A Singles Life

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Billboard has been charting music hits for 75 years.  Is it now out of tune?

This article originally appeared in Gafencu Magazine, August 2015

Seventy-five years ago this summer, the US Billboard magazine launched the first-ever record – or music popularity – chart. Some long-forgotten employee came up with the wheeze of ranking the bestselling records nationally to produce a “Top Ten” of the records sold that week, a concept that has more than endured.

If J. Alfred Prufrock – the time-conflicted protagonist of one of T. S. Eliot’s most-loved poems – measured out his life in coffee spoons, there’s not a single person reading this who can’t measure out their own lives in musical memories of one kind or another: the number one on the day you were born, the first Christmas number one you remember, the song that reminds you of your first and likely long-lost love, the song played at your wedding… Even the song you want playing at your funeral.

Like a cricket fan who trusts Wisden, the sport’s unassailable almanac, few of us are resistant to the authority of the pop charts when it comes to confirming the chronology of the soundtrack of our lives. There’s absolutely no doubt, then, that music charts are “ very helpful.” The inevitable question here is, though: “Helpful to whom?”

While inarguably a useful tally of historical sales information for the music trade, they also serve a far more important purpose in providing a convenient and compelling weekly sales stimulus for consumers. For decades, these charts didn’t tell us what’s been bought as much as what we should be buying next week. Generations of artistes’ careers have been predicated on breaking the charts – and then dominating them – while an entire industry has evolved to feed the beast, from A&M to live performance, from publishing to plugging.

Remarkably, over the first six decades of pop chart history, very little changed. Their straightforward sales assessment formula – the number of physical records sold – remained relatively consistent. It’s only over the past few years that digital downloads and streaming have made their own impact on chart compilations. Or, as some would have it, for the first time ever, the charts now actually reflect people’s musical tastes with a degree of accuracy.

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When Billboard came up with that first “music popularity” chart in 1940, it was by no means the magazine’s first music chart. Prior to that they had compiled lists of sheet music best sellers, most popular records played on music machines (the jukeboxes that were popular in the 1930s) and songs with the most radio plays. “The national list of bestselling retail records” was, however, breaking new ground, relying solely on actual sales. In order to achieve this, Billboard polled a representative sample of retail stores across the nation, and then manually compiled a summary of single sales – 78rpms back then – for the past week.

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The first chart, or “Top Ten” as it was termed, was hardly diverse. The list saw Glenn Miller with three different songs, including Pennsylvania 6-5000, while Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra weighed in with two tracks, including the first ever Number One: I’ll Never Smile Again. Keeping him company Tommy’s elder brother, Jimmy, sat at number two. Frank Sinatra actually sang lead vocal on that first number one. Ol’ Blue Eyes, of course, would prove himself a stayer, returning many times for years to come.

Billboard, a magazine initially launched in 1894 with a focus on outdoor amusements and bill posting, had seen the future and consequently spent the best part of a century keeping ahead of the game. They needed to – once its chart idea was unveiled, everybody was keen to jump on the bandwagon. This saw a number of rival publications and broadcasters coming up with their own take on the concept, each claiming to be the most definitive.

Before long, Billboard merged its various charts – sheet music, radio and jukebox plays – to produce a more definitive tally of what was popular, while also extending its chart range to cover the Top 100. There has been no end of tinkering with the formula ever since. Rather like washing powders, the way the charts have been put together has become bigger, brighter and bolder every year.

A major milestone in the way the charts were compiled came in 1958, the year the Billboard Hot 100 was born. This variation amalgamated record sales (the number of units actually sold at retail) with the number of radio plays received. This approach saw the separate jukebox and radio-play charts being dropped. Over subsequent years the relative weightings between sales and radio airplay in compiling the Hot 100 has shifted continuously. When the sales of singles were at an all-time high in the ’60s and ’70s, for instance, sales had far more influence than radio plays when finalising the rankings.

At that point, the Hot 100 was driving the entertainment and broadcast agenda with regard to popular music. The widely syndicated American Top 40 show (synonymous with presenter Casey Kasem in the 1970s and ’80s), exclusively used Billboard data to compile its countdown for many years. The chart show dominated the airwaves and had a huge influence on sales.

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If an act wasn’t breaching the charts then the prospect for their future sales and success were slim indeed. Quite simply, the more an artist’s record sold, the higher they featured in the chart. Of course, the higher a song featured in the chart, the more it was likely to sell. The Holy Grail was now a “bullet” – the symbol Billboard attached to a song making its chart debut that week.

If charting was now very much the name of the game for performers, their managers and record labels, it was inevitable that no means of achieving that end went untried. As a result, one of the biggest scandals in music business history came about in 1959.

