Anatomy of a Hit (Part One)

According to the Collins English Dictionary:

“Hit Single” [noun] a successful and popular song.

As definitions go, it’s an easy one to understand, especially for generations of Top 40 listeners who searched the radio dial to hear the latest from Buddy Holly, ABBA, Mariah Carey or even Maroon 5.

Since the advent of Top 40 radio back in the 1950’s, the desire to have a “Hit Single” has been an all-consuming goal for countless artists.  Having a song go to #1 on the charts grants entry to a very exclusive club, resulting in fame, fortune and a place in pop-culture history.  And the only way to get to #1 is by having more airplay than anybody else in a given week.  Older radio folks familiar with slip-cued 45’s and Fidelipac carts might remember when the national charts were assembled with a certain degree of guesswork and estimation via phone and fax, but with the advent of Mediabase and NielsenBDS monitoring, there’s no doubt as to what’s actually being played, both when and where.

So, just how many spins do you need to reach the top of the CHR (aka Top 40) chart in Canada?

Well, it depends. Due to the fluid nature of both rotations and playlists, the number required to hit #1 varies on a week-to-week basis; looking at 52-weeks of recent data (September 24, 2011 through September 15, 2012), the average threshold required to land on top of the CHR chart is 1,719 spins.  But that, of course, is only an average — 1,951 spins (12% more) were required for Katy Perry to peak on the Mediabase charts with “Wide Awake” August 4th, while Pink’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)” was able to do it a few weeks later on September 8th with 1,554 spins (10% less than the average and 20% less than Katy), which shows just how wide the variance can be over a short period of time.

What’s even more interesting, and often misunderstood, is that having the nationally ranked #1 song doesn’t mean that you’ve got the most-played song at every station — far from it, as that type of across-the-board consensus is extremely rare, thanks to the various “flavours” of Top 40, especially with all of the different programming styles and philosophies that drive stations market-to-market.  Instead, the key element to chart glory is to consistently be within the top five biggest spinning tracks on as many stations as possible. So in a strange way, 5+5+5+5+5 = #1. Do you follow?

Let’s look at “Wide Awake”, the Katy Perry track which had a five-week run at #1 starting back in July.  “Wide Awake” was heard on 28 of the 29 panel stations, the exception being Flow Toronto (CFXJ-FM), where the song didn’t fit into their urban-leaning sound.

For the first week of her chart run at #1, Katy had the top-spinning track at 17% of the panel, with Top-5 placement at 79% of the panel and Top-10 spins at 89% of the panel:

So the take-away here is that during the first 3 weeks of her #1 run 80% of the stations playing her had her in the Top 5. That number eventually decreased towards the end of her run, but by week four 20% of the stations playing her were playing her more than anyone else.

Breaking those percentages down to the actual plays:

So looking at all of this the important thing to note is that during all five weeks at #1 Katy’s “Total Spins” remained above that ‘average’ 1,700x mark that it takes to be number one. Spins and individual station thresholds changed, but everything remained above that high water mark, allowing her to remain in the top slot.

Let’s compare “Wide Awake” with the performance of Flo Rida’s “Whistle”, which sat at #4 on the July 28th Mediabase Top 40 chart before jumping to #2 for the weeks of August 4-25.  As far as panel numbers go, Flo Rida had a slight edge over Katy Perry, generating airplay on all 29 reporting stations.


Even though Flo Rida appeared to have a stronger presence in various individual markets as the top-spinning track for three of the five weeks, Katy Perry was able to score a higher number of overall spins thanks to her consistent Top-5 play, which ultimately helped her to secure, and then successfully hold onto, that coveted “#1 Hit Single” status.

To summarize, a successful single’s ultimate chart peak will likely be determined by the amount of Top-5 placements it can secure nationally.  Individual #1’s at stations are obviously going to help a song’s march up the charts, but without the larger national airplay within that Top-5 margin, it is very easy for a song to get stalled out.

Now that you’ve got the crash course in “what makes a hit”, next month we’ll illustrate the always curious reasons why it’s damn near impossible for a Can-Con track to be a #1 hit in Canada.