in particular, a week in which “Best” took a one-week, Estelle-like swoon thanks to a dispute over who was allowed to release his songs on iTunes. He’s more than recovered, but the mix-up and the song’s temporary plummet show how critical digital sales are to the Hot 100. I don’t normally talk here about technology or digital rights, but in the wake of Amazon’s disastrous recall of two George Orwell e-books last week, it’s worth exploring what happened to Drake’s hit and what it means for chart tabulation and the songs we buy. Over the last month, chart-watchers have all been so distracted by Michael Jackson’s postmortem sales feats that Drake’s erratic Hot 100 patterns in June went unremarked. I’m particularly surprised it hasn’t received more attention recently, amid all the press attention for the Amazon kerfuffle; there are strong parallels between the pulled Orwell books and Drake’s digital singles. Here’s what happened: As of early June, “Best I Ever Had” was up to No. 18 on the Hot 100 and rising fast, having moved up more than 40 spaces in a week. Remarkably, Drake accomplished this without having signed to a major label; the song had originated on mixtapes. Lil Wayne’s Cash Money label (under Universal) was providing radio promotion for both the Young Money single and Drake’s own, but the latter was effectively self-released by Drake’s managers, Cortez Bryant and the Hip Hop Since 1978 team. Even with major-label backing, “Best” was technically an independent single. Unfortunately, that oddball, label-less arrangement left Drake vulnerable to some digital shenanigans. In late May, “Best,” along with an unauthorized mixtape, had been released digitally by Canadian Money Entertainment, a small company that had released prior Drake mixtapes in his native Canada. The song was on iTunes for just over a week, selling tens of thousands of copies, before Drake and management had it pulled. On the Hot 100, this led to some truly strange movements. During the week of June 20, “Best I Ever Had” dropped 18 slots to No. 35—even while scoring Billboard’s award for the biggest radio gain for the week. The song was a certified radio smash, but without iTunes sales, its chart position wilted. This situation persisted into late June, with “Best” drifting a bit higher thanks to continued radio growth. (On the R&B/Hip-Hop list, where digital sales are not a factor, the song coasted to No. 1 in late June, where it remains five weeks later.) Drake’s music was restored to iTunes by his authorized team at the end of June, and the results were instantaneous. By the Fourth of July both Drake-affiliated songs exploded to new Hot 100 peaks: No. 3 for Drake’s solo joint “Best,” and No. 10 for Young Money’s “Girl.” Since its official release, “Best” has sold more than 300,000 copies. This week, as it reaches its new Hot 100 peak of No. 2, its weekly sales are the biggest yet, at more than 140,000. (Earlier this month, after a heated bidding war, Drake surprised no one by ultimately signing to Universal, in a very lucrative and unorthodox deal.) Why is any of this interesting? Prior to last week, it wasn’t, terribly; we’ve seen odd chart movements, both up and down, caused by iTunes availability many times over the last couple of years, and this just served as the umpteenth reminder that Apple’s store has an outsized influence over Billboard‘s singles charts. But then, last week, dozens of Kindle owners awoke to find copies of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm wiped from their e-books remotely by Big Brother Amazon (with full refunds), and the Drake story took on new meaning for me. Like Drake, the estate of Orwell demanded the digital removal of the material because of a dispute over who was authorized to release it. In the stories I’ve read on the Amazon kerfuffle, no one has made the connection between the British literary legend and the up-and-coming Canuck rapper. (Guess this is just how my mind works!) But there has been much media discussion—best captured by this Farhad Manjoo story in Slate—over what “ownership” of digital content means for the end user in the age of online gadgets, like the Kindle and the iPhone. The parallels to digital music are clear: If we’re all walking around with WiFi- and 3G-enabled iPods and iPhones, what’s to stop Apple from deleting songs whose release rights have changed? Plus, for music, there’s a far greater likelihood of such shenanigans; given the staggering number of songs and albums now available on iTunes, the rights debates over material there must be many times greater than the ones going on at Amazon’s fledgling e-book store. Call me naïve, but I’m not losing sleep over any of my iTunes purchases getting pulled from my iPhone anytime soon. It isn’t just that Apple has proven much smarter about public relations relative to Amazon, whose founder is now publicly flagellating himself over the whole Orwell affair. And it also isn’t because I can burn my iTunes purchases to CD or back them up to hard drives Apple’s online police can’t access. The fact is, no one who purchased the Canadian Money edition of “Best I Ever Had” back in late May-early June has had it revoked by Apple, even after the song had been pulled from its online shelves. Apple didn’t need to observe Amazon’s mistake to avoid making similar ones; they knew that the iTunes Store’s idea of media ownership—you “own” the song you buy, even if the technology exists to render that an illusion—was important to its users. (Hell, I’m still playing an unauthorized version of Tetris on my iPhone more than a year after the game’s rights-holders had it pulled from the App Store.) The iTunes Store has built itself into America’s largest digital-content retailer by differentiating itself from music-streaming and other online music stores with tenuous ownership by fostering a sense of ownership, even if Apple reserves the right to take it away from you. Until a court makes them, I doubt there’s any upside for them in remotely deleting your content. Besides, in music at least, such a move would be a chart headache. Would SoundScan retroactively “uncertify” the sales of a pulled single? As it is, Apple and SoundScan engage in a complicated dance when a digital single leads to an album purchase later: when you use iTunes’ Complete My Album feature to get a lower price on an album you’d previously bought parts of, SoundScan has to mark your prior singles purchases as “returns” and then credit the act with an album sale. This is to the acts’ benefit; they get chart credit for a hit single early, then another bump of album-chart credit later. But a pulled single like Drake’s has no chart upside; no act is going to want their chart position eroded by demanding that an unauthorized single get removed from fans’ gadgets. Apple has taken its share of much-deserved lumps for its gargantuan influence over the music business and its friendly-on-the-outside, control-freaky-behind-the-scenes dealings with users of its technology. But as the short-lived, headline-free Drake incident shows, and the blogoshphere-dominating Amazon/Orwell controversy proves, there’s a mostly harmless way to handle digital rights, and there’s a stupid way.Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts: • As Maura has been reporting recently, Mariah Carey’s handlers appear to be sweating the relatively weak reaction to “Obsessed,” the leadoff single to her next album. After debuting last week at No. 11, the song drops back to No. 20 on the new Hot 100. There’s plenty of time for Carey to rebound before Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel drops (whenever that is); those with long memories will recall that the first single from the 2005-dominating The Emancipation of Mimi wasn’t the übersmash “We Belong Together” but rather the mid-charting, hip-hop flavored jam “It’s Like That.” Still, it’s worth mentioning that “Obsessed” was looking doomed not this week but last week, when it debuted at that lofty Hot 100 position. I’ve started to refer to it as the High-Debut Paradox: in the four-plus years since iTunes has become a Hot 100 factor, week-one appearances in the chart’s upper reaches are often a sign not of strength but weakness. From Beyoncé’s short-lived “Ring the Alarm” in 2006 to the Jonas Brothers’ many high-debuting, quick-fizzling singles in 2008 and 2009, a huge debut almost always means one thing: the rabid fanbase is jumping online to buy, but there’s little significant airplay or support from more casual fans. About the only recent exception I can think of is Pink’s chart-topping “So What” from last fall, which debuted in the Top 10 and then shocked me by moving even higher; but that’s just the exception that proves my rule. A truly strong single, like recent hits by Kelly Clarkson and Flo Rida, starts low on the charts because radio jumps on it early; then, a couple of weeks later, when that first blast of iTunes sales hits, the song makes a massive leap. Sales and airplay are rarely perfectly in sync, but in the latter scenario they are closer to working together than they are in the Carey scenario, where hardcore fans are satisfied long before radio develops an interest. To be fair, “Obsessed” is not a total radio flop; it ranks 40th on the all-airplay list, not shabby for a track in its third week on the air (on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, the song is in its fifth week, and it’s up to a very solid No. 23). Still, this not-shabby performance is not acceptable for an act of Carey’s stature; if there’s no major course correction next week, expect a replacement single to drop with a quickness. • A somewhat more promising debut comes this week from Shakira, whose “She Wolf” materializes at No. 34. That not-too-hot, not-too-cold start augurs well for the disco-revival jam, which debuts on the all-airplay list at a strong No. 56 while selling 38,000 downloads in its first week online. Sales at iTunes have already cooled, but as long as airplay holds up decently, expect the track to knock around the middle reaches of the Hot 100 for a bit before getting a boost from the release of its predictably “sexy” music video next week. • My commenters have been noting its progress for weeks, but the other day when I heard Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” in regular midday rotation on Z100 New York—an urban über-pop station that plays guitar rock pretty much only at gunpoint—I finally accepted that the song’s pop crossover was real. I would’ve guessed that the perky song with “Sex” in the title would be the one to deliver the Kings to Top 40 radio, but this trad-rock semi-ballad is doing the trick. This is the second appearance by “Use Somebody” in the pop Top 20 (it topped the Alternative chart back in April). But arguably, this week’s leap from No. 21 to No. 11 is more substantive than its first appearance in June (No. 19, on the chart dated June 20). Back then, the song was reacting to a momentary burst of iTunes sales following the band’s performance on the MTV Movie Awards. This time, it’s rising thanks to good old-fashioned sales and airplay. It’s up about 22,000 downloads this week on the Digital Songs chart (see below), and up a huge 15 places on the all-radio Hot 100 Airplay list; it’s now the 17th most-played song in the country, an impressive showing for a song getting zero R&B/hip-hop radio play and that already peaked at rock radio. With that kind of momentum both at radio and on iTunes—as of this writing, the song’s actually ranked second there—expect the Kings to score their first actual pop Top 10 hit next week. • Another item Maura’s been reporting: the online comeback by Chris Brown’s 2008 smash “Forever” thanks to its use in a smash YouTube video by newlyweds Jill and Kevin. To pour a bit of cold water over Brown’s redemption (while others are throwing rice and wiping their eyes), “Forever” will not be reappearing on the Hot 100 next week, no matter what the song does on iTunes or Amazon this week. Like Michael’s Jackson’s recent parade of memorial comeback hits, “Forever” is an already-retired Billboard hit that had a full chart run and will not be permitted to reenter. Still: as with his hero Michael, Brown will be allowed to chart next week on the Digital Songs list, and I’m taking bets now on how many buck-a-songs the recently disgraced pop star will move. Keep in mind that the Jill-and-Kevin video broke in the middle of a tracking week, with most of the serious iTunes action starting sometime yesterday. So I’m going to guess around 20,000 to 40,000, depending on how viral the video gets before Sunday night. That might be enough to put Brown’s year-old hit somewhere in the Digital Songs top 40, but the Top 10 is probably out of the question unless “Forever” has a really, really good weekend. That said, if you see your digitally conversant mother or aunt watching the video and clicking over to iTunes in the next 48 hours, bump my prediction a few thousand higher.

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