The Followup Conundrum: At Midyear, Big Hits Are One-Offs

Ed. note: Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy, our resident chart guru, looks at the upward, downward, and lack of movement on this week’s Billboard charts:

If you’re trying to guess what might end up as Billboard‘s top song of 2008, you might take a gander at this week’s Hot 100, where a prime contender is still sitting in the top three after peaking months ago.

That would be Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love,” the neo-diva ballad that’s outlasted anything her role model Mariah Carey has released so far this year. According to Nielsen SoundScan, which released its (mostly dismal) midyear report this week, Lewis’ smash is the top-selling single for the six-month period beginning Dec. 31 and ending June 29.

That doesn’t necessarily make the Lewis track a lock for the year’s top prize, due to some technicalities which I’ll discuss momentarily. But there is one thing that makes “Bleeding Love” emblematic of 2008: it’s an undeniable smash single which has proven tough for the artist to follow up.

According to SoundScan, the first-half ’08 best-sellers are “Bleeding Love,” at 2.6 million downloads, Flo Rida’s “Low” featuring T-Pain, with 2.4 million, and Jordin Sparks’ duet with Chris Brown, “No Air,” which sold 2.1 million. All three songs are currently charting on the Hot 100. This week, about two months after its four-week run at No. 1, “Bleeding” sits pretty at No. 3. Sparks’ ballad, after peaking at No. 3, just fell out of the Top 10 last week, but it’s still hanging on to the Top 20 at No. 18. And the unkillable former No. 1 “Low,” now in its 36th week on the chart, finally falls out of the Top 40, down six spots to No. 42.

The Lewis and Sparks tracks sold virtually all of their copies in calendar 2008. But Flo Rida’s hit did serious business last year–about another one and a half million sold in 2007. “Low,” already the biggest-selling digital track of all time and still selling well (it ranks 52nd among this week’s top digital songs), is now about 5,000 copies shy of total cumulative sales of 4 million.

Mr. Rida’s 2007 sales are important to our discussion here, because as I’ve explained in this space before, Billboard persists in using an annoyingly skewed “chart year” in its year-end tallies, one that runs from Dec. 1 to Nov. 30. That extra month of sales will give “Low” a huge advantage in the year-end tally: it hit its stride last December and rose to No. 1 just after Christmas, months before anyone in America had even heard of Lewis.

Lewis is an established pop star in the UK, with three top hits to her credit (two No. 1’s and a double-sided No. 2 single). It’s too soon to say how she’ll be regarded here, but so far, the Lewis phenomenon in America is all about one massive song; Sony/BMG has held off formally releasing a second single until mid-July. I say “formally,” because of course, in the digital age, once an album is released any of its songs are de facto singles; and on the modern-day charts, any song radio chooses to play is Hot 100-eligible, regardless of a label’s marketing plans.

So far, neither the public nor radio programmers have flocked to a second Lewis song en masse. The label’s planned second hit is the thumping, midtempo pop track “Better in Time,” which has been charting on Billboard‘s Pop 100 list for nearly two months (peaking at No. 45, now down a bit), but it has made no impression on the big chart. “Better” is Lewis’ second-biggest seller at iTunes, but comparing it to “Bleeding” is like comparing a minnow to a baleen whale. Among all digital tracks, “Better” only ranks 176th in sales this week, with 8,200 copies. These are decent numbers for a song that’s received little formal promotion as yet, but they’re a little anemic for the followup single to the year’s best-selling hit.

Lewis shouldn’t be too dejected by this state of affairs–it’s been a tougher year than expected for pop divas to follow up their hits. As I alluded above, Carey has had a tough time after her latest album produced a quick-burning No. 1, “Touch My Body.” In the time it’s taken Lewis’ handlers to milk “Bleeding Love” for sales and airplay, Carey’s people have already squeezed all they can out of “Touch” (now ranked No. 59 in its 20th and final week on the Hot 100); tried and failed with a second single, “Bye Bye” (peaked at No. 19, now down to No. 69); and started promoting a third hit, the Idolator-approved “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time.” That third Carey single debuts this week at No. 100…on the Pop 100, not the Hot 100, where it is still M.I.A. So much for the year of Mimi.

And forget the divas–what about digital-sales giant Flo Rida? After “Low,” his Timbaland-assisted second single “Elevator” was a flop, peaking quickly at No. 16 before plummeting off the chart in under three months. And one week after his third single, “In the Ayer,” debuted at a more-than-solid No. 38, it’s down to No. 40.

Other than Sparks, who can still hope that her post-American Idol album will produce a third Top 10 charter (“One Step at a Time” debuts this week at No. 79), none of this year’s biggest smash songs has been followed by a serious hit.

That’s not to say no one is having a good year: Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” is finally giving way to “A Milli” (up seven spots to No. 14); and Rihanna, still riding “Take a Bow” in the top five, has “Distrubia” waiting in the wings (up seven to No. 11–a surprise after her fluke debut last week).

But in a digital-fueled, singles-based economy, the charts are getting crueler all the time.

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

• As we forecast last week, the Jonas Brothers made a splashy debut on the chart. “Burnin’ Up” materializes all the way up at No. 5–the second-biggest debut of the year after David Cook’s No. 3 appearance last month with “The Time of My Life.”

