With this historical tradition in mind, it should be no surprise to discover the publication once again has updated its chart methodology. Billboard’s newest popularity yardstick introduces hybrid charts based upon radio airplay, sales and digital streaming. NEKST contacted Nashville Sr. Chart Manager, Wade Jessen to find out how the new system really works. Jessen has been with the publication since 1994 and helms radio and retail charts for the Bluegrass, Christian, Country and Gospel music formats.
NEKST: So now there are three types of country charts? The SoundScan sales list based upon retail sales, a pure Airplay chart based upon BDS monitored data and the newest member of the group, the Hot Country Songs chart which appears in the print and Mid-Week Country Update editions.
Wade Jessen: That’s pretty much correct. Billboard has survived through all this crazy evolution by realizing we can’t be a museum piece, we must embrace change. To accurately reflect the marketplace, we felt it was no longer adequate to only present a chart based purely on airplay from 130 or so stations because consumers influence everything in such a direct and immediate way. However, moving beyond BDS was a big challenge because Nashville’s primary marketing tool is still country radio. So we kept our BDS-based Country Airplay Chart which connects the history back to the beginning of the BDS era on Jan. 20, of 1990 and introduced a new hybrid chart—Hot Country Songs. The hybrid list includes more consumer influence and is more reactive than the pure airplay chart which moves slowly except when you have a superstar.
NEKST: How is the hybrid Hot Country Songs chart created?
Wade Jessen: The Hot Country list actually comes directly from the Hot 100. In fact, if you take the country titles off the Hot 100 that is what it is. It’s driven by digital download sales activity, streaming activity and radio airplay. In fact, Hot Country Songs is driven by the exact same multi-format radio panel as the Hot 100 chart which monitors approximately 1200 stations. Hybrid style genre charts are also planned for Contemporary Christian and Gospel, plus Billboard’s Country Midweek Update now breaks out the streaming component in a separate chart.
NEKST: How does the recipe work?
Wade Jessen: It fluctuates based upon activity every week, but digital sales and radio are each about 40% and the rest is streaming, the same formula the Hot 100 uses. In terms of history, this is the chart that picks up all our singles history back to 1944, so it is our centerpiece chart. The country airplay chart takes it back to the start of the BDS era (1990). Some on Music Row were concerned about which chart qualifies for a No. 1 record. The answer—either one or both.
NEKST: Change can be upsetting. Didn’t BDS cause panic when it was introduced?
Wade Jessen: Absolutely. Technology-based charts went from being dismissed outright with lots of hostility, to being tolerated, then accepted. Ultimately they became the chart currency. Billboard’s pure airplay chart cross references very specific audience information with the exact time of the plays on the stations we monitor. We don’t do any additional layers of weighting. Our overnights mirror the way Arbitron does it.
NEKST: How did that system develop?
Wade Jessen: For the longest time the BDS chart was ranked by the number of total plays. Record labels began going to the smallest markets where overnight airtime was least expensive and sponsoring plays. Stations would identify the play as being sponsored, which is perfectly legal, and the strategy moved the chart needle. “Total plays” meant that an overnight play in Columbus, GA was worth the same value as a morning drive play in Chicago—but those things are wildly incongruent. So in Jan. 2005 we returned to the audience-based ranking method. I say “returned” because when we introduced the BDS chart in 1990 it used audience instead of spins—but the town went crazy because the system meant that New York City, Chicago and LA were driving the chart instead of places where the country life group was larger.
NEKST: Is there much similarity between the Top 5 of the two charts?
Wade Jessen: Some, but they don’t mirror each other. For example, when the hybrid chart launched, Taylor Swift was climbing with “We’re Never Ever Getting Back Together.” On the Country Airplay chart it peaked around Top 15. But then it became a huge Top 40 hit and because those stations help drive the Hot Country hybrid chart, Taylor’s song became No. 1 for 10 straight weeks. Another example is the Florida Georgia Line remix with Nellie. It’s hot at Top 40, sales are going through the roof and people are streaming it. So that’s what this is, it’s a consumption chart. The BDS Airplay chart is radio, the tastemakers, the core; the hybrid list is a reactive chart that takes in the entire BDS radio base plus all of the digital components. So for example, a track from The Voice might appear immediately on the hybrid chart. Then if radio comes to the party it only adds to the momentum.
NEKST: What about the streaming data? Where does it come from?
Wade Jessen: Data is compiled from the following sources; Guvera, Muve Music, Rdio, Rhapsody, Slacker, Spotify, YouTube, Vevo on YouTube and Xbox Music.
NEKST: Will the BDS chart will become less important in the future?
Wade Jessen: Probably not in the foreseeable future. As long as radio drives the ship and labels continue to fully staff radio promotion departments this chart will remain a key tool. It’s the first thing we put out on Monday nights.