The formula of a Hot 100 hit
Matthew Munhall | Monday, January 29, 2018
In August 1958, teen idol Ricky Nelson’s love song “Poor Little Fool” became the first song to top a newly–introduced music chart: the Billboard Hot 100. While the music magazine Billboard had tracked sales and radio airplay on separate charts since the 1930s, the Hot 100 combined both metrics to create a definitive ranking of the most popular songs in the country. Nearly 60 years later, another teen idol currently rules the Hot 100 with a song about infatuation: Camila Cabello, with her breezy hit “Havana.” In the years between, 1,068 other songs have reached No. 1 on the Hot 100, which remains the industry standard for determining which songs are hits.
In October of last year, Billboard announced it would once again adjust the formula used to calculate the Hot 100. Under the new change, which took effect at the beginning of the month, Billboard gives more weight to streams on paid subscription services — such as Apple Music or Spotify Premium — than those on ad-supported services, like YouTube or Spotify’s free tier. Announcing the decision, Billboard declared that “assigning values to the levels of consumer engagement and access — along with the compensation derived from those options — better reflects the varied user activity occurring on these services.”
The change raises the question of whether the Hot 100 is meant to measure a song’s popularity or its profitability. The two are, of course, related, but Billboard has signaled that how a song resonates with the American public is less important than how much revenue it generates for the music industry. How this change will ultimately affect the performance of songs on the Hot 100 remains, so far, unclear. The two songs that have reached the top spot in 2018 — Ed Sheeran’s schmaltzy ballad “Perfect” and Cabello’s “Havana” — have been traditional hits. Each song hit No. 1 on all three of the Hot 100’s component charts: radio airplay, sales and streaming.
Calculating hits has always been an imperfect science, as the numerous changes to the Hot 100 formula over the years have shown. The most monumental shift in Billboard history was the introduction of Nielsen SoundScan in March 1991, which gathered more precise data on music sales. Since the inception of the charts, record stores self-reported information to Billboard, which meant the data was often prone to record label fraud and human error. SoundScan introduced a computerized system that registered sales when a barcode was scanned at a cash register. As a result of SoundScan data, the Hot 100 now reflected the enormous popularity of rap and country music, which were previously underrepresented on the charts. Likewise, the data revealed that singles often had large opening week sales — rather than slow ascents to the top — and as a result, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” became the first song to debut at No. 1.
At the end of the 20th century, the Hot 100 switched from a singles chart to a songs chart. The distinction seems minute now, when every song can be streamed individually, but it drastically redefined the chart’s purpose. Prior to 1998, Billboard only allowed songs released as commercially available singles to chart on the Hot 100. During the 1990s, record labels realized they could drive up album sales by not releasing popular hits as CD singles. No Doubt’s alt-rock power ballad “Don’t Speak,” for example, never appeared on the Hot 100, despite spending a record-breaking 16 weeks as the No. 1 song on radio. Because of these record label maneuvers, the Hot 100 fails to accurately reflect the popularity of some of the biggest hits of the 1990s — including the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” all of which went unreleased as CD singles so that consumers would purchase the more expensive full-length albums.
Changes to the Hot 100 formula have been even more frequent in the digital era as new music distribution methods have arisen. Billboard incorporated digital sales into the Hot 100 in 2005 and began counting plays from streaming services in 2012. YouTube views were added to the formula a year later, after PSY’s unexpectedly massive viral hit “Gangnam Style” was blocked from No. 1 by Maroon 5’s “One More Night,” which garnered massive radio airplay. The biggest beneficiary of YouTube’s addition to the Hot 100 was Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” which spent five weeks at No. 1 in 2013, more as a result of the viral video sensation than the popularity of the actual song itself.
It seems likely that the new Hot 100 formula will minimize the impact of YouTube, which remains, by a wide margin, the most popular music streaming service. While there have not been many number ones fueled primarily by memes since “Harlem Shake,” a buzzy music video — such as Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” or Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” — has been able to propel a song to the top in recent years. Streaming, too, has had a large impact on the Hot 100 in the past two years, resulting in a resurgence of rap music to the top of the charts. Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” became unlikely No. 1 hits, largely as a result of their popularity on streaming services.
How the new formula change will affect the Hot 100 remains to be seen. This week, however, Drake’s new single “God’s Plan” seems likely to become the 29th song in Hot 100 history to debut atop the chart. “God’s Plan” has received little radio airplay as of yet but has broken numerous streaming records, becoming the most streamed track in a single day on both Spotify and Apple Music. No matter how you calculate it, the song is a hit.
Some notable Billboard Hot 100 Statistics:
Most weeks at No. 1
Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (16 weeks)
Most weeks in the top 10
Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” (34 weeks)
Largest leap to No. 1
Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You” (97-1)
Most cumulative weeks at No. 1
Elvis Presley and Mariah Carey (79 weeks)
Most No.1 songs
The Beatles (20)
Most top 10 songs
Most consecutive weeks in the top 10
Katy Perry (69 weeks)
Most No. 1 songs from one album
Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” (5)
Most top 10 singles from one album
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (7)