100 & Single: fun., Gotye, M83, EDM, And The Beginning Of The Hot 100's Spotify Years


Gotye feat. Kimbra, "Somebody That I Used To Know"

Forces like TV—"We Are Young" got a huge boost from the tube. The song was introduced to America in December as a cover by the cast of Glee; two months later, the original fun. recording was catapulted into the Top 10 thanks to a Super Bowl ad for the Chevy Sonic that featured the song prominently.

And yeah, Gotye's arrival in the Top 10 is pretty damned improbable. But it went viral months ago thanks to a simple, vivid and effective music video that has rung up nearly 120 million YouTube views since last summer. (The fact that duet partner Kimbra looks and sounds a lot like Katy Perry doesn't hurt; neither does the lyric, a classic Top 40-friendly he said-she said that's like a sequel to the Human League's "Don't You Want Me.") The Drake duet is has a cooler vibe than his average hit, but he's Drake and his singing partner is Rihanna, so that was going to catch on eventually.

What about all that electronic music crossing over? Avicii got a lift on the Hot 100 over the winter from the Flo Rida hit that stole his hook, and Skrillex has been on the rise since Grammy time. As for M83, mastermind Anthony Gonzalez's sound is rock-oriented enough that "Midnight City" broke into the Alternative Top 10 a couple of weeks ago; throwing Spotify into the mix just amplified a track that was already starting to connect with mainstream listeners (and still has a ways to go to make the Top 40).

But that's the point of Spotify, right? Its connections to Facebook and other social-media services help let people know what their friends are listening to. The fact is, digital music does deserve a certain amount of credit for our current wave of chart variety. Back in 2005, when radio programmers were focused on hip-hop, we saw how the dawn of the iTunes era fueled the shift toward tempo-driven, female-oriented pop. Radio program directors have been playing catchup ever since with fast-moving consumers, who've been paying about a buck a download for instant gratification. Now, streaming audio offers listeners an even cheaper, nearly frictionless way to infect friends with their favorite songs.

Under the new Hot 100 formula, iTunes and Spotify form a powerful Wonder Twins counterweight to the lumbering beast that is radio. Programmers are being pulled toward left-of-center records by rank-and-file listeners—instead of radio pushing listeners, as it has for decades. Of the half-dozen songs I listed above, all but one are ranked higher on Billboard's new On-Demand Songs chart than on its Radio Songs list. The disparity is stark, even for the songs in the Top 10: "We Are Young" is both the top-selling and top-streaming song in America, but at radio it ranks 19th. "Somebody That I Used to Know" ranks second in streams, fifth in sales, and 45th in airplay. And the EDM tracks aren't getting chartable airplay yet at all. (The one exception to this trend is Drake's "Take Care," which ranks fifth on both lists—no better at Spotify than at radio, but also no worse.)

The charts are, and always have been, a feedback loop between the labels, radio and fans. The only question now is which way that loop flows. Perhaps the most important feedback loop now is among the fans themselves—a cool song like Gotye's, which is catchy but sounds like nothing on the radio in 2012, passes from fan to fan, faster than ever, and its hit status becomes plausible. Now, Z100 has to play it.

I have a hard time believing that, in the aggregate, the charts are going to transform overnight into a paradise of quirky hits; Katy Perry will still use her privileged position to slam into the No. 1 spot from time to time. But I do think it's safe to predict that the upper reaches of the Hot 100 will be dotted with more outliers—songs that, rather than adhering to the radio sound du jour, have caught on because pop fans told each other they were cool.

So, let's call it: the pop trend of the immediate future is... no trend. This new era of omnivorous streaming hits may not be a movement you can label, exactly, like The Return of Rock, or The New Alternative. Maybe we should just call it fun.

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