Billboard Changes Country Chart Rules, Boosts “Crossover” Songs

This morning the country music world was turned on its head when Billboard, the longest-running and most respected publisher of music charts, decided it was making sweeping changes to the way singles are judged in country. The most obvious result of the new format was 3 Taylor Swift songs hopscotching dozens of others to claim the #1, #2, and #10 spots in the country chart respectively, when before her highest-charting single was mired in the teens.

From Billboard:

The Billboard brand has delivered the world’s most trusted and most widely quoted country music charts for nearly seven decades, and the exhaustive work we’ve done over the past couple of years to revolutionize our country singles charts is realized today as we launch the most comprehensive, immediate and accurate country singles rankings since our first one rolled off the presses during World War II.

How are the new rankings different? Basically, instead of solely taking into consideration airplay by radio stations, Billboard is now taking into consideration digital downloads, and plays on streaming services such as Spotify.

Previously ranked solely by Nielsen BDS-provided radio airplay data since 1990, Country Songs (and several other major format charts) is given a major consumer-influenced face-lift, as digital download sales (tracked by Nielsen SoundScan) and streaming data (tracked by Nielsen BDS from such services as Spotify, Muve, Slacker, Rhapsody, Rdio and Xbox Music, among others) will now be factored into the 50-position rankings, along with existing radio airplay data monitored by Nielsen BDS.

But where Billboard’s new format gets dicey, where Taylor Swift benefited so greatly by the new system, and where it threatens to erode the autonomy of the country format is how the country charts now consider radio play from ALL formats, not just country. In other words, so called “crossover” country stars, meaning stars like Taylor Swift who also have their music played on pop and/or rock stations, will now get credit in the Billboard ratings for those plays on the country chart.

The makeovers will enable these charts to match the methodology applied to Billboard’s signature all-genre songs ranking, the Billboard Hot 100 — including airplay from more than 1,200 stations of all genres monitored by BDS — will reward crossover titles receiving airplay on multiple formats. With digital download sales and streaming data measuring popularity on the most inclusive scale possible, it makes perfectly logical sense that the radio portion of the new chart calculations include airplay from the entire spectrum of monitored formats.

A perfect example of the result of the new rules is Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, a song that has struggled in the country charts, but has been the best-performing country song in pop since Kenny Rogers’ “Lady”. Now it is country’s new #1. What is unclear at this point is if Billboard took into consideration that “We Are Never…” was released with two different mixes: a country mix, and a pop mix, with the pop mix being sent to radio stations as the “preferred” mix of the song.

The Long Term Effects of Billboard’s Country Chart Changes

If Billboard’s rules stay in place,the effects could be somewhere between dramatic and historic. The first and most obvious effect will be the new Billboard charts drastically favoring “crossover” country stars and other country stars with pop appeal. Taylor Swift is the beneficiary at the moment, but bands like Sugerland and Lady Antebellum could be next with new releases.

A&R personnel at record labels big and small decide what singles get released to radio, what songs to promote, what artists to sign based on very close attention to charts such as Billboard. If “crossover” artists and songs are given a new advantage on the Billboard charts, its only a matter of time before labels and artists begin to produce more songs that will attain the crossover appeal to gain more chart traction. In other words, expect even more pop-oriented country songs, more pop songs that call themselves country, and more non-country artists attempting to join the country format in an attempt to gain advantage by the new Billboard rules.

In the long run, this will erode the autonomy the country format has enjoyed since the beginning of Billboard’s charts and the inauguration of the genre, even more than what is already happening naturally with the inclusion of rap, pop, and rock in country. Billboards new rules are almost like a de-facto christening of the mono-genre.

What Billboard Got Right, and What They Got Wrong

Billboard is the most-respected and most universally-recognized publisher of music charts in the world. The reason they have stayed on top for so long and preserved their integrity is because they don’t sway to the industry, and because they strive for accuracy and fairness. In fairness to their new rules, the majority of them probably do make the country song charts a more accurate portrayal of the popularity of country singles. Spotify, Rhapsody, and digital downloads are growing in importance while radio is slowly loosing relevancy.

The spurious element of the new rules is the crossover radio play rule, and this plays out in the anomaly of having one artist’s performance do such a 360 as Taylor Swift’s did under the new format.

A rumor that has swirled around Taylor Swift for years is that her first album’s sales were unfairly bloated when a bulk purchase of albums was made, by either her family, management, or label. This has never been proven, but Billboard’s charts are not effected by such things, making them a more reliable pulse of popularity than sales numbers. Madonna ‘s last album saw bloated first week numbers that were then revised. But now that Billboard will be considering a sales element in digital downloads, this could lead to manipulations from artists, management teams, or labels that can buy downloads and effect chart performance.

Don’t Blame Taylor Swift, Blame…

Trust me when I say that Taylor Swift had nothing to do with this herself. She’s too busy picking out her favorite purple glitter eye shadow, trying to stay in tune, and counting the money she has already made. She is the huge benefactor to the new rules, but in no way was she a part of the decision. The fact that she benefits may beg the question of who truly may be either behind, or persuading the direction of the new rules. But up to this point, that has yet to be determined, and jumping to conclusions would be unfair to all parties.

Billboard is to blame, but since they got some of the new rules right, the blame is partial. People should be asking if any of the new rules came about from lobbying from labels, which ones, and why.

What Can Be Done?

I believe the reformatting of the Billboard chats could turn out to be the biggest story in country music in 2012, and could have massive reverberations on the business and sonic level. People who are against the new rules should first give Billboard credit for getting right what they did, for taking the power over the charts out of the hands of radio formatters, many who’ve been consolidated into massive corporations like Clear Channel who could unfairly dominate the charts while the general country population’s tastes reflected something completely different.

People who are concerned about the integrity of the country format should speak up and voice their concern for including crossover data in the country charts. This new format is still fresh, and Billboard is not stupid. They want their charts to be fair more than anyone else, because it is vital to their legitimacy.

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Make no mistake about it, Saving Country Music will be delving deeply into this issue in the coming days, ask the question of who decided to include crossover data and why, and what country fans can do to hopefully rectify the situation.