For decades, there was a gold standard for identifying hits: the Billboard Hot 100. But people hear and buy music in many different ways now, and that's changed the calculus of hits. The chart, which has long been based on sales and radio spins, recently started reflecting online streaming, too.
"I think that actual radio itself is becoming irrelevant in what creates artists because of the Internet and because of grass-roots campaigns," says Evan Bogart, who has written hits for Rihanna and Beyonce. He says he cares more about radio play than sales, but there's something even more important to him — fans talking about a song online.
Exhibit A is Justin Bieber, undeniably one of the biggest stars this year. His latest single is called "U Smile." Jerry Wonda produced it, and it has spawned more than 17 million views on YouTube. But this week, the song is nowhere to be found on the charts.
Bieber is probably the best example of the way a young fan base is changing the definition of a hit. "Baby" was a smash — it's the most viewed YouTube video of all time — but it peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. In a new list of the 100 biggest songs of 2010 published by Billboard, "Baby" doesn't appear until No. 44.
Catherine Brewton is a vice president at BMI, the songwriters organization. She says it's a mystery to her that Justin Bieber songs don't get played on the radio very much. But, she says, "In this case, radio really doesn't matter that much."
To deal with the Bieber paradox, last week Billboard introduced yet another new chart — the Social 50. It ranks musicians' popularity by looking at sites such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. On that chart, Justin Bieber is No. 2.
But what about songs that sneak into popular culture? Here's another song that's not on the Hot 100 this week:
It's one of the top ringtones this week. The video that teaches you the dance has more than 2 million views on YouTube. Famous rappers dropped verses on the remix. But is it a hit?
We've asked you before: How do you know if a song is a hit? It could be a combination of sales, radio plays, YouTube views, online conversation, cellphone rings and dance-floor domination. But maybe you have a different tell.
Will there be another means of ruling the "airwaves" next year? Or do we just have to know it when we hear it?