Lady GaGa Dances To No. 1 As iTunes’ Beat Gets A Little Bit Slower

Over the holidays, Billboard‘s song charts were, at least on the surface, pretty sleepy. On the Hot 100, most of the songs that were hot late last fall—Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and “If I Were a Boy,” T.I. and Rihanna’s “Live Your Life,” Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless,” Taylor Swift’s “Love Story,” the unkillable Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”—continued bumping around the Top 10 like lazy molecules.

But below the surface, a ton of music was being consumed. In particular, one song benefited massively from the annual iPod-filling digital megasale that hits iTunes every Christmas—and that song, Lady GaGa’s “Just Dance,” reaches No. 1 the very week Apple’s music store removes digital-rights management restrictions on all of its songs, making them freely copyable.

Does this mean we’re in for even more Lady GaGa than we’re enduring now, as kids trade their iTunes purchases like baseball cards? Unlikely: those who “share” music probably figured out their DRM workarounds years ago.

But the official start of the post-DRM era—and, more important, the changes to song pricing—could have some interesting effects on digital song sales, and the charts that track them.

In its 22nd week on the Hot 100—one of the slower ascensions of recent chart history—“Just Dance” evicts Beyoncé after her four-week run on top. Lady GaGa has had the best-selling digital song for two weeks now, and her airplay has caught up just enough to nudge her into the penthouse; “Dance” is now the fifth-most-played radio song in the country.

In the week after Santa Day, “Just Dance” sold 419,000 copies (this week—two weeks out from Christmas—it’s back down to a saner, but still lofty, 293,000). With that fat post-holiday total, “Dance” joins a dubious pantheon of songs that, over the past half-decade, have set download records in the week after Christmas, as iPod-receivers flock to iTunes: D4L’s “Laffy Taffy” at the end of 2005; Fergie’s “Fergalicious” at the end of 2006; and Flo Rida’s “Low” a year ago. Notice the trend: disposable pop hits people would rather own as singles than as part of albums. (Oh, ease up, Fergie fans—the bulk of her eventual multiplatinum album sales came months after “Fergalicious,” in the wake of her adult-contemporary crossover hit “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”)

Actually, Ms. GaGa didn’t really set a record, unless we give her the title for her gender. The song’s 419,000 downloads rank “Just Dance” as the biggest one-week seller by a female, but she comes in second on the all-time list to male rapper Flo Rida, whose “Low” racked up 470,000 in sales 53 weeks ago.

This is slightly worrying for both the record industry and Apple. Each year since iTunes launched in 2003, the post-Christmas bestseller has sold more copies than the previous year’s, and by a huge margin; last year, in setting the new record, Flo Rida improved on Fergie’s earlier sales mark by about 60%. So this is the first year in iTunes history in which the year-end winner has sold fewer copies than its year-ago predecessor. Still, it’s hardly surprising that iTunes’ explosive growth is finally easing, between the deepening recession and slowing sales of the now-ubiquitous iPod.

Besides, the industry and Steve Jobs already have plans to wring more revenue from digital songs. Along with this week’s announcement of the removal of DRM, a long-overdue consumer-friendly move, Apple granted the labels their most coveted wish: variable pricing. Now, songs will be sold on iTunes at three tiers: 69 cents, 99 cents, and $1.29.

(For what it’s worth, given my long-held fears of what the labels would demand as a song price if given free reign, Apple did well for us; $1.29 is pretty reasonable, when you consider that it’s a cap, and that it will probably hold for a few years even while inflation marches on.)

The very songs the labels want to price at a buck-thirty are the ones we talk about regularly in this column, those that sell in the hundreds of thousands each week and top the charts. So: we can expect “Just Dance” and “Womanizer” and “Heartless,” and everything else in the iTunes top 100, to jump to $1.29 any day now, right?

Maybe—but I wouldn’t be surprised if numerous hit songs were still priced at 99 cents. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the occasional hit-bound track was priced at that new 69-cent tier. Allow me to theorize for a minute.

Remember the 49-cent cassingle? If you visited a big chain store anytime in the ’90s, you might recall stacks of singles positioned near the cash registers and priced to move. Sometimes those songs were by new acts—Peach Union, Dionne Faris—the label was hoping you’d be willing to sample. But often, strangely, they came from established blockbuster acts like Mariah Carey or Celine Dion whose new song seemed like a preordained hit. In industry parlance, these are called “label priority” acts, which is code for, This artist’s song had better hit No. 1, or someone gets fired.

