How Does a Song Make it to the Top 40?

How Does a Song Make it to the Top 40?

Every week Billboard puts together a list of the 100 most popular songs, broken down into different genres of music.  There are charts for country music, gospel, R&B, soul, Rock and pop or popular music.  Of all these charts the pop chart is the Holy Grail for an artist, it’s THE standard for commercial success in the music business.  There are artists who will crossover and reach the top 40 on more than one chart, take Taylor Swift for a modern example but most artists strive to hit the pop charts.  The list is based on several factors including sales, airplay and what makes up the top 40 playlists at popular radio stations.

Compiling the List

The first metric they look at is “airplay”, airplay are the songs that are actually played on the radio and television stations like MTV…well, when MTV actually played music.  Billboard assumes that program directors and DJ’s know what makes up popular music and they know what people like.  Broadcast Data Systems, who are run by Nielsen, track what songs are played on the radio throughout the week.  BDS also provides data on the number of people tuned into a radio station at any given time when a song is played.  Every time a new song is recorded a copy gets sent to BDS to help them with tracking on the stations that they monitor.  The data that BDS puts together is used by Billboard and everybody else in music business to calculate royalties that artists and record companies receive.

The second factor Billboard looks at is what songs people are spending money on.  To determine what albums are selling in record stores, although very little of that is actually done anymore, Billboard relies on SoundScan.  SoundScan is another Nielsen company that tracks the sale of music, and videos all over the US and Canada.  They use the bar code information to collect the sales that pass through the cash registers every week from more than 14,000 merchants, concert sales and now from online retailers.  Again not only does Billboard use this data so do record labels, concert promoters, artists and retail outlets.

A Changing Industry

The internet has changed the music industry from top to bottom over the past 20 years and Billboard has had to change their methodology for determining the popularity of music and music artists.  They have changed to use the Nielsen companies for data and changed the formula for weighing airplay against sales.  Now airplay holds more weight in determining a song’s position on the charts than it used to.  Tracking the popularity of a song based on album sales doesn’t work anymore.  iTunes which is now one of the world’s largest music retailers sells far more singles than album sales.

That is how Billboard determines the top 40 for the week, unfortunately it hasn’t made it any easier for new and upcoming artists to crack the top 40.