The Jonases probably would have placed even higher if the song had stronger radio airplay–thus far, it’s nonexistent on the Hot 100 Airplay list, but it ranks 31st on the all-Top 40 Pop 100 Airplay list. Expect “Burnin’” to hold on or move higher, unless fans get distracted by a succession of pre-album Jonas singles Disney plans to drop in the next few weeks. Speaking of which…

A few weeks ago in this space, I talked at length about the unusual multi-single strategies fueling the recent blockbuster albums by Lil Wayne and Coldplay. According to a story in last week’s Billboard, this is a more coherent strategy than I first suspected, and (like so many things on the charts these days) it’s spurred by iTunes:

“Releasing a single for digital download before an album’s debut is about as standard these days as making it available to radio. But in the past few months, labels and artists have begun releasing multiple tracks in advance of an album’s street date to promote new releases, relying in no small degree on Apple’s iTunes Music Store’s Complete My Album feature to convert them into full-album sales — in some cases with striking effectiveness.”

It’s been a while since I’ve said anything nice about the music industry, but kudos to the labels’ promotion teams. This strategy takes advantage of an Apple feature in a way that benefits pretty much everybody: insatiable fans, who get to buy early singles confident they’ll save money off the iTunes album release later; the acts, who don’t have to be bound by the old, hidebound one-track-every-quarter release strategy; the labels, who protect their first-week album sales numbers; and Apple, of course.

Expect numerous superstar acts to try what we’ll now refer to as “pulling a Weezy,” dropping an array of early singles in the leadup to their albums’ release dates. The Jonases are first–they’ll prep fans for the mid-August release of A Little Bit Longer with, in order, “Pushing Me Away” on July 15, “Tonight” (no relation to the old New Kids hit, I guess) on July 29, and the title track on Aug. 5.

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. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (LW No. 1, 8 weeks) 2. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 2, 16 weeks) 3. Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” (LW No. 3, 20 weeks) 4. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 4, 12 weeks) 5. Jonas Brothers, “Burnin’ Up” (CHART DEBUT) 6. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 6, 8 weeks) 7. Plies feat. Ne-Yo, “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” (LW No. 8, 14 weeks) 8. Chris Brown, “Forever” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 9. Demi Lovato & Joe Jonas, “This Is Me” (LW No. 11, 2 weeks) 10. Natasha Bedingfield, “Pocketful of Sunshine” (LW No. 5, 20 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Katy Perry, “I Kissed a Girl” (LW No. 1, 204,000 downloads, -6%) 2. Jonas Brothers, “Burnin’ Up” (CHART DEBUT, 183,000 downloads) 3. Demi Lovato & Joe Jonas, “This Is Me” (LW No. 2, 123,000 downloads, +7%) 4. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 3, 137,000 downloads, +7%) 5. Rihanna, “Disturbia” (LW No. 6, 112,000 downloads, +2%) 6. Miley Cyrus, “7 Things” (LW No. 4, 106,000 downloads, -19%) 7. The Pussycat Dolls, “When I Grow Up” (LW No. 5, 103,000 downloads, -20%) 8. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 8, 93,000 downloads, -15%) 9. Metro Station, “Shake It” (LW No. 10, 91,000 downloads, -11%) 10. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 9, 88,000 downloads, -13%)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Keyshia Cole, “Heaven Sent” (LW No. 1, 14 weeks) 2. Lil Wayne, “A Milli” (LW No. 4, 10 weeks) 3. Plies feat. Ne-Yo, “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” (LW No. 3, 18 weeks) 4. The-Dream, “I Luv Your Girl” (LW No. 5, 18 weeks) 5. Chris Brown, “Take You Down” (LW No. 6, 14 weeks) 6. Alicia Keys, “Teenage Love Affair” (LW No. 7, 20 weeks) 7. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 2, 16 weeks) 8. Usher feat. Beyonce and Lil Wayne, “Love in This Club, Part II” (LW No. 8, 10 weeks) 9. Trey Songz, “Last Time” (LW No. 9, 22 weeks) 10. Young Jeezy feat. Kanye West, “Put On” (LW No. 10, 8 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. Montgomery Gentry, “Back When I Knew It All” (LW No. 3, 19 weeks) 2. Blake Shelton, “Home” (LW No. 2, 23 weeks) 3. Kenny Chesney, “Better as a Memory” (LW No. 1, 15 weeks) 4. Alan Jackson, “Good Time” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks) 5. Dierks Bentley, “Trying to Stop Your Leaving” (LW No. 7, 25 weeks) 6. Brooks & Dunn, “Put a Girl in It” (LW No. 9, 10 weeks) 7. Carrie Underwood, “Last Name” (LW No. 4, 16 weeks) 8. Sugarland, “All I Want to Do” (LW No. 10, 6 weeks) 9. Brad Paisley, “I’m Still a Guy” (LW No. 6, 19 weeks) 10. Keith Anderson, “I Still Miss You” (LW No. 12, 22 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Weezer, “Pork & Beans” (LW No. 1, 11 weeks) 2. The Offspring, “Hammerhead” (LW No. 2, 8 weeks) 3. Foo Fighters, “Let It Die” (LW No. 3, 13 weeks) 4. Linkin Park, “Given Up” (LW No. 4, 17 weeks) 5. Seether, “Rise Above This” (LW No. 5, 19 weeks) 6. Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart” (LW No. 6, 15 weeks) 7. Disturbed, “Inside the Fire” (LW No. 9, 14 weeks) 8. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida” (LW No. 12, 4 weeks) 9. Nine Inch Nails, “Discipline” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 10. Flobots, “Handlebars” (LW No. 8, 13 weeks)

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