Monday, February 22, 2010

Caren Explains the 25 Biggest Hits in iTunes History

Lest anyone doubt Apple's stronghold in the music industry, iTunes is about to deliver its 10 billionth song download. How big is 10 billion? Well, 304m Americans would have had to purchase 33 songs each to achieve this milestone, or else each of Europe's 830m citizens would have had to purchase 12 songs (an entire album) off of iTunes.

In preparation for the celebration, iTunes released a playlist of its most downloaded songs of all time. The top five?

1) "I've Got a Feeling," Black Eyed Peas
2) "Poker Face," Lady Gaga
3) "Boom Boom Pow," Black Eyed Peas
4) "I'm Yours," Jason Mraz
5) "Viva La Vida," Coldplay

Looking through the full list (and doing a fair bit of Nielsen SoundScan research), I observed a few things:

- There is no one recipe for success. Only six (6) of the songs debuted at #1, while nine (9) of the Top 25 songs never made it to #1, including "I'm Yours" and "Viva La Vida," which nevertheless rank in the Top 25 of all time. Slow and steady won the race for Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" (which entered the charts at #85 and took 27 weeks to reach #1), whereas "Boom Boom Pow" debuted at #1 and spent 10 weeks in the top spot. See all my findings here.

- More than half of the Top 25 songs debuted in 2008. This is not that surprising, considering the trend in consumption and the cumulative number of downloads served across time:

We should also consider that iTunes installed base has grown over time, which means if 5% of users download a #1 song, the resulting sales look much different in 2003 than 2009. For example, when "Hey There Delilah" was at #1 in 2005 it sold 130,000 units a week; when "I Gotta Feeling" debuted at #1 in 2009 it sold 250,000 units a week -- nearly double what "Hey There Delilah" generated.

- No songs added to the catalog in 2004, 2006 or 2010 made the cut (though I expect a few hits from 2010 will by the end of the year). Were 2004 and 2006 just bad years in music? According to Billboard, the most popular songs in 2004 and 2006 were, respectively, "Yeah!" by Usher and "Bad Day" by Daniel Powter. Perhaps people went out and bought those CDs rather than digital editions? Or the songs were timely but not timeless? (I certainly don't need to hear "Bad Day" ever again).

- For all their popularity and exposure, no American Idol winners made the list... not even Carrie Underwood.


One thing I'd be interested to learn is the Top 25 digital albums of iTunes history. As you can see below, the best selling physical albums from 2003-2009 did not produce Top 25 digital singles, save Taylor Swift with "Love Story" in 2009.

- 2003: "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" - 50 Cent
- 2004: "Confessions" - Usher
- 2005: "The Emancipation of Mimi" - Mariah Carey
- 2006: "High School Musical" soundtrack
- 2007: "Noel" - Josh Groban
- 2008: "Tha Carter III" - Lil Wayne
- 2009: "Fearless" - Taylor Swift

Any songs you expected to see on the list that didn't make the cut?

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