A foolproof way to separate the casual pop fans from the true chart nerds: Ask them which artist holds the record for most chart entries in Billboard Hot 100 history. Give 'em five guesses, even.
Most will immediately go to the all-time chart legends: The Beatles, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson. Nope. Maybe a couple of them will figure it's a more recent megastar, able to take advantage of the charting volume allowed by the streaming era: Drake, Taylor Swift, Lil Wayne, Beyoncé. Closer, but still pretty far off.
Actually, the artist with the most Hot 100 hits in history is barely an artist in the conventional sense, but more a collective: Glee Cast, the credited force behind precisely 207 entries on Billboard's marquee songs chart. That was, of course, the catch-all artist name for every song released as a digital single from Fox's smash musical TV show Glee, which debuted 10 years ago this Sunday (May 19) and focused on a high school glee club, with the show's musically talented cast covering a variety of pop hits — and eventually, performing a handful of original compositions — in every episode.
Glee was an immediate hit on primetime, and it was on the Hot 100, too. On the chart dated June 6, 2009, Glee Cast notched its two first entries: covers of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." The former debuted at No. 98 and was off the chart the next week, but the latter landed all the way at No. 4 — two spots ahead of rock superstars Linkin Park's then-new Transformers soundtrack single "New Divide" — and lasted on the chart for seven weeks. The show's chart presence only grew more prolific from there, and by the end of the first season, Glee Cast was regularly sending five new songs to the Hot 100 per episode.
It didn't take long for the show to threaten, and then quickly break, a number of long-held Hot 100 records. In October 2010 — two episodes into the show's second season, just 16 months after its first chart appearance — Billboard announced that Glee Cast had broken the record for most entries in the chart's history by a group, previously held by The Beatles with 71. Then four months after that, Glee took the all-time Hot 100 crown, notching nine entries on the chart — the troupe's most in a week — including six debuts, to bring its all-time total to 113, past the previous record of 108 entries, held for decades by Elvis Presley.
Was excitement around Glee really at such a level that it was able to dwarf both The Beatles and Elvis Presley in less than two years? Well, probably not quite: The show was obviously a major cultural force, but what separated it on the Hot 100 from Beatlemania was more about differences in era than anything: Simply put, no other such high-profile artist in the chart's history had ever had the capability of releasing singles at this rate or volume before. While Elvis and The Beatles saw their release schedules planned to specifically promote singles one at a time — and were also inherently limited by the demands and constraints of physical media — Glee was able to release five or six songs on the Internet as digital singles after every episode, and the show was popular enough that fans would eat 'em up and still be hungry again for more one week later. It was rare and resounding success story during a period of extreme insecurity within the music industry.
In fact, the timing for Glee really couldn't have been better. In the late '00s and early '10s, physical sales were dwindling, but download sales were surging, well on their way to overtaking CDs as the best-selling musical medium. The debut and rise of Glee neatly nestled into those peak iTunes boom years. Glee's digital sales were so robust that the songs didn't really need assistance from radio airplay to get onto the Hot 100 — thankfully for the act, because they didn't get much. While Glee Cast scored a staggering 237 entries on Billboard's Digital Song Sales chart (over 100 more than the next closest competitor to this day), it never once even scraped Billboard's Radio Songs tally.
However, while Glee landed a high concentration of Hot 100 hits on a weekly basis at its apex, lack of continued radio support and diminished novelty past the songs' debut weeks meant they usually didn't land very high or last very long on the chart. In fact, that No. 4 debut for "Don't Stop Believin'," in the first appearance by Glee Cast on the chart, was as high as the show ever got — of its 207 Hot 100 chart entries, only three ever reached the top 10, while just 70 of them ever made it to the chart's top half (still the fourth-best total among all acts all-time). The great majority of the songs were one-and-dones on the chart, debuting outside the top 40 and then dropping off the next week. "The songs from Glee aren't hits," wrote Jacob Ganz of NPRin a 2010 article examining the show's overwhelming-but-fleeting Hot 100 presence. "They're souvenirs."
But while the Glee covers weren't often hits in their own right, they did help make a couple hits possible in their original forms. Most prominently, fun.'s Janelle Monae-featuring "We Are Young" was a relatively obscure single by a New Jersey trio with little established mainstream presence when Glee decided to feature it in a season three episode in late 2011. After the Glee Cast version of the little-known song debuted at No. 12 on the Hot 100, it ignited interest in the fun. version, which then scored a Super Bowl commercial sync, and quickly went on to be one of the biggest hits of 2012, topping the Hot 100 and winning the Song of the Year Grammy in 2013. (The year's other biggest and most unexpected alternative hit, Gotye's Kimbra-featuring "Somebody That I Used to Know," also benefited from a smaller Glee bump, climbing to No. 1 on the Hot 100 the same week the Glee Cast version debuted at No. 26 on the chart.)
Even with these successes, the show's Hot 100 entries started to thin out significantly in its third season, and by the fourth season, they had stopped nearly altogether. Declining ratings were undoubtedly a factor, as was diminished novelty, and the fact that after 40-plus episodes worth of covers — and even a foray into originals, beginning late in the second season with the pair of top 20 hits "Get It Right" and "Loser Like Me" — many of the best and most obvious song choices had been exhausted. But perhaps most significantly, the song-sales surge that the show had originally profited from was finally starting to abate: Spotify launched in the U.S. in July 2011, unofficially kicking off the streaming age, and within a couple years, it had siphoned off a healthy percentage of the music consumption from the iTunes faithful. A version of Bob Dylan's pop standard "Make You Feel My Love," which debuted and peaked at No. 84 on the Hot 100 dated Oct. 26, 2013, was the 207th and final of Glee Cast's hits on the Hot 100.
Meanwhile, though Glee Cast blazed past a Hot 100 record that had previously stood for entire generations, their own mark might not survive the 2010s. While the iTunes era allowed for previously unheard-of tallies on the Hot 100, that's proven to be little preparation for the way that streaming allows for single-artist dominance of the chart, when a new album can now chart every single one of its tracks in its first week of release. (Plus, with the rise of rap, a move away from the traditional album-cycle release schedule, and increased emphasis on collaboration in pop music, artists now have more avenues to charting hits than ever before.) Drake, who first debuted on the Hot 100 two weeks before Glee — and has since come to be the poster child for mainstream success within the streaming age — currently sits at 193 Hot 100 entries, just 14 back of Glee Cast, which means he may very likely be no more than an album away from overtaking the all-time record.
Nonetheless, the show's jaw-dropping tally — and eight-years-and-counting grasp of the Hot 100's title belt for most entries — remains a fascinating reflection of a moment in pop culture history where music, television and the Internet combined to make Glee as pervasive a pop culture phenomenon as existed in the early '10s, and showed a path to massive commercial success that was oftenimitated, but never duplicated. (And for what it's worth, Glee Cast is still 136 Hot 100 entries above the top traditional group: The Beatles.) We may not exactly be pulling their albums back out as often as those of The Beatles, Madonna or Drake in 2019, but the name "Glee Cast" will exist within the Billboard record books for all time, and will endure as a chapter that demands inclusion in any comprehensive history of the music industry in the 21st century.