Today, on the strength of stronger-than expected radio acceleration, Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” made it onto my short list for possible Songs of the Summer for 2016.
The catchy second single off of Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear followup, This Is Acting, has already reached the top 10 on the overall hits lists of almost every other country in the world: Australia (#6), Austria (#1), Belgium (#1 or #3), Canada (#5), Croatia (#1), Czech Republic (#1), Denmark (#2), Europe (overall, #1), Finland (#2), France (#1), Germany (#1), Hungary (#2), Ireland (#1), Israel (#1), Italy (#2), Latvia (#3), Lebanon (#2), Netherlands (#3), New Zealand (#3), Norway (#3), P0land (#2), Portugal (#1), Scotland (#1), Serbia (#1), Slovenia (#1), Spain (#1), Sweden (#1), Switzerland (#2), and the United Kingdom (#2). Note that of the largest music markets, only Japan and the United States are absent from the list (of course, data is not available for many small countries). Note also, that the song peaked at #1 as often as not.
Still, the song got a slow start in the United States after fallout from the absence of Maddie Ziegler in the music video from “Alive.” Another contributing factor to radio’s initial unease with this song when it was released clear back on the 11th of February was that Sia had portrayed this album as the reject pile, the place where songs that had been written for other artists but rejected for whatever reason went to die. Maybe the songs went to the trash heap for good reason?
Finally, after months on radio’s back-burner with little-to-no growth, AFTER the song had done extremely well in almost every other market in the world, US radio finally started to ease up on “Cheap Thrills,” and as it did so, the song gradually started to accelerate.
Songs of the Summer
So what is the Song of the Summer, anyways?
With over 100 charts, Billboard ranks songs on almost every metric imaginable — twitter trending, streaming, sales, radio airplay, genre-specific sales, streaming, and radio airplay, youtube streams, on-demand streams, etc. The most-important ones are the overall singles and album charts — the Hot 100, Album Sales, and the Billboard 200. They also recently debuted a chart called the Artist 100, which ranks artists based on their overall performance in terms of sales, streaming, and radio airplay amongst all of their songs and albums.
The Billboard 200 used to be the album sales chart, but split off when Billboard decided to start counting streaming and track sale album equivalents in the main album ranking chart. Album sales just counts traditional digital and physical full album sales. The Hot 100 ranks songs based on a secret formula that weights streaming, sales, and radio airplay.
The Songs of the Summer Chart quite simply agglomerates the data points from the Hot 100 for all charts that occur between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Whichever song is at #1 when the agglomerate chart ends is crowned the Song of the Summer.
Needless to say, perfect timing is incredibly important. Past Songs of the Summer have typically lead the Hot 100 for at least 6 weeks, and have had their peaks in early-to-mid summer. Frequently, debut huge breakout hits for new artists have been more likely to take the crown than new hits from established huge artists: Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl;” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe;” Iggy Azalea’s and Charli XCX’s “Fancy;” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines;” Omi’s “Cheerleader;” LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem;” The most-recent songs to crown the summer by non-breakthrough acts were Katy Perry’s 2010 “California Gurls” (the first of 5 #1 singles from Teenage Dream, a record Katy now shares with Michael Jackson); the Black-Eyed Peas’ 2009 “I Gotta Feeling” (and #2 “Boom Boom Pow”) (the Peas had previously had 3 top tens in 2003-2005, including 2 #3 hits on immediately preceding album, Monkey Business, which produced 2 additional top 20 hits); and Rihanna’s 2007 smash “Umbrella.”
Why? Sales (and to a much smaller extent streams and radio airplay) from established big-name artists are typically front-loaded, whereas everything is peak-loaded for a new breakout hit. In order to take the crown, you want to peak-load stats and have the peak timed correctly, so that the song is in surge in early summer and in collapse in late summer, with the highest peak for at least a little while for a time during mid-summer.
Songs that debut during the summer typically do poorly because they have 0 stats during some early weeks, whereas songs that peak early in the summer typically do better because even after they peak, they continue to move a lot of units for the rest of the summer. So, for an established A-list artist to take the crown, they ideally need to release their song exactly during the first week of the chart so that the massive early sales spike counts towards the overall total without leaving any empty weeks, and then their song has to take off like a rocket at radio to ensure that the song can avoid a sharp second/third week dropoff and have an early-enough radio peak that the bulk of the song’s strength is crammed within the tracking period.
Alternately, the artist could release a song earlier, without a lot of fanfare, and then let it grow organically as summer approaches, and then time promotion of the song such that it has surprisingly strong peak-loaded stats that are centered right in the middle of the summer.
“Cheap Thrills” is the greatest-gainer overall at radio today, with 60.828 million running weekly impressions (+3.423M today). It rises from #29-#23 in a single day, four months after its release. In fact, it is now growing at twice the rate of the #2 fastest-growing song on radio, Pink’s “Just Like Fire.” In short, it is growing at the rate that one would expect it to grow if it were poised to eventually reach #1 on radio and on the Hot 100.
Even if it does reach #1, it will need to reach #1 within the next 4-8 weeks and stay there for several weeks to even be in the running for Song of the Summer. On the plus-side, it doesn’t have any zero-weeks, and it appears that the bulk of its peak will be contained within the sunny months. Should the song retain its current extraordinary rate of growth at radio, it would be expected to enter the top 3 within a month. Around that point in time, it would become a contender for the top slots on the Hot 100, depending on how its streaming and sales numbers were to hold up.
Sia has no easy road ahead of her. “Cheap Thrills”‘s streaming numbers are far weaker than those of Drake’s “One Dance,” which have kept it ahead of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” despite clearly weaker sales and radio airplay. However, Drake’s streaming numbers are slowly weakening. His song has already peaked. The biggest questions are how quickly Drake’s and Justin Timberlake’s songs will collapse and how quickly (and how far) Sia’s song will rise.