February 2, 2015

Why Strong Sales Debuts Can Lead To Stiffs

This is the third in a series about how listeners engage with music across traditional and emerging platforms

In our last installment, we demonstrated how music purchasing patterns are fundamentally different from music listening patterns.  Now we look at the importance of a strong sales launch because our analysis reveals that over half of all songs that will ever become Top 10 bestselling digital downloads debut as Top 10 bestsellers in their first week on the charts.

You might assume looking for songs with strong sales debuts will help you pick tomorrow’s big hits.  However, our analysis shows it’s more likely to lead you to stiffs.

We analyzed 26 consecutive weeks of the Billboard® Top 10 Digital Songs chart, which ranks the biggest paid digital download singles in online stores such as iTunes.  We did the same analysis of Billboard’s Top 10 songs for Radio exposure and On-Demand streaming in each of the same 26 weeks that we examined previously.

We found that only one in six songs that debut as Top 10 bestsellers go on to become big hits on radio or on-demand.  What separates the hits from the stiffs?  It turns out that the hits are the ones that not only debut in the Top 10 but stay there for at least five weeks.

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What happens when a song debuts as a Top 10 Digital bestseller?  (© 2014 Billboard Magazine)

As the graph above shows, more than half—56%—of the songs that debut as Top 10 bestsellers in their first week don’t stay there; these are the songs that don’t go on to become big hits in terms of radio airplay or among on-demand streaming listeners.

For example, Ariana Grande & Iggy Azalea’s “Problem”, Ariana Grande & Zedd’s “Break Free” and Maroon 5’s “Maps” were among the 17% of songs that debuted as Top 10 bestsellers and remained Top 10 bestsellers for at least five weeks.  These songs were also among last year’s biggest Top 10 hits on radio and on-demand.

During the same time frame, Ariana Grande & Big Sean’s “Best Mistake”, Shawn Mendes’ “Life of the Party” and four different tracks from pre-teen boy band sensation 5 Seconds of Summer also debuted as Top 10 digital bestsellers, but these songs were among the 56% that were only Top 10 bestsellers in their debut week.  Die-hard fans may have eagerly purchased these artists’ latest releases, but few others wanted to buy or hear them thereafter.

In fact, the biggest hits of 2014, including MAGIC!’s “Rude”, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and John Legend’s “All Of Me,” are notable not because of how strong they debuted, but how well they kept selling week after week.  While most songs are no longer Top 10 bestsellers after 12 weeks, these #1 smashes are among those rare songs that remained Top 10 bestsellers for 17 to 36 weeks.  Undoubtedly, many of the people who bought these songs on iTunes week after week did so because they loved hearing them on your radio station.

Bottom line:  Don’t look at what songs are selling well this week.  Look for songs that keep selling week after week.

Stay tuned for our next installment, which will examine how to spot if today’s YouTube sensation has what it takes to be tomorrow’s big hit.

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