Should ‘Idol’ Join ‘Glee’ In The Music Biz Record Books?

The cast of Fox’s ‘Glee‘ rode its aggressively cheery remakes of pop songs into the record books this week when it broke the Beatles’ record for the highest number of Billboard Hot 100 hits by a non-solo artist. The cast of Fox’s Autotune-happy dramedy will have, as a group, notched 75 songs on the United States’ premier singles chart since the show debuted in May 2009.

It’s tempting to draw a straight comparison between then and now — and indeed, many “‘Glee’ Beats The Beatles” headlines have been blanketing Google News since Billboard announced the feat. But the chart successes of the songs from ‘Glee’ can be attributed in large part to the show being around in the digital-music era, when fans can immediately satiate their desires to hear a song with the click of a button on iTunes — and reports of those sales are sent from stores to chart HQ in a much more immediate, and precisely measured, manner than they were nearly 50 years ago.

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The No. 1 song on Hot Digital Tracks, the Billboard chart that ranks the sales of songs via iTunes and other digital-music outlets, is the Far East Movement’s “Like A G6,” which sold 216,000 copies in the week ending Sunday (October 3). By contrast, the top ‘Glee’ song on the chart this week, a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” sold 109,000 copies during its first week of availability.

Watch the ‘Glee’ gang perform Britney’s ‘Toxic:’

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This week ‘Glee’ has seven songs in the Hot 100 — the six tracks from the Britney Spears-themed episode that aired on September 28, and the cover of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” that aired on the premiere. That song, which sold 106,000 copies in its first week of availability in stores, debuted at No. 21 on the Hot 100 a week ago; this week it dropped to No. 94 on that chart. The Billboard piece on the ‘Glee’ record notes that the chart successes of the cast’s songs are fairly short-lived:

[O]nly 14 of the “Glee” cast’s recordings through last week have spent more than one week on the Hot 100. Through the Oct. 16 ranking, the cast’s titles have totaled 105 cumulative chart weeks. The Beatles’ Hot 100 catalog amounts to a combined 617 chart weeks. The Beatles additionally boast 34 Hot 100 top 10s, compared to the “Glee” performers’ one.

There’s also the notion of reporting the ‘Glee’ cast’s songs as being from a group, which is somewhat flawed, as Yahoo! Music chart watcher Paul Grein notes:

Help! The information is correct. But we are comparing Apples (the name of the Beatles’ record label) to oranges. Glee is an entertaining television show, with a talented and versatile cast. But the cast isn’t really a group, by any reasonable definition. So they can do things that a real group can’t.

Six songs from Glee make the Hot 100 practically every week that a new episode airs. That’s as many songs as the Beatles put on the Hot 100 in all of 1966, when they were the hottest group on the planet.

My argument that the Glee cast isn’t comparable to the Beatles isn’t an artistic judgment. If an actual group or duo challenged the Beatles’ stats, that would be a different story. Last year, the Black Eyed Peas spent 26 consecutive weeks at #1 with two monster hits, “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.” The Beatles never had more than 14 consecutive weeks on top. No reasonable person (including the Peas) would say that this makes them bigger or better than the Beatles, but their achievement stands.

Still, thinking about chart records and Fox shows brings to mind the network’s other pop-happy ratings juggernaut — ‘American Idol,’ which has caused seismic chart reactions at the end of each season. That’s when 19 Entertainment and iTunes have released the cumulative sales data, causing many songs by contestants to appear on both the Hot 100 and Hot Digital Tracks en masse. (Right now, it holds off on reporting the data during the season — we’ll get to why in a second.)

In 2008, David Cook blanketed the Hot 100 with new entries in a manner reminiscent of the Beatles in 1964, and chart analyst Chris Molanphy had this to say:

When David Cook set the SoundScan-era record for Hot 100 dominance two weeks ago, Billboard chart columnist Fred Bronson fielded several grumbly letters from aging Boomers, who complained that comparing David Cook’s 11 songs to the Beatles’ 14 charters in April 1964 was a farce. To be fair to these thinly veiled Fabs fans, comparing chart phenomena in the modern era–with its whipsaw chart moves and instant-boom-and-bust singles–to the more regimented old-school charts is, shall we say, a bit fraught.

Still: you don’t achieve what the Beatles, David Cook and Lil Wayne pulled off without something wonderfully weird going on. The fact is, all three acts have a rupture in the normal record-label release pattern to thank for their success. As Bronson explained in his column, the only reason the Fabs scored 14 simultaneous Hot 100 singles was the sheer number of labels releasing Beatles product before the group broke in the United States early in 1964; then, after their Ed Sullivan Show appearance, about a half-dozen tiny U.S. labels emptied their vaults of any Beatles-related tracks they’d been lucky enough to sign up.

Comparisons between the recent history of 2008 and the current chart moment are probably more apt than those between 1964 and now — and drawing the parallel between the Fox schedule-mates is even more tempting. “Here again, with ‘Glee,’ we have another example of TV and an unusual contractual arrangement producing a plethora of chart singles in a compressed period,” Molanphy notes.

Watch the ‘Glee’ cast perform their first big hit ‘Don’t Stop Believin’:’

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Given that in the court of public opinion, ‘Glee’ has been ascendant while ‘Idol’ has floundered, it’s tempting to wonder if a chart record like this one would give the show a much-needed shot in the arm going into its 10th season. And the show’s been going through a protracted revamp this year, too, with new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, a new emphasis on modern songs thanks to recently installed chief mentor Jimmy Iovine, and even a new record deal. Could the show get some of its buzz back if it were to change its practice of not reporting week-to-week sales, and instead letting each singer make their presence known on the pop charts and the ‘Idol’ stage simultaneously?

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“As a chart geek, I say yes,” said Molanphy. “But I can’t see 19/Freemantle/Fox wanting to change that rule, given what it would do to perceptions of the competition. For ‘Glee,’ all the Hot 100 activity is nothing but a boon — it has no downside. It’s pure promotion. For ‘Idol,’ the downside is real — depressing turnout and letting the rank and file behind the curtain.

“Call it the Underwood Principle: Five years ago, people were saying that if ‘Idol’ viewers knew how much Carrie had it locked up week after week, they’d get bored.”

It’s also worth noting that even if the ‘Idol’ producers had a change of heart about reporting week-to-week sales, the chance of that move grabbing the headlines in the (flawed) manner that the ‘Glee’ cast did this week is highly unlikely. After all, most of the ‘Idol’-born songs people are interested in buying are individually attributed to the person performing them; the group singalongs featured in the dance numbers and Ford commercials are more opportunities for comedy than they are for iPod-filling. So the idea of “The “American Idol” Cast” rising up as a unit to overtake ‘Glee’ in the record books is highly unlikely, unless Fox decides in a last-ditch effort to remake the show in an even more radical fashion.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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