Once again, the Billboard "Hot 100" singles and tracks chart is faced with the issue of whether strong sales should count for more than strong airplay. Once again, the reason for the question is Clay Aiken.

On the April 3, 2004 Billboard Hot 100 chart, Clay's song 'Solitaire' debuts at #4. This follows the official debut of Clay's new RCA CD single, 'The Way' / 'Solitaire', on the Nielsen SoundScan U.S. SIngles Sales chart at #1 for the week ended March 21, 2004, with sales of 100,500 copies. The CD single had actually debuted on the sales chart the previous week at #93, due to the fact that some retailers sold copies of Clay's latest release prior to the official sale date of March 16.

The Billboard Hot 100 charts, which are based on a combination of airplay, including airplay across musical genres, paid downloads, album sales and CD single sales (if any, since there is no requirement for a track to be released on a single), couldn't ignore Clay's sales, as this is his second straight CD single release to debut with six-figure sales. His previous effort, the platinum CD single 'This Is The Night' / 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', sold 393,000 copies in its debut week, which earned it the top spot in Billboard's Hot 100 for the week ... and for the next week as well.

Because the Billboard charts rely on a vague mix of airplay and sales, both are given weight in the determination of #1. In the judgment of the Billboard chart department, Clay's high sales but relative lack of airplay caused Billboard to rank three tracks above it, even though one isn't even available on CD single. At #1 is 'Yeah!' by Usher (featuring Lil Jon & Ludacris), which ranked #8 in sales for the week for RCA's sister label Arista; at #2 is Chingy's 'One Call Away', which is not available on CD single; and at #3 is J-Kwon's 'Tipsy', which is #10 in sales. Although some of Clay's fans have been calling for even higher sales of the single to boost its chances of reaching #1, even higher sales without airplay might not be enough to help Clay's single move up.

Airplay also generally decides which track of a CD single is recognized on the charts. In Clay's case, airplay overwhelmingly favors 'Solitaire' over 'The Way' at this point, so Billboard lists just 'Solitaire' on its Hot 100 chart. The Nielsen SoundScan U.S. Singles Sales charts list both sides, since both are considered to be "A-sides" of the CD single.

Billboard's Hot 100 singles and tracks chart, with its emphasis on both sales and airplay, stands in contrast to its Billboard 200 albums chart, which is driven entirely by sales ... and which is 100% based on the Nielsen SoundScan U.S. Album Sales chart. However, it is consistent with the standards that Billboard has applied for singles since the 1950s, when it merged its separate airplay and sales charts to originally form the Hot 100 chart.

Although Clay's success dominates the chart discussion, another American Idol 2 finalist is ranked at #3 this week. Third-place finisher Kimberley Locke, who is also Clay's roommate in L.A., dropped from #1 last week with her Curb Records single '8th World Wonder.' Kimberley's record remains stuck in the Hot 100 at #78 for the second straight week, despite the fact that Billboard is recognizing it as this week's fastest-growing track at retail.

By contrast, Beyonce's 'Naughty Girl', the fastest-growing track on the airwaves, shot up from #68 to #34 in its second week ... indicating that airplay is generally given priority over sales in Billboard's rankings (which is why many songs, even in the 1960s and 1970s, were known as "turntable hits" because they generated a lot of airplay but limited sales). Another example is Ruben Studdard, the third member of the Idol 2 final three, whose 'Sorry 2004' remains #18 after 14 weeks on the charts despite the fact that it was never released as a CD single.

One recent change within the BMG Music Group may have the effect of helping Clay gain airplay. Previously, BMG had operated as three independent groups in the U.S. Group 1 was the RCA Group, including both RCA Records (which records Idols Clay and Kelly Clarkson) and J Records (which records Ruben), headed by recording industry legend Clive Davis. Group 2 was Clive's old label Arista Records (OutKast, Usher, Pink), run by Antonio "L.A." Reid with ZERO input from Clive, and Group 3 was Jive/Zomba Records (Britney Spears, American Juniors), headed by Barry Weiss. However, "L.A." Reid was fired by BMG in January for wasteful spending, and the L.A. Times reports that BMG is reconsolidating operations in two groups (RCA and Jive/Zomba, with all of Arista except LaFace joining RCA). Both groups will now report to Clive Davis.

Such a centralization may provide a greater impetus for BMG personnel to use their connections to generate airplay for ALL of the group's artists, especially artists such as Clay that generated personal involvement from Clive. Although Ruben, whose 'Sorry 2004' reached #1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay charts, and Kelly, whose track 'Miss Independent' reached #1 on the Top 40 Airplay chart, may not need that extra boost, Clay appears to need all the help with airplay that he can get.