The end of the Top 40

Further to my post about Casey Kasem, the Christian Science Monitor notes the difficulty in charting America’s most popular songs in the digital age:

…as Mr. Kasem’s time before the microphone dwindled, the format he created to determine pop music popularity became less relevant. With the splintering of radio formats, followed by the advent of digital media, it became more of a challenge to quantify hit songs, no less figure out what American consumers, as a collective, were listening to together and at once.

“The notion of a ‘No. 1 record’ began to be outmoded even with the rise of FM Radio in the 1960s, which became the cutting edge music on radio,” says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York City.

[…]

Listeners now exist in a niche world of culture and enjoy the freedom to curate their own tastes without the guiding hand of radio programmers. That’s why megahits are no longer quite as mega as in Kasem’s time.

“The problem of identifying ‘No. 1’ songs has certainly become more complex in recent years. No longer can a charting organization look to one or just a few types of sources to calculate a song’s success,” says Ed Arke, a communications professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Even what constitutes a hit is now elusive: Social media buzz can catapult a song like the 2013 hit “Harlem Shake” by Baauer to instant mass attention and skyrocketing download sales without outside exposure, for example. Viral popularity based on views and not retail sales is often difficult to assess, but it has not gone unnoticed, which is why Nielsen Soundscan now tracks major streaming services.

“What we’re seeing is more artists who are having small to medium success and fewer megahits, a trend likely to continue because the number of sources to factor into such a rating systems have grown so much, it is becoming increasing more difficult to gather all of the relevant data from across the country and around the world,” Professor Arke says.

Even the world of countdown shows has multiplied since Kasem departed the airwave. In addition to Seacrest’s “American Top 40,” other countdown shows exist on SiriusXM, CMT, VH1, Last.fm, Hype Machine, among other outlets – many based on different metrics and showcasing different results.

The Billboard Hot 100 is still around, but the current version of American Top 40 now uses data from Mediabase, with very different results.  (Note that several country songs – extending the definition of “country” to include Florida-Georgia Line, of course – rank fairly high on the Billboard chart, but are nowhere to be found on AT40.)

During the Casey Kasem era (and even when Shadoe Stevens was hosting AT40) it was very common for songs from other genres to cross over to the countdown.  Programmers today make sure that never happens.

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