Four of the top five are by solo artists for the first time.
Billboard‘s Alternative Songs airplay chart has long been a stronghold for bands, but the Aug. 24-dated list reflects a marked shift in the makeup of artists on alternative radio.
Matt Maeson scores his first Alternative Songs airplay chart No. 1 with his first charting title, “Cringe,” and the song leads an historic top five, as four of the top five spots belong to solo artists for the first time in the tally’s three-decade existence.
First, Maeson’s accolades. “Cringe” makes the Virginian the third act to score a first Alternative Songs No. 1 in 2019 and the second to do so with a first charted entry, following Shaed with “Trampoline” in June. Billie Eilish‘s “Bad Guy,” which “Cringe” dethrones, spent two weeks at No. 1, marking her first leader in her second visit (after “You Should See Me in a Crown” hit No. 7 in December).
Maeson’s coronation follows the song’s initial jaunt up the Adult Alternative Songs airplay chart, where it peaked at No. 7 in January. The track also jumps 6-3 on the all-rock-format Rock Airplay ranking, up 13% to 8.2 million audience impressions, according to Nielsen Music.
With four of the top five being solo artists (Of Monsters and Men‘s “Alligator,” at No. 3, crashes the party), more soloists inhabit the top five than ever before on Alternative Songs, which began in 1988.
The previous record of three had been achieved multiple times over three decades, but there’s a bit of a caveat. It first occurred on the Feb. 25, 1989, chart, when Lou Reed‘s “Dirty Blvd.” led the list, Elvis Costello reached No. 3 with “Veronica” and Midge Ure appeared at No. 5 with “Dear God.” From 1989 to 1993, such a triple occurred a few more times with artists including Peter Gabriel, Morrissey, Michael Penn and Suzanne Vega, among others.
However, from the Jan. 16, 1993, tally (Neneh Cherry‘s “Trout,” No. 2; Daniel Ash‘s “Get Out of Control,” No. 3; Gabriel’s “Steam,” No. 5), three songs with solo artists didn’t occupy Alternative Songs’ top five at once for 25 years, and once it happened again (on Jan. 27, 2018), some context is required. Still, that’s two and a half decades in which solo artists often struggled to gain proper footing on alternative radio against a growing mass of duos and, more often than not, bands.
In the 2000s, for instance, no solo artist earned more than one top five hit each throughout the entirety of the decade. Every solo act that did break into the top five only did so once: Aaron Lewis and Fred Durst, whose single solo appearance apiece occurred together (“Outside”); Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott (same as Lewis and Durst, with “Hero”); Moby and Gwen Stefani (again, together; “South Side”); Beck (“E-Pro”); Amy Lee (as a featured artist on Seether‘s “Broken”); Paul McCoy (as a featured artist on Evanescence‘s “Bring Me to Life”); Adam Gontier (as a featured artist on Apocalyptica‘s “I Don’t Care”); and Serj Tankian (“Empty Walls”). Of that group, only two soloists were billed as the only artist (Beck and Tankian) and even Tankian’s top five came after a successful run with System of a Down.
Point is, the situation was once fairly dire if you weren’t presenting yourself as a band, even if, for all intents and purposes, your solo music wasn’t necessarily strikingly different from that of a group. And when at least three artists took up the top five again in a multi-week stretch between Jan. 27 and Feb. 17, 2018, two of the songs during that run (Beck’s “Up All Night” and Alice Merton’s “No Roots”) were, indeed, via solo artists, but the third, AJR‘s “Sober Up,” only featured Rivers Cuomo, rather than showing him off in a lead capacity.
It wasn’t until last week’s Aug. 17, 2019-dated tally, when Eilish, Maeson and Fike all appeared in the top five, that Alternative Songs’ upper eighth was occupied by three soloists; with Del Rey’s move into the top five on the latest ranking, the record finally jumps to four.
As for the chart as a whole, it’s clear more solo artists are breaking through. The 40-position, Aug. 24-dated list finds, in addition to the four in the top five, 12 titles total sporting a solo artist, either credited alone or together with other acts.
Why might the alternative format be trending toward more solo success? Potential reasons could be that the 2000s were a time of crunchy rock bands infusing the format (i.e., Linkin Park, Nickelback, Staind) seemingly moreso than at any other time in its history, with the 2010s bringing a shift back to less of such an extreme; as women including Del Rey, Merton and Eilish have found footing at the format, soloists, including women, become more automatic for radio programmers with each successive release; and it’s possible that in an era of Pro Tools and YouTube and the like, it’s easier than ever for budding artists to create (and release) music on their own as opposed to the time-tested model of forming a band.
Additional reporting by Gary Trust