Billboard, the influential music industry trade magazine, is changing the way it ranks songs on its country singles chart beginning this month after concerns that the old system allowed promoters to manipulate the chart.
"It's a change we've been contemplating for years, and it follows at least a year of very close scrutiny of the charts," said Wade Jessen, director of Billboard's country charts.
Until this month, a song's position on the weekly Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart was determined by the number of "spins," or plays, it received on 122 radio stations monitored by Billboard. The size of the station's listening audience or the time of day didn't matter: a 3 a.m. broadcast in Jackson, Tenn., counted the same as a 5 p.m. broadcast in Chicago.
But beginning with Billboard's Jan. 15 issue, songs on the country chart will be ranked by "audience impressions," or the number of people who actually hear them.
Not only will the value of the spin vary by market, it will vary by time of day depending on how many people are listening as measured by Arbitron data.
"It switches from a most-played chart to a most-heard chart," Jessen said.
Billboard already uses the method to compile some of its other radio charts, including Hot 100 Airplay and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop. The magazine's competitor, Radio & Records, uses a similar system on its country singles chart but not its other charts.
Before the change, record labels and promoters were able to buy relatively cheap, late-night air time on small-market radio stations to boost a song's total plays and move it up the chart _ momentum signified by a "bullet" that often translated to more airplay and record sales.
The sponsored spins, commonly called "spot buys" and "spin programs," are similar to TV infomercials and permitted under Federal Communications Commission rules, provided they are clearly identified as paid advertisements.
Critics say that though legal, the practice is questionable.
"We don't believe chart performance, especially in terms of the No. 1 record, should be fought and won on all-night shows in the smallest markets in the country," Jessen said.
Ed Salamon, executive director of the trade group Country Radio Broadcasters, said readers look to the charts to determine which songs are most popular with listeners, not which ones have the most manipulation behind them.
"Rather than concentrate on genuine airplay, some record companies have created these campaigns to exploit the methodology of the major charts," Salamon said.
A recent example was MCA Nashville's promotion of Reba McEntire's single Somebody. The label purchased spot buys for the song with the syndicated radio show After Midnite, which is heard on nearly 300 radio stations; Citadel Broadcasting Corp., which owns more than 200 stations in 24 states; and Entercom, which owns stations in 21 markets, including Boston, Seattle and New Orleans.
The song reached No. 1 on the country singles chart the week of Aug. 7 with an unusually large gain of 1,150 spins from the previous week, Jessen said.
Scott Borchetta, promotion chief for MCA, Mercury and DreamWorks, did not return phone messages. But he defended the strategy in the trade publication Music Row, saying Somebody did receive help but reached No. 1 on its own merits.
"A lot of labels are whining that we paid upwards of $100,000. Couldn't be further from the truth. Did we do several programs? Yes, but only for a fraction of that cost," Borchetta said.
The practice isn't unique to country music or to a particular label. Last year, rocker Avril Lavigne's label, RCA, purchased overnight air time on Nashville top 40 station WQZQ to promote her single Don't Tell Me. On May 23, the station played the song 18 times between midnight and 6 a.m., according to Billboard.
Billboard's change probably won't end spot buys, but it is expected to diminish their influence by giving more weight to large market stations.
"Typically, these radio stations are multimillion-dollar profit centers and are not going to give up prime listening real estate the way it's given up on all-night shows in small markets," Jessen said.
But some Nashville record label executives worry that the shift from a spin-based to audience-based chart will hurt new artists, who often gain early momentum through spins during off hours.
"A lot of times new artists break out on nights and overnights. Now, those spins won't mean as much," said Butch Waugh, executive vice president of RCA Label Group Nashville. "You can have more spins this week and show encouraging signs, but if the spins are occurring in nights and overnights, you can lose your bullet and send the signal that the record is losing momentum."
Waugh says country artists already have fewer avenues for radio and chart exposure than their pop counterparts and will be limited even more. He also says ballads, a mainstay of country radio, will have a harder time cracking the chart under the new system.
"They are the last songs to go into morning drive," he said. "So, you're kind of being penalized if you are a new artist, or if you have a ballad. And if you're a new artist with a ballad, you really have a hard time breaking into the system."