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Far be it from me to beat a dead horse, but like newspapers, landlines and that aforementioned horse, physical music copies are going the way of the dinosaurs. The astronomical drop in physical music sales is no secret, as digital downloads, streaming services and torrenting have usurped everything the music industry used to profit from. This shift from physical to digital has not only had a tremendous impact on sales, but an even more interesting, culturally engaging impact on the charting and popularity of today’s music.

Let’s start with the basics. Billboard is the reigning king when it comes to music charting, and their Hot 100 chart is a weekly look at the top 100 songs, and a go-to figure for the most “popular” music. The chart has evolved tremendously since its 1958 inception, and a lot of that change has occurred in the past 10 years as digital downloads have all but eclipsed sales of physical single copies and streaming services have changed the way we listen to music. Today’s Hot 100 is comprised of three figures, and the formula is as follows: sales (35%-45%), airplay (30%-40%) and streaming (20%-30%).

Sales, as I mentioned, are dominated by digital downloads from online vendors like iTunes and Amazon. I highly doubt anyone under the age of 30 has ever purchased a physical copy of a song, which made up the bulk of a song’s sales figures well into the early 2000s. Airplay is what we hear on the radio – measured in the number of weekly spins and audience impressions a song receives. Finally, streaming represents a song being played on a variety of digital platforms, everything from Spotify and Pandora to YouTube music video views. Up until about 15 years ago, a song would chart well based on radio popularity and physical sales. The digital boom has blown that formula for success out of the water, and all you have to do is look to the Harlem Shake.

In 2013, Billboard incorporated a song’s views on YouTube into the streaming portion of the Hot 100 formula. At the time, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” was a viral sensation and spawning hundreds of YouTube parodies a day. With hardly any sales or radio airplay, “Harlem Shake” debuted at number one on the Hot 100 based solely on its massive YouTube views. Times they are a-changin’. At the very least, more than half (55%) of a song’s points on the Hot 100 are digital-based today.

Radio in the past had the power to catapult songs that weren’t even released officially as singles to fame – No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” are prime examples of songs that gained notoriety on radio airplay alone. Now with so many different streaming services and the ability to torrent and illegally download songs, radio’s influence is fading faster than the careers of some of the artists who used to thrive off it.

In a way, it’s kind of liberating. We are no longer beholden to radio programmers and corporate America when it comes to what music we hear and what sells and charts well. The little guys have risen up, and we now have the power, literally at our fingertips, to ordain a song’s popularity and send it to the top of the charts. Whether it’s a good thing that songs like “Harlem Shake” and “Gangnam Style” can chart as high as classics from Elvis Pressley and Aretha Franklin, that’s for the music snob in you to decide.

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