I’ve talked extensively ’round these parts about the ’90s as the decade of the Singles War. But it was a time of singles experimentation in general—in those cases where the labels did release singles, they got insidiously good at playing with timing and price to stoke chart position. I recall numerous Billboard articles in which retailers and industryites discussed the madness of loss-leader pricing—how some label reps would rather have bragging rights on a top-ranked, but unprofitable, song than earn a modest markup on their hits.

The economics of the business have changed radically in the last decade, but the impetus to score hits hasn’t. Label reps are still creative, and once someone figures out a legal way to manipulate a song’s chart run, it’s quickly adopted as an industry standard. Just in the last year, we’ve seen the labels use iTunes’ ability to track multiple singles at once (and credit them to an album purchase later) as a new Hot 100 strategy; now, you don’t release one leadoff single before an album drops, you release two (Coldplay, T.I., Beyoncé, Kanye West) or four (Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift) or more than half the album (Lil Wayne).

Over the next few months, as Apple brings the new price tiers online, the labels will be confronted with a new test of their priorities. Simply put, what’s more important, profits or position? In an era where the business relies increasingly on digital sales and margins are getting thinner, you’d think they’d want to squeeze every last dime out of their biggest hits.

But what happens when the first radio hit priced at 69 cents becomes a Hot 100 smash? Do the other labels cut the prices of their catchiest tunes to compete? Perhaps first singles from new acts—your Metro Stations, your Estelles—will start at 99 cents or even 69 cents, fly up the charts, then get re-priced at $1.29 when they reach that ubiquitous “American Boy” phase. But then maybe the followup single has to start at 69 cents just to match its predecessor’s position—the slope gets slipperier.

It would be ironic (and hilarious, and depressing) if, after finally getting what they most wanted from Steve Jobs, the record labels found themselves reaping smaller profits from their biggest hits. I don’t wish it on them by any means, but given the history of this industry, I wouldn’t put it past them.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of the charts:

• A few other songs improved their standings while this column was on hiatus.

Kanye’s “Heartless” has been bouncing around the Top 20 since December, and now it’s one notch away from matching its debut position from last November, as radio has come to prefer it over his “Love Lockdown.” (“Heartless” is now the country’s sixth-biggest radio hit; “Lockdown” never got higher on the airplay chart than No. 11.)

Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” is another Top 20 bouncer—just when you think it’s dying off, another wave of six-figure sales and stepped-up airplay (now ranked seventh on the radio list) returns it to the Top 10. Now at No. 7 on the Hot 100, Mraz, like Kanye, is one slot away from matching his prior peak.

Before the holidays, All-American Rejects’ “Gives You Hell” (apt title, that) appeared to be a slow-starting leadoff single for the band’s sophomore album. But it belatedly crashed into the Top 20 a few weeks ago and now looks poised to leap into the Top 10. As of this writing, iTunes has it ranked third among its bestsellers, so expect a big jump next week.

Finally, if there’s one song that became annoyingly omnipresent on my local Top 40 station over the break, it was the Pussycat Dolls’ screechy ballad “I Hate This Part” (again, the joke writes itself). Over the holidays it shot from No. 58 to No. 32 to No. 21, and this week it moves two notches into the Top 20. So, it does appear to be slowing a bit…but moody ballads like this tend to do well in the winter months. And I’ve learned the folly of betting against PCD—the ultimate “label priority.”

• One of my favorite emerging pop hits, “Untouched” by Australian twin-sister act the Veronicas, became a Top 40 hit over the break, and it’s up three spots to No. 26 this week. Part of what I’m enjoying about “Untouched” is that it’s a bit of an old-fashioned phenomenon: the regional hit. New York Top 40 station Z100 has been burning it out since November and pretty much single-handedly breaking the act on U.S. radio (they’re already multiplatinum stars at home, and in a few European countries); but the song has yet to make the nationwide, all-genre Hot 100 Airplay list. Right now, besides all that New York airplay, “Untouched” is charting on the strength of its digital sales. It’s sold more than half a million downloads thus far, with the biggest boost coming during the blockbuster post-holiday week, when it rang up 121,000 scans.

