updated 2/10/2005 8:41:32 PM ET 2005-02-11T01:41:32

The Hot 100 is going digital.

For the first time, Billboard magazine will include songs sold by download in its weekly calculation of the nation's top hits. The change reflects the booming popularity of digital music players like Apple's iPod, which has accounted for dramatic increases in download sales.

Billboard's Hot 100 list has always been the music industry's chief hit barometer, from the days of sheet music to 45 rpm records to now, when many people buy songs through services like iTunes. It's the list people cite when they talk about having a No. 1 hit -- as Mario has had for seven weeks in a row with "Let Me Love You."

The list was calculated for years using a combination of radio airplay and retail sales. That changed in the late 1990s, when the music industry largely phased out the single as a product. Some singles were being sold at a deep discount in what Billboard concluded was an effort to manipulate the charts, so for the last several years the rankings have been almost totally based on radio play, said Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's director of charts.

"The sales were still factored in, but the impact was like that piece of parsley you had on your steak," he said.

Even though it has been the top hit, "Let Me Love You" has only been selling around 500 copies per week of a commercially available single, Billboard said. The song has lately been getting about 17,000 downloads a week.

Nielsen SoundScan has been tabulating digital downloads for Billboard since 2003. There were some initial problems accounting for different versions of songs, or all the places where the songs were available, but Billboard now feels comfortable enough with those counts to factor them in to the Hot 100, Mayfield said.

The change has already affected the rankings. Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" made the top five more because of its popularity online than radio airplay, said Silvio Pietroluongo, Hot 100 chart manager.

Similarly, 50 Cent's new single "Candy Shop" will jump from No. 30 to No. 8 next week because it is the most popular downloaded song, he said.

Both the Green Day and 50 Cent singles sold about 40,000 downloaded copies this past week, Billboard said.

"It really helps bring back the consumers' voices," Mayfield said.

Billboard's move is another validation of the digital marketplace, one the music industry didn't accept for many years, said Don Gorder, chairman of the music business and management program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"I think it's terrific," Gorder said. "Billboard is absolutely doing the right thing in factoring this information into the charts. It provides a much more realistic impression of the music that people are buying and listening to."

Gorder predicted it would be a boost to musicians on independent labels whose grassroots success is not immediately noticed by the radio industry.

Billboard also expects the change will add more variety to a singles chart that has been dominated by hip-hop over the past few years. That's primarily because they are the most popular music styles of today, but it also reflects the habit of hip-hop radio stations of playing hits more often than, say, rock or country stations, Mayfield said.

The chart does not reflect activity among songs illegally swapped. However, the Web site BigChampagne.com posts a chart each week of the 10 most-swapped songs, and "Let Me Love You" also topped that list. The top four songs on BigChampagne.com's list were also in Billboard's top 10.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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