How Songs Make it Onto the Billboard Charts

Posted by Kathleen Parrish on Nov 6, 2014 12:30 PM

Billboard_Hot_100_logoImage courtesy of Billboard

With its wide variety of charts, Billboard has measured music success since 1940. Many artists' perception of "making it" comes directly from those shiny gold and platinum records awarded by how high your song can climb. For artists on the rise, Billboard has the Uncharted (which measures social activity and streaming) and Heatseeker charts, along with the well-known Top 40, Hot 100 and Billboard 200, as well as individual category charts. Meanwhile, for unsigned artists, there seems to be a gap from successful musician to chart-topping Billboard smash hit. Bridging the gap takes time, chance, incessant marketing, and unquestionable talent – but which factors does Billboard take into consideration to determine which songs make it on the charts? Specific methodologies can be found on each chart page on, but here's how the big three work:

1. Airplay

If a song is repeatedly played on the radio, you can bet it’s on the charts. If you’re new to getting airplay, make sure you familiarize yourself with the process. Airplay is tracked through Broadcast Data Systems (BDS). BDS uses digital pattern-recognition technology to identify songs that air on radio and TV channels across the United States and Canada. This process is done 24/7 and captures over 100 million songs annually.

The data from BDS is used not only by Billboard, but also by radio stations, record company executives,  publishing firms, performance rights organizations, music retailers, and film and TV producers.

2. Social media and streaming

In recent years, Billboard has also considered streaming and social interactions on Twitter, Facebook, Vevo, YouTube, Spotify, and other popular music websites like Slacker and Rdio. YouTube was the most recent addition to tracking plays, which worked well for American DJ Baauer. He released his song "Harlem Shake" in 2012, having almost no airplay until it became an internet meme in early 2013. This sent Baauer's song straight to the top of the Hot 100 chart for five consecutive weeks. According to Billboard, it was "the first song to start at the summit by an artist essentially unknown prior to charting." 

Since Billboard takes social media and streaming into consideration, make sure you're engaging your fans and mentioning your music. Reaching out to fans through social media and having them hashtag your album or track is a great marketing technique to drive album sales and move songs up the charts.

3. Album sales

Billboard uses Nielsen SoundScan, which is an information system that tracks sales of music and music videos in the United States and Canada. By scanning the bar codes, the system collects sales information from over 14,000 retail and nontraditional sources such as online stores and concert sales. If you’re an independent musician, you absolutely must get a UPC code for your album. Aside from the ability to sell the album in stores, you increase your chance of moving towards the charts. To become a Heatseeker, you need to sell, on average, 450 to 500 albums in the first week. A great way to increase the likelihood of entering the charts is with a pre-order of your album, since all sales prior to the actual release date of the album count as first week sales.


Having a song chart on a Billboard chart as an indie artist is absolutely not impossible, especially if you're an active, touring musician with a strong fanbase. And, though these three areas aren't the only ones taken into consideration when ranking songs and albums, they can give any artist a boost. Landing on Billboard when you’re an independent or rising artist is no easy task, but once you’ve reached the charts, the opportunities are endless.


Kathleen Parrish is a singer and songwriter from Seattle, WA. While she specializes in lyrics, she enjoys writing short stories, poetry, and journalism. For more information, please visit

Grow Your Music Career

Topics: Features, billboard


Get weekly updates on articles, gigs, and much more!

Posts by Topic

see all