• Andy Samberg has been a pop-culture phenom for about three years now, ever since the pop-song genre parodies he cowrites with his comedy/filmmaking troupe the Lonely Island began appearing on Saturday Night Live and racking up massive YouTube and Hulu scans. But prior to last week, he’d never appeared on a Billboard chart. The troupe’s club banger “Jizz in My Pants” was released to iTunes as a song and video two days before Christmas, and it sold enough copies (51,000) to briefly make the Hot 100. It debuted at No. 72 last week, and—not unlike the song’s two protagonists—quickly fell off.

Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads/percentage change in parentheses):

Hot 100 1. Lady GaGa feat. Colby O’Donis, “Just Dance” (LW No. 2, 22 weeks) 2. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (LW No. 1, 12 weeks) 3. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 3, 15 weeks) 4. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 5, 17 weeks) 5. Kanye West, “Heartless” (LW No. 4, 9 weeks) 6. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 6, 23 weeks) 7. Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours” (LW No. 12, 38 weeks) 8. Britney Spears, “Womanizer” (LW No. 7, 14 weeks) 9. Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock” (LW No. 15, 19 weeks) 10. Kanye West, “Love Lockdown” (LW No. 8, 16 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Lady GaGa feat. Colby O’Donis, “Just Dance” (LW No. 1, 293,000 downloads) 2. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (LW No. 2, 235,000 downloads) 3. Taylor Swift, “Love Story” (LW No. 3, 226,000 downloads) 4. Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold” (LW No. 6, 216,000 downloads) 5. Kanye West, “Heartless” (LW No. 4, 211,000 downloads) 6. Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours” (LW No. 12, 186,000 downloads) 7. Britney Spears, “Circus” (LW No. 9, 178,000 downloads) 8. Britney Spears, “Womanizer” (LW No. 7, 173,000 downloads) 9. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 5, 172,000 downloads) 10. Kevin Rudolf feat. Lil Wayne, “Let It Rock” (LW No. 14, 169,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Beyoncé, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks) 2. T.I. feat. Rihanna, “Live Your Life” (LW No. 2, 17 weeks) 3. T-Pain feat. Ludacris, “Chopped ‘N’ Skrewed” (LW No. 3, 16 weeks) 4. Ne-Yo, “Miss Independent” (LW No. 4, 24 weeks) 5. Usher, “Trading Places,” (LW No. 5, 21 weeks) 6. John Legend feat. Andre 3000, “Green Light” (LW No. 6, 20 weeks) 7. Jim Jones & Ron Browz feat. Juelz Santana, “Pop Champagne” (LW No. 7, 16 weeks) 8. Musiq Soulchild feat. Mary J. Blige, “IfULeave” (LW No. 11, 16 weeks) 9. Plies feat. Chris J, “Put It on Ya” (LW No. 8, 12 weeks) 10. T.I., “Whatever You Like” (LW No. 10, 25 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Sugarland, “Already Gone” (LW No. 2, 19 weeks) 2. Rascal Flatts, “Here” (LW No. 1, 18 weeks) 3. Brad Paisley with Keith Urban, “Start a Band” (LW No. 5, 17 weeks) 4. Zac Brown Band, “Chicken Fried” (LW No. 3, 29 weeks) 5. Montgomery Gentry, “Roll with Me” (LW No. 4, 24 weeks) 6. Alan Jackson, “Country Boy” (LW No. 6, 15 weeks) 7. Billy Currington, “Don’t” (LW No. 7, 25 weeks) 8. Dierks Bentley, “Feel That Fire” (LW No. 8, 16 weeks) 9. Blake Shelton, “She Wouldn’t Be Gone” (LW No. 10, 22 weeks) 10. Kenny Chesney with Mac McAnally, “Down the Road” (LW No. 12, 11 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Kings of Leon, “Sex on Fire” (LW No. 1, 20 weeks) 2. Incubus, “Love Hurts” (LW No. 3, 12 weeks) 3. Shinedown, “Second Chance” (LW No. 4, 16 weeks) 4. Apocalyptica feat. Adam Gontier, “I Don’t Care” (LW No. 2, 27 weeks) 5. The Offspring, “You’re Gonna Go Far, Kid” (LW No. 5, 24 weeks) 6. Seether, “Breakdown” (LW No. 7, 16 weeks) 7. Paramore, “Decode” (LW No. 6, 13 weeks) 8. Rise Against, “Re-Education (Through Labor)” (LW No. 9, 20 weeks) 9. Anberlin, “Feel Good Drag” (LW No. 8, 14 weeks) 10. Disturbed, “Indestructible” (LW No. 10, 13 weeks)

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