100 & Single: fun., Gotye, Carly Rae Jepsen, And The Era Of The Snowball Smash

Carly Rae Jepsen, "Call Me Maybe"

What sucks about a Hot 100 dominated by radio is what sucks about radio in general: It is slow-moving and averse to change. Once an Ashanti record is market-tested and listener-adopted, it is played and played and played, commanding the airwaves for months. What makes the Hot 100 work so well as a national pop barometer is its balancing of passive, glacial radio playlists with active, hair-trigger consumer purchases. In 2002, half of that formula was lopped off, and a snoozy Hot 100 was the result—the consumer was out of the picture.

A decade later, the consumer is definitely back in the picture. Thanks to legal digital music, sales of songs have a major impact on the Hot 100. The three big hits of 2012 have each shifted more than five million copies—the highest number of quintuple-platinum singles in a year, not just in digital music history, but quite possibly recorded music history (it's hard to know before the advent of Soundscan). In the post-iTunes era we're living in, radio, to a large extent, takes its cues from singles-buyers, rather than the other way around.

So if the pop-song consumer is now driving the bus and radio is stuck in the back, why do the charts of 2012 look so much like the deadly charts of 2002? Essentially, as in 2002, we're once again reaching the culmination of a pop trend, not unlike the radio-dominated hip-hop era of the early aughts.

We are now nearly a decade into the legal-digital-music era, where people can tote around smartphones and able to buy songs for a buck on a whim. Three or four years ago, a best-selling song on Billboard's Digital Songs chart (used to compile the Hot 100) would sell roughly 150,000-200,000 copies a week. Now, 250,000-300,000-sales weeks are far more common. "We Are Young," "Somebody That I Used to Know" and "Call Me Maybe" have all rolled those numbers routinely. In the first half of 2012, at least one of this year's three pop megahits broke the 250K mark 20 out of 26 weeks; in five of those weeks, more than one of them did. For at least one week each, one of these three songs broke the 300,000 mark, formerly a rarefied sum. In its first week on top of the Hot 100 back in April, sales of Gotye's hit crossed the 500,000 mark, one of only five songs in history to do that—and that was without Christmas or first-week sales boosting it.

You can call this the period of the snowball smash. The consumer starts a hit rolling downhill: Our three big 2012 smashes all started selling six-figure sums at iTunes before radio programmers gave them serious play. But once that hit is adopted by more casual pop fans, the snowball attains deadly momentum.

It's when the snowball is halfway downhill that radio becomes a big factor—once programmers pick up on a hit, just like in the days of Ja Rule and Ashanti, they hold on tenaciously. The fun. and Gotye hits each wound up topping Billboard's Radio Songs chart—the airplay component of the Hot 100—for a month and a half apiece; Jepsen's hit peaked in the runner-up spot at radio for more than a month.

("Call Me Maybe" missed the top slot at radio because it got stuck behind Maroon 5's current smash "Payphone," which peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100. "Payphone's" best sales week was its first; if it had been a strong-seller over a longer period it would have topped Jepsen on the big chart for a couple of weeks. Reinforcing the point: nowadays, radio can help make a hit, but you need big sales to top the Hot 100.)

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