This was the year when the United States Senate launched a congressional investigation into Payola, the illegal practice of making covert payments to disc jockeys to play a song on air. A number of leading radio luminaries of the time, including Alan Freed and Dick Clark, were implicated, with the case seriously affecting their careers and reputations.

Just how many songs benefited from this practice and what the going rate was for easing a record’s ascent up the chart, of course, isn’t easy to determine. The outing of this particular corrupt technique did, however, lead to DJs having considerably less control over playlists. When, though, was the practice of Payola first adopted? Sadly, the probable answer is: “The day the music business started.”

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Of course, there were other wiles besides Payola used to play the system. There is a famous – no doubt apocryphal – tale that Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, arranged to buy thousands of copies of the band’s debut single, Love Me Do, in order to bump start it on the UK charts. As well as a stack of cash, such a ruse necessitated knowing just which stores filed returns to the UK Record Retailers chart. Then, there was the need to orchestrate hordes of random buyers to visit multiple outlets to acquire the disc without arousing undue suspicion. In any event, Love Me Do only reached Number 17. The Beatles’ next single, Please Please Me, however, was their first to go to number one. Would that record have done quite as well if Love Me Do hadn’t brought the group to people’s attention? Some 53 years on, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether it was a twist or a shout that launched the Fabs on to the world stage.

For the first 50 years of their existence, the charts were strictly general in nature – as per their literal “populist” tag. Pop shows, particularly in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, would regularly impose a heady jumble of musical styles on the listeners/viewers as they showcased the national record sales for the previous week. Novelty records, comedy records, crooners, kids and choirs stood shoulder to shoulder with the pioneering sounds of the Beatles and the Stones, Punk or Electronic. In other words, for every Maggie May there was a Grandad.

Remarkably, Billboard – and its imitators around the world – continued to use an intrinsically error-prone (not to mention easily defraudable) manual data collection procedure for record sales rankings for more than 50 years. It was only in 1991 that Billboard automated its sales tracking system, enlisting the service of Neilson SoundScan. This ensured far more accurate data collection and analysis, while also creating the opportunity to measure alternative music genre sales, something that, under the old system, typically fell under the radar.

By this point, the arrival of FM radio had already allowed the creation of numerous specialist radio stations, all dedicated to specific music styles. Now, for the first time, the Neilson system allowed for the accurate measurement of sales in those genres.

In fact, Billboard had already honoured country music with its own chart as early as the late ’50s. Now, however, separate and detailed rock, dance, bluegrass, jazz, classical, R&B, rap, electronic and Latin sales rankings could also be reliably drawn up. After all, why follow a general chart where 80 per cent of the content has zero appeal to you as a listener, when you can go straight to a specific listing of your music of choice? At this point, the days of the general “pop” chart were well and truly done.

While popular music charts evolved relatively slowly over their first half-century, the past 10 years has seen a quantum leap in the way in which recorded music is acquired, consumed and rated. Illegal downloading and file sharing delivered an almighty blow to the established record industry in the noughties, driving traditional sales levels to new lows.

The record labels now find that their distribution is dominated by digital download sales (such as iTunes and Amazon), and streaming services (such as Spotify and Google Play). In order to gain traction and revenue for their acts, the majors have bowed to the inevitable and reluctantly accepted the lower margins these channels provide (while farming their back catalogues to death to make up the shortfall).

The other significant aspect of this revolution has been the potential for radio to continue to influence sales and therefore charts. Everyone can act as their own radio station these days, as it’s now so simple to create and share your own playlists. Apple’s new radio station, Beats 1, as well as its new planned streaming service, is bound to shake the sector up still further.

In the end, though, do sales rankings still matter? It could be argued that, for many years, charts actually helped to narrow music buying habits. It could be that the digital revolution has seen the return of true consumer freedom of choice.

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ALL TIME CHART TOPPERS

  • Most Number One Singles: The Beatles (20)
  • Most Top 40 Singles: Elvis Presley (114)
  • Most Top Ten Single Hits: Madonna (38)
  • Most Number Ones from One Album: Michael Jackson, Bad (5)
  • Most Weeks at Number One: Mariah Carey with Boyz II Men, One Sweet Day (16 weeks)
  • Number One Billboard Hit of All Time: The Twist, Chubby Checker
  • Most Consecutive Number One Singles: Whitney Houston (7)
  • Biggest Gap Between Number One Hits: Cher (24 years, 355 days between ‘Dark Lady’ in 1974 and ‘Believe’ in 1999)
  • Songwriter with the Most Number One Singles: Paul McCartney (32)
  • Youngest Artist to Reach Number One: Stevie Wonder (He was 13 when Fingertips topped the charts in 1963).