Monoculture is, depending on whom you listen to, either dead as a result of streaming or not dead, but resting. But no matter how much the algorithm has demolished the concept of a must-see or must-listen event, and no matter how far away from each other those tuned into contemporary entertainment are distributed throughout the long tail, the allure of the No. 1 endures.
No. 1 movies, albums, and singles in the U.S. regularly make headlines. The music-tracking chart data Twitter account boasts some 1.5 million followers, its every tweet full of stans representing their patron saint musicians as they bicker about statistics and sales. The actual numbers used in the charts may be a fraction of what they once were—take album sales, for example—but following rankings remains a pastime for many who are engaged in pop culture.
So strong is the allure of the No. 1, it seems, that virtually any No. 1 is potentially newsworthy. The most curious example of the tendency not to see the forest from the dwindling trees is the continuing space a No. 1 download on iTunes takes up in pop cultural discourse. As streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have soared in popularity during the last decade or so, the downloading of songs has declined precipitously. In 2012, combined digital album and single sales generated $2.8 billion in revenue, according to the Recording Industry Association of America; in 2021, that figure was $538.2 million. That’s a nearly 81 percent drop.
Despite the overall dip in downloading in recent years, reputable outlets like the Associated Press, NBC News, EW, and Rolling Stone have angled stories on iTunes No. 1s with little acknowledgement that these No. 1s actually represent a small percentage of the market and thus the songs’ overall popularity. (Widely read but less reliable outlets like Fox News and the Washington Times also do this.) The most recent example of a No. 1 on iTunes generating such coverage came via the renewed interest in Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” following its inclusion in the fourth season of Stranger Things.
Artists, who are presumably intimately aware of how little it takes to go to No. 1 on iTunes as it directly affects their bottom line, use these stats as bragging rights. Kid Rock’s jingoistic and Biden-slamming “We the People” (“‘Wear your mask, take your pills’/Now a whole generation’s mentally ill/(Hey-yeah) Man, fuck Fauci”) vaulted to No. 1 on iTunes soon after its January 25 release, leading Rock to gloat on Twitter about the stat as well as Donald Trump’s resulting congratulations:
The actual numbers were only relatively impressive. According to data that Jezebel obtained from Luminate, which tracks U.S. music sales and streaming, “We the People” sold 5,200 digital copies its first day out. It topped out at 9,800 the next day and declined from there. Seventeen days out, its sales were hovering around the 200-unit mark:
By way of comparison, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 during the tracking week in which “We the People” was released, had 34.9 million streams.
(Note: The figures provided by Luminate for this story represent overall digital sales, and iTunes is but one online retailer. In 2013, the NPD Group reported that iTunes had a 63 percent share in the digital download market. In any event, the data here likely represents a higher number than if iTunes sales alone were reported, which is further telling given how low they are to begin with.)
After Nicki Minaj released her collaboration with Fivio Foreign, “We Go Up,” in March, she boasted on Instagram that like she and Fivio, the song also went up (on the iTunes chart).
The caption of her post read: “In 1 hour, the #1 song on US iTunes is #WeGoUp @fivioforeign_8fs ♥️ #NoVideo #NoRadio #NoPlaylisting #NoDiscount #NoPromo Not a Republic Records single, no bag on it, just a surprise for the fans. 🙏🏾♥️ NEW YORK STAND DF UP‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️‼️”
That’s impressive only in the abstract. “We Go Up” sold 9,038 copies its first day out, according to Luminate. The next day, it moved 1,689 digital copies and then languished in the hundreds moving forward for the next two+ weeks (with the exception of a day in which it moved another 1,099 copies).
The song debuted (and peaked) at No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100, which assesses streaming and airplay in addition to sales in its formula. The most notable thing about the performance of “We Go Up” was its impact on a now arcane chart. That does not a hit make.
A few more examples of the actual numbers behind the headlines follow:
The headline: “YG’s ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ hits No. 1 on iTunes following election”
The outlet: EW
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 3,200 units (November 7, 2020)
The trajectory of YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump”:
The headline: “‘Clouds,’ by teen who died of cancer, hits No. 1 on iTunes”
The outlet: AP/ABC News
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 2,800 units (October 18, 2020)
The trajectory of Zach Sobiech’s “Clouds”:
The outlet: Revolt
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 6,600 units (April 9, 2021)
The trajectory of DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem”:
The outlet: New York Post
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 9,500 units (October 24 and 26, 2021)
The trajectory of Bryson Gray’s “Let’s Go Brandon”:
The outlet: Fox News
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 6,800 units (November 30, 2021)
The trajectory of Mike Rowe’s “Santa’s Got a Dirty Job”:
The outlet: People
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 4,700 units (February 3, 2020)
The trajectory of Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever”:
The outlet: ABC News
The peak digital song sales figure from this timeframe: 19,000 units (August 21, 2017)
The trajectory of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”:
The numbers tend to be even less impressive for albums that nab surprise iTunes No. 1s. When Mariah Carey’s Glitter hit No. 1 on iTunes in 2018 after her fandom’s #JusticeforGlitter social media campaign, the seeming triumph was widely reported and received the feature treatment in Rolling Stone. Carey tweeted about the milestone and performed a mini-set of the once-maligned soundtrack’s songs during the 2019 Caution World Tour.
The reality was that Glitter sold 2,141 digital copies on November 14, 2018 (the day before Carey’s tweet) and 1,574 the day after. Here’s the sales trajectory:
In contrast, Glitter sold 116,000 copies its first week in stores in 2001 and debuted at No. 7. It was widely considered a flop.
Carey’s 2008 album E=MC² received its own #JusticeFor campaign in 2020, landing at No. 1 on the iTunes album chart with a whopping...900 copies sold.
You can see how, with some diligence and organization, fans can effectively stack the books and help generate impressive-seeming headlines that the actual numbers involved don’t quite support.
Last week, amid coverage of the fourth season of Stranger Things, an NBC News story blared, “‘Stranger Things’ sends Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ to No. 1 on iTunes.” Meanwhile the song’s daily downloads topped out around 4,000.
But unlike many of the releases mentioned here, “Running Up That Hill” has proven itself to be an actual unlikely hit. It hit No. 8 on the most recent Billboard Hot 100, with digital sales at 18,300, airplay impressions around 392,000, and, most crucially, 17.5 million streams, according to Billboard’s report. Hitting No. 1 on iTunes predicted greater things for the song, but did not guarantee them, nor was it a sign of major units being shifted.
Not all No. 1s are equal. Downloads are such a small share of the marketplace that pointing to a download chart as a sign of cultural impact amounts to looking through a magnifying glass and claiming it’s reality to size. It’s like shrugging at a meter while being impressed by 1,000 millimeters. The state of the download industry is such that a story about an iTunes No. 1 implying a milestone achievement is ultimately just clickbait.