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What Does It Mean to Have the No. 1 Song in Country Music? (Part 2)

Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Taylor Swift
Isaac Brekken (2) / Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Earlier this year, a movie advertisement promoted its Golden Globe nominations, but the graphic they used flashed the word “winner” across the screen, as in “winner” of several nominations. A casual viewer would believe the film won several Golden Globes, but the ceremony was still weeks away at the time. This sort of tricky advertising isn’t limited to cinema. With several charts and complicated methods of computation, just about anyone can have a No. 1 country song.

A No. 1 song on iTunes is the most flimsy of all No. 1s. It’s like the guy who sprints at the beginning of the New York Marathon, has his friend take a picture of him leading the race and then claims he was a leader, even though he finished back in the pack with an average 15-minute mile. By releasing a song at off times and then promoting the heck out of it on Facebook and Twitter, one can get a screenshot of their song at “No. 1.” The week-to-week digital sales are what you want to look at.

"As a result, Randy Travis and George Strait never had their real sales numbers compared to other hitmakers — it’s why both men have stunningly few Gold and Platinum singles."

A recent example of this is Lucy Hale‘s ‘You Sound Good to Me.’ The song rang the bell at No. 1 on country singles charts, but quickly fell back. Over the course of the full week, ‘Drink a Beer’ by Luke Bryan was the true No. 1 country single. Hale finished a very respectable fourth with nearly 42K singles sold. The next week, however, she sold just 9,500.

As far as airplay, there are at least two separate charts — the value of which was discussed in Part 1 of this feature. There is the Mediabase airplay chart and the Nielsen BDS chart. Both rely on slightly different stations to total up airplay, and while they end up with similar Top 40 lists, they’re far from identical. Billboard has complicated things by adding a hybrid sales/streaming/airplay model and not making their algorithm transparent. You can also break down their airplay chart into radio and Spotify sub-categories. What does it mean to have a No. 1 song on Spotify, but no airplay?

Sales do seem to be weighted heavily on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, the hybrid. It’s why Florida Georgia Line had the No. 1 country song for 24 weeks (ending in August 2013), despite reaching their airplay peak in December 2012. The Nelly collaboration of ‘Cruise’ brought an entirely new audience to the song — and to iTunes — driving sales for nearly five months. It was a clever business move by the duo and their record label. Having the best-selling song of all time will surely drive up their booking fee, and it raises their overall clout.

FGL Nelly
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Sales charts aren’t all equal, either. A No. 1 album this week may mean sales of 30,000 albums, where a No. 1 next week may require 130,000 album sales. Zac Brown Band’s EP ‘The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1’ was at No. 10 on sales charts for the week ending January 10, up from No. 26 the week before. A surge in sales? Nope, everyone else just slipped. Five thousand units of a lightly-promoted, four-song EP isn’t something to dismiss, but the same number in early November would only put them at about No. 15.

The current system is actually an improvement, as computers track sales via Soundscan. Prior to 1991, Billboard would call record stores and ask them to rank their hottest sellers. The bias against country music is well-documented, with many stores simply choosing not to include country music in their tally. As a result, stars like Randy Travis and George Strait never had their real sales numbers compared to other ‘70s and ‘80s hitmakers — and it’s why both men have stunningly few Gold and Platinum singles. Many believe Travis sold as well as Garth Brooks would after the invent of Soundscan. Part of what made Brooks so popular was he was the first to be measured against pop and rock contemporaries.

"Years ago, some would flaunt ringtone sales as proof a single was hot. Seriously — ringtone sales!"

Soundscan was good for country music. It leveled the playing field. Before it, what would stop an enterprising artist or his representatives from slipping Johnny at Flip Side Records $100 to put his record at No. 1 in sales? People think that sort of stuff goes on today, but it doesn’t, especially not among larger, more reputable record labels and especially not in country music. There might be a free dinner or drink at the bar, but no one is getting flat screen televisions unless it’s for a listener giveaway.

Record label representatives will use any No. 1 or high chart ranking as a reason radio stations should play their song. Years ago, some would flaunt ringtone sales as proof a single was hot. Seriously — ringtone sales! In 2014, with ringtone sales becoming less popular than payphones, this seems comical. Actually, it seemed pretty stupid in 2008 as well.

In you’re curious, Billboard still keeps a ringtone chart. The No. 1 country ringtone currently is ‘Bottoms Up’ by Brantley Gilbert. It’s also No. 1 on the Country Streaming Songs chart, just ahead of ‘Cruise.’ You won’t find any country on the Top 25 YouTube chart, which is too bad.

In all fairness, Taste of Country keeps a monthly Top 40 Country Songs chart that leans on a similarly vague combination of airplay figures, sales and staff and reader opinion. We include “active” songs at the time of publication, meaning a song is currently being promoted by an artist for heavy airplay on the radio. This month’s No. 1 is Gilbert’s ‘Bottoms Up.’

Next: How Much Is a No. 1 Song Worth?

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