Do the country music charts — which rank the supposed popularity of singles and albums — matter? That’s a loaded question, but it’s a valid one.
When pop singer Bebe Rexha collaborated with country duo Florida Georgia Line, they wrote a hit. Their song “Meant To Be” is a genuine pop diamond, and one of the more meaningful songs Florida Georgia Line is involved with.
But when the song debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Singles chart, it gave Rexha a dubious honor. She became the first female solo artist ever to debut at No. 1 on that chart (and only the third song in the modern era to debut at the top). That started serious conversations about the viability of country music charts.
Plenty Of Options
Dissecting whether or not charts “matter” requires some definitions. Like which chart are we talking about? There are plenty of options. Billboard has seven different charts pertaining to country music: Hot Country Songs, Country Airplay, Country Streaming Songs, Country Digital Sales, Country Albums, Bluegrass Albums and Americana/Folk Albums.
And each one has different parameters. Country Airplay only counts the times the song is played on terrestrial radio. Hot Country Songs, however, includes numbers of digital downloads and streams on services like Spotify and Apple Music, which is why they vary wildly.
The Country Streaming Songs chart counts streaming service plays, and that makes it more timely than others solely because it’s telling you what people are making an effort to listen to right now.
So while Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line also top the streaming chart, guess what is at No. 2 as of publication? That’s right, that smokin’ hot new single, Brenda Lee’s 1960 hit “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” Other classic artists currently on that chart include Gene Autry, Elvis Presley, Burt Ives and Bobby Helms.
And that’s just Billboard‘s charts. Outside of those, you still have the Mediabase charts (a separate radio chart). And in Texas you’ve got the Texas Regional Radio Report. Of course iTunes has its own charts, along with a lot of other service providers. Then you look outside of America…
Not “Do,” But “Who”
The right question isn’t, “Do the country music charts matter?” It’s, “Who do the country music charts matter to?” (Or for my fifth grade English teacher, “To whom do they matter”…ugh).
The industry uses the charts for social validation. Publicists, publishers, labels etc. talk about songwriters and artists in terms of the highest their songs have charted all the time. And the minutia is mind numbing. The “optics” of whether a song peaked at No. 21 or No. 20 doesn’t really matter to fans. But it’s the difference between calling a single “Top 20” or not. Sadly, artists have lost record deals for those kinds of distinctions.
The theory is that charting songs makes them more valuable. And there’s some truth to that. Our constant desire to rank things means charts make it easy for us to immediately find a story in an artist and objectively say, “This song/artist must be popular.” It’s all part of the game.
But what’s the tangible, sustainable value of a No. 1 single? It can cost upwards of $1 million to promote a single up to No. 1 on the radio charts. How many more people could an artist reach putting that $1 million elsewhere?
An Ugly Spotlight
Country music charts obviously don’t reflect the critical appreciation of a song. Just look at the disparity between Cole Swindell and Miranda Lambert. They don’t even represent how many people will show up to a concert (look at Chris Stapleton for proof of that). But they do shine an ugly spotlight on issues within country music.
The fact that Bebe Rexha is on the Hot Country Songs chart isn’t the problem. After all, she’s a pop artist and pop has done a much better job of embracing streaming music platforms like Spotify. The song has more than 100 million streams on Spotify alone already and she has several songs well on their way to 1 billion streams. Luke Bryan, for context, only has two songs with more than 100 million streams.
Country music needs to embrace streaming music. It’s the future. Radio is dying. Drive fans to streaming platforms or kiss the country music boom goodbye. Guess how many country songs appear in the top 435 songs streamed on Spotify?
Zero. Want to see Willie Nelson back on the charts? Go get Spotify and stream the hell out of Willie.
The fact that Bebe Rexha is the first female solo act to debut on the Hot Country Songs chart is the problem. Radio is so unwilling to get behind female acts in a consistent way that a rising pop start did something country icons couldn’t. And she did it without country radio, which is a horror show for most female acts anyways.
Fed up with the way the old country music model treats females? Don’t try to change the old model. Let it die. Demand diversity in country music by listening to it yourselves. And maybe then the country music charts will matter to everybody.