“Nude” Controversy Follow-up

Chris Molanphy has confirmed it:

The results, in week one: the original song sold just under 13,000 copies, and each of the four stems sold between about 9,200 and 9,800 copies. (If you’re curious: the vocal stem sold best, then guitars, strings/effects, drums; as in life, bass pulls up the rear.) Total sales for all six pieces combined were just shy of 60,000.

Billboard had to make a policy decision for “Nude.” When the original iTunes sales were tallied by SoundScan, the original song plus each stem were logged and charted separately. But for Hot 100 purposes (in keeping with Billboard‘s tendency to treat it as a “songs” chart, not a “tracks” chart) “Nude” is charting in one cumulative position, which makes it look bigger than it is. If the original song, sans stems, were to chart by itself, it would have made No. 96 on the digital sales chart and likely would have missed the Hot 100 entirely.

As a chart fan, there’s one way to look at this that’s a bit cynical, and one that’s more optimistic. You could look at this as chart pollution — since when is a bass loop a legitimate proxy for a hit single? It’s as if Radiohead is propping up a minor hit by finding a loophole through U.S. chart policy, not unlike the 2004 Prince album that was allowed to include free copies handed out at concerts in its Billboard tally, and charted much higher than it should have.

On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious this chart event wasn’t the intention of Radiohead’s multi-mix release strategy. And it’s undeniable that, as usual, they’re coming up with innovative ways to get fans excited about actually paying something for music.

So maybe this isn’t the investigative scoop of the century, but it remains an interesting case study in chart manipulation, intentional or accidental, in the iTunes era. I’m not so willing to concede that “it’s pretty obvious” TBD Records wasn’t shooting for exactly this result from the beginning — it is mighty clever, and it gives the label the ability to go back to Radiohead and say, “Look, we got you back on the US charts, use us again to distribute your next record.”

And really, beyond giving the label some bragging rights, “Nude” being a Top 40 hit is probably meaningless. I don’t imagine anyone racing to buy In Rainbows or tickets to a Radiohead concert because they saw “Nude” hit #37. It’s possible that the single gets some radio exposure out of the deal, but I predict it will still be roundly ignored.

Maybe it’s earned a spot on the next NOW compilation?

Last update about this:  After the Idolator story confirmed my original entry with some hard data, Pitchfork made the decision that this was newsworthy. And of course, once it hits the ‘fork, that’s enough to earn an explanation from the folks at Billboard themselves:

Contrary to online reports, the high Hot 100 debut this week by Radiohead’s “Nude” is not due to a “technicality,” nor a new Billboard charts policy decision.

The track opens this week at No. 37 on the Hot 100 after selling 60,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That total represents combined sales for the original song and five different “stems,” which the band invited fans to download and use to create their own remixes. Remixes uploaded to Radioheadremix.com are available for fan voting through May 1.

The No. 37 debut was fueled entirely by these downloads, as the song is only being played on 3 of the 1,289 stations monitored by Nielsen BDS. It received just 6 plays during the April 4-April 10 tracking period.

According to Hot 100 director Silvio Pietroluongo, “Billboard abided by its long-standing remix policy in regards to “Nude.” For the purpose of our airplay, Hot 100 and Hot Digital Songs charts, Billboard merges remixes with the original version as long as the music and/or lyrics of the remix remain true to the original.”

So there you go: the stems are “remixes,” or close enough that the Billboard rules treat them that way. And how nuts is it that a song that got played a total of six times on radio stations around the country broke into the Top 40?

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