100 & Single: The R&B/Hip-Hop Factor In The Music Business's Endless Slump


Nicki Minaj, "Starships"

For decades, the sales data that went into Billboard's R&B chart formula came from "core" urban stores. Only retailers that catered to the black community were factored into the chart. What has happened to black-owned and urban-based music stores is that same thing that's happened to record stores across the board—virtual extinction. Billboard still tracks sales of physical singles at the few core urban stores remaining and factors those sales into the big R&B/Hip-Hop chart—but the effect is miniscule. A top-selling single in 2012 might move as little as one to two thousand copies.

Of course, top-selling physical singles of any genre sell poorly these days, and the Hot 100 uses sales data, too. So why hasn't the big pop chart turned into an all-airplay wasteland? Because the Hot 100 has something the R&B/Hip-Hop chart doesn't: digital sales. Since 2005, sales of songs at iTunes and other digital retailers have been factored into the big chart, acting as a vital counterweight to radio—even redirecting what pop programmers are willing to play.

OK—so why aren't digital sales a part of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart? The days when only affluent whites were using iTunes are long over, and hip-hop fans are big consumers of digital music. Can't these sales be baked into Billboard's black-music chart? This is, honestly, a very good question with a complicated answer.

Remember what Billboard's first black-music chart in the 1940s was called: Harlem Hit Parade. It's a dated term, but an oddly accurate one—the chart was devised to cover the music of a specific black demimonde, an ecosystem of black-owned-and-oriented music commerce that persisted for decades, even as it spread beyond Harlem.

That ecosystem of urban radio listeners and core R&B music-buyers still exists, surely. But how do you track it, if urban music fans are going to the same iTunes to buy their songs as everyone else?

It's probably not as simple as Billboard isolating sales at iTunes of African-American artists, or songs that are broadly related to hip-hop. In the last few years, we've seen the emergence of acts who "rap," nominally— the Black Eyed Peas, Flo Rida—but are more popular with pop fans and thus don't make the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 at all. A digital-fueled R&B/Hip-Hop chart would probably vastly overstate the urban popularity of will.i.am.

Or consider Nicki Minaj, who has had huge black-radio hits, but whose current pop smash "Starships" is so divisive among hardcore rap fans that it led to a Hot 97 beef and festival pullout by Minaj. I doubt very many of the three million digital buyers of "Starships" listen to urban radio, but who can say? The R&B/Hip-Hop chart would surely lose credibility with fans of core urban music if that song were riding the upper reaches of the chart—which it would, if all Billboard did was throw undifferentiated digital sales into the formula.



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10 comments
Jen
Jen

Usher's new album is on sale for Amazon's Summer Deals. No excuse as to why you don't have it now!  http://amzn.to/LMMKpX

PaulCantor
PaulCantor

Really enjoyed this breakdown. One thing I think you're seeing with Chris Brown and Usher, this time around, is that neither artist really has a smash record. They were lucky on their last LPs, because they both had songs that worked at top 40 radio and on urban radio. So they were both seemingly inescapable. Certainly Usher, he caught that wave of electronic music as it was just beginning to work its way into pop on a large scale, with "DJ Got Us Fallin In Love," and Chris had "Yea 3x." These songs were inescapable. They're still on top 40 stations now. But they also had songs on the urban side as well. It was a nice mix, and it allowed both artists to tap into two audiences. Now, neither of them have songs out that are any good. Usher's had a single out for months, I still couldn't tell you what it's called. It plays on the radio, but you can tell it's a programming move. Nobody likes it. A new Chris Brown song leaks on the internet every 3 days. I was surprised he even had an album dropping. Just seemed to come out of nowhere. The other thing is, on the urban radio side, mixshow has taken over and destroyed playlists. With respect to a station like Hot 97, for example, I couldn't even begin to tell you when they have air time that ISN'T mixshow. The whole thing just seems like a mixshow.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

This is a good question, Johnsomer. When I was doing the research into R&B-to-pop crossover for this piece, the other period I turned up in my research where crossover was at its lightest was in the very early '80s just before Michael Jackson and Prince broke wide (so, 1980–82, roughly). During that period, R&B radio was very much its own thing. Before Jackson broke (obviously Off the Wall had done very well, but compared with Thriller it wasn't exceptional), about the biggest star in black music was Rick James, who didn't make the Top 10 of the Hot 100 at all, not even with "Superfreak." I actually love this period of R&B (acts like Raydio, Zapp and Patrice Rushen), but it feels very separate from what was going on in mainstream rock (REO Speedwagon, Asia) and pop (Rick Springfield, the Go-Go's) at the time. After Jackson's big breakthrough, black acts went deeper into new wave–style sounds and sought Top 40 crossover: think mid-'80s acts like Ready for the World and Billy Ocean. But to come back to the argument of my piece, even during this period, you didn't have to completely alienate the core R&B radio audience to cross over—not the way, say, Usher these days feels the need to record a "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" or "Scream" for pop radio at the expense of his home-base audience; meanwhile, his slow-jam single "Climax" tops the R&B list but doesn't break the Top 10 at pop radio. Everything's much more bifurcated now.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

About as much as Nielsen matters for TV ratings—i.e., as long as the medium being measured (TV in the case of the Nielsens, music in the case of Billboard/Soundscan) matters, measuring it properly will matter. If what you're implying is that popular music itself is less important in the context of an array of wider media choices ranging from video games to social media to podcasts, then sure...but I'm not sure how that's relevant to the specific issues on offer here.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

And for "reductive," you should read "about as well-informed as the drunken dudes who burned disco records in Comiskey Park in 1979 and thought they were killing dance music forever."

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

I want to make sure I'm hearing you right: You're saying that hip-hop, the music that has reshaped the sound of popular culture since the early '80s and is now going on 40 years old...is a "novelty"? I mean, I must be misinterpreting you, because that would be a really reductive opinion.

Swytch
Swytch

The artists have no choice except to seek out crossover success. Going to the same Svengali producers over and over again obviously hasn't resulted in forward motion for urban music. I care less about this than the fact that acts like TV on the Radio will never have the level of support from people who look like them that Jay-Z does. Even rock is considered dead, and everyone wants the EDM sound. Maybe we can get some new genres out of the bargain instead of longing for what's been done to death already.

TS
TS

It's the negativity and the lack of originality in the material. There is nothing good happening for at least 10 years now. Hip-hop was only good as a novelty, no one wants to pay for it. R & B has always had a smaller audience, it's not every ones cup of tea...The problem in a nutshell is the wrong people are running the music business.

Selfenchanted
Selfenchanted

How much does Billboard REALLY matter now in the much larger media buffet?

Johnsomer
Johnsomer

Chris, keeping in mind that artists of color are represented highly on the Hot 100 (Rihanna, dancey Usher, Flo Rida) - it's just with songs deemed too pop for r&b playlists - has this phenomenon ever happened before? I would suspect not.

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