On Monday, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” set a new record, topping Billboard’s Hot 100 for 17 weeks. To achieve this, the single kept six rival pop stars out of the top spot, garnered five remixes (don’t forget Cupcakke’s), lasted for more than four months, nearly spanned three Democratic debates, enjoyed two times as many chart points as the poor suckers in the Number Two position, and spawned one massive debate about the state of country music. (“Old Town Road” has also been Number One on Rolling Stone’s recently launched Top 100 Songs chart for four out of the last five weeks.)
It’s an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that barely anyone knew of Lil Nas X a year and a billion-plus streams ago, when he claimed to be “living with my parents, [without a] car, suffering from severe anxiety causing major headaches daily, [and] struggling to get more than 3 hours of sleep.”
But Lil Nas X’s new record is also entirely logical, an extension of trends on the long-running Hot 100 that have been gathering force since 1991. “It doesn’t surprise me that with the global infrastructure we have through platforms like Spotify, you could have a song blow up this big and retain that lead for such a long period of time,” says Mark Bannister, a data scientist who has analyzed the Hot 100 in great detail. “We’re consolidating around bigger hits.”
Where does 1991 come in? That’s the year that Billboard changed the accounting method that underpinned their charts to take advantage of new technology dubbed SoundScan. “Instead of relying on lists of best-selling albums supplied by record stores, the new charts compute the actual number of records sold through a system that scans the bar codes at retail checkout counters,” The New York Times reported at the time.
It turned out that the old system, in which record stores self-reported sales, was (unsurprisingly) inexact. “Those estimates were open to manipulation and error,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1991. “Record companies, eager to hype their latest product, often found ways to influence employee estimates. At the same time, many of the employees took the Billboard chart divisions too literally. They reported, say, country and R&B sales only on the country and R&B charts — instead of also including them on the wider and more influential pop charts.”
The mechanized process was far more precise, a fact that even the change-averse music industry acknowledged — “most record company executives concede that the new method is far more accurate than the old,” according to The New York Times.
Changing the means of data collection had widespread impacts. The two most-frequently cited involve country and rap. Both genres had been considered niche concerns in the music business, but Soundscan data showed the two were in fact wildly popular. “The more accurate counting showed what people were actually listening to,” Bannister says.
But another less-discussed side effect of the new system concerned the duration of mega-hits. “Previously it was a different Number One every two or three weeks,” Bannister says. “The more accurate count showed that the American public tended to coalesce around a smaller number of songs for longer.”
Data support this emphatically: Of the nearly 40 songs that have spent ten or more weeks on top of the Hot 100, just two came in the pre-Soundscan era, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical.” The monster runs at Number One started almost as soon as the dust from the Soundscan shake-up settled. Boyz II Men launched “End of the Road” to the top of the chart for 13 weeks starting in the summer of 1992. Whitney Houston outdid them soon after with “I Will Always Love You,” which reached Number One in November and stayed there for 14 weeks.
These two songs set the tone for nearly every massive Number One in the Nineties: Ponderous ballads designed to reduce the listener to a puddle of tears. Three years later, Boyz II Men were also involved in the T-Rex of Number Ones: “One Sweet Day,” a supremely saccharine collaboration with Mariah Carey that spent 16 weeks atop the chart.
The mega-hits kept coming at a steady clip. “The Boy Is Mine,” which benefits immensely from some velocity, romped at the top of the chart for 13 weeks in 1998. Ashanti’s “Foolish” rode hip-hop-soul nostalgia for 10 weeks in 2002. Carey even came for her own record in 2005 with “We Belong Together,” pop-trap before it was ubiquitous, a 14-week chart-topper. But no song genuinely challenged “One Sweet Day” for 20 years.
The first real threat to Boyz II Men and Carey came in 2017, when Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito” tied their run. But before the trio could break the record, Taylor Swift knocked them off the chart with “Look What You Made Me Do.” Still, “Despacito” signalled that “One Sweet Day” was vulnerable. And two summers later, Lil Nas X pushed into the great unknown — 17 weeks.
Nothing could touch Boyz II Men and Carey for 22 years, then they were tied and passed within 2 years — that timing is probably not coincidental. The formula that underpins the Hot 100 takes into account sales, airplay, and streaming. Radio playlists have narrowed with time, since listeners tend to respond mostly to songs they already know; programmers have responded by playing fewer songs more frequently. And streaming, which has really asserted itself in the last three years, also rewards a few mega-winners. In 2018, the top 1,000 songs accounted for 121.8 billion streams, according to the analytics company Alpha Data (which powers the new Rolling Stone music charts that launched earlier this month). Taking those trends into account, it was likely just a matter of time until a song outlasted “One Sweet Day.”
But streaming brings additional reasons to favor huge hits as well. For one thing, the accounting system today is better attuned to listening habits than ever before. In the CD era, listeners who were obsessed with “The Boy Is Mine” could not express the depth of their fandom — once they bought the single, the fact that they played it 100 times had no impact on the chart. In the streaming era, every play on “Old Town Road” counts; the single earned an additional 23.7 million audio streams and 20.6 million video streams last week, according to Alpha Data.
Streaming doesn’t just capture the behavior of super-fans better — it also makes it easier for casual listeners to engage. Before streaming, a casual listener might not take a risk on a single he or she didn’t know about because the marginal cost of engagement was high. But today, anybody who wants to know what the fuss is about can listen to “Old Town Road” for free, and if a listener is subscribed to a streaming service already, he or she can listen at no extra cost. That means the charts incorporate curiosity listens — thanks to the controversy over its genre classification, “Old Town Road” probably generated plenty of these — which were harder to come by in 1998 or 2008.
On top of that, “word of mouth spreads faster through social media,” Bannister adds. And labels “can leverage marketing budgets more effectively in the age of streaming.” All these factors contribute to the fact that “we’re consolidating around bigger hits.”
There are, of course, caveats to this pronouncement. Streaming is still relatively young, so patterns that have formed in the last three years could still shift drastically as it matures. (This may be happening already.) If current conditions remain the same, though, expect another “Old Town Road” in the near future.