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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