Their chart dominance might seem surprising, but more shocking is who's perched at the top of the list. Here's a hint: It's not a singular artist.
No, it’s … the cast of “Glee,” the television show about singing teenagers. Take a look at the top 15 artists with the most appearances:
- The cast of “Glee” (207)
- Drake (191)
- Lil Wayne (160)
- Elvis Presley (108)
- Nicki Minaj (100)
- Jay-Z (98)
- Kanye West (93)
- James Brown (91)
- Chris Brown (90)
- Taylor Swift (77)
- Ray Charles (75)
- Future (75)
- Eminem (73)
- Aretha Franklin (73)
- The Beatles (71)
There are a few different factors at work here that explain what might seem like a baffling list. After all, the Eagles have the best-selling album of all time, with Michael Jackson close behind, and both have a lot of individual hits, as well — but where are they? Garth Brooks, Led Zeppelin, Billy Joel, Elton John, Pink Floyd and AC/DC are all in the top 10 of pop music’s best-selling artists — but none of them appears on the list. Kenny G has sold more records than Eminem, one of hip-hop’s most bankable stars, but his smooth jazz is nowhere to be found here.
It really began with the rise of iTunes and the new way users consumed songs. Instead of going to Best Buy or a local record store, now users were buying individual songs. So the charts had to figure out how to count those downloads.
Then came streaming, the music industry’s true disrupter. As we reported in The Washington Post in July:
Billboard added streaming songs as one of the metrics for its charts in 2012, leading the Recording Industry Association of America and Nielsen to follow suit. The criteria have changed several times in the interim — just last month, the company made changes to weight paid streams on services like Spotify over unpaid ones on jukebox-esque services like Pandora for the Billboard 100 singles chart. Meanwhile, for the Billboard 200, 1,500 streams of any songs on one record equals one listen to that record.
As the charts struggled to come up with a streaming equivalent to an album purchase or a song download, the media has been awash with headlines touting the latest record-breaking chart numbers. Artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Drake, Kanye, Lil Wayne and Post Malone are constantly breaking each others’ records, leaving bands such as Prince, the Rolling Stones and ABBA in digital obscurity.
The result is that it’s much easier for a song to pop onto the Billboard 100. Consider this: In the old days, a fan would purchase an artist’s new record. It didn’t matter if she listened to that record once or 100 times on repeat. Now, though, every listen counts. And since streaming makes it easier to listen to new music, a fan might leave the new Drake record playing on repeat for a few days. The key is that the song only needs to hit the list, not remain on it. In our culture of hype, that means fans might listen to a certain song over and over again for a week — and then never listen to it again. It still charts. In the past, radio stations would have to give songs massive radio play for them to chart.
The results are clear. Every track on West’s “Ye” hit the Billboard Top 100. Eleven tracks from Eminem’s surprise release “Kamikaze” appeared on the chart in its first week, while five of the nine tracks from Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s “Everything Is Love” hit the chart despite being released only on Tidal.
Keeping in mind how easy it now is to hop on the Billboard 100, even if only for a week, now consider the artists in question. Rap tends to be heavy on featured guests, meaning that one rapper (say, Nicki Minaj) will often appear on the song of another rapper (say, Lil Wayne).
That’s where Minaj shined. She amassed 100 appearances on the chart in less than a decade by teaming up with other artists. Billboard notes her first appearance was in 2010 on Lil Wayne’s Blink 182-esque track “Knockout.”
In addition to Lil Wayne, Minaj counts Ariana Grande, Drake, Chris Brown and DJ-producer David Guetta among her frequent collaborators. Some of these collaborations happened on Minaj’s own albums, but the majority of her hits are as a featured artist.
And despite her frequent presence on the Hot 100, Minaj has never had a No. 1 hit. She’s had 17 songs reach the top 10, and ascended to the No. 2 spot with her 2014 single “Anaconda.”
So that explains many of the hip-hop artists, but what about the cast of “Glee"?
It comes down to a type of chart manipulation. A couple new songs — a mix of covers and musical mash-ups — were dumped onto streaming services to coincide with each new episode. Fans would obsessively listen to these few songs each week, meaning they would chart. The next week, there would be two more.
It's likely that if these songs were all dropped in a bundle, fans would not have had the patience to listen to them all so many times.
Minaj certainly deserves the praise for her record, but Billboard and Spotify share in that glory.