What Do the Charts Mean?
by Alex Cosper
We've all grown up with music charts that tell us something about song popularity. Most people
cannot really articulate what the charts reflect, but they assume that songs at the top of the
list are well-known by music fans. Billboard began publishing charts of sheet music sales
in the late nineteenth century and today is regarded as the definitive source of music charts.
There was a time, however, when there were great debates as to which list carried the most authority.
When reflecting on the stream of music history that the charts have paved, one can only wonder
about how relevant this information really is.
Music charts, for the most part, are a reflection of how musical products performed in a given
week. The Billboard Hot 100 reflects a combination of airplay and sales while many other
trades only report airplay. For many years since its inception
in 1974, Radio & Records commanded the attention of radio program directors and music
directors around the country.
R&R was so influential, it became the encyclopedia of the industry, introducing format
terms and classifying stations based on format and market size. For example, the industry term
for "top 40" became "contemporary hit radio" (or CHR) during R&R's reign. In the summer
of 2006 Billboard affirmed its kingpin status in the radio and music industries with the
acquisition of R&R.
Billboard had regained a lot of momentum beginning in 1991 when it introduced its new
methodology based on electronic monitoring. Instead of relying on record store reports concocted
by record store music buyers and radio station playlists crafted by program directors and music
directors, Billboard unveiled two new breakthroughs in accurately measuring the popularity
of music. For record sales Soundscan measured point of purchase sales at selected retail
For airplay Broadcast Data Systems or BDS electronically detected how many spins any given
song entered into the system got on any particular radio station dialed into the system. Only songs
encoded with tones by record labels made it into the system. So it could still be argued that
the charts were still an inexact science.
Nevetheless, this new electronic methodology revolutionized both the music and radio industries. It
marked the end of what had been known for years as "paper ads." A paper ad was a song that a radio
station reported to industry trades but didn't play or didn't play as much as the station reported.
Paper ads were the result of aggressive record labels talking radio stations into accepting
promotions or something of value in exchange for reporting airplay whether the station played the
song or not.
Sometimes a station would just spin the song overnight and call it an "ad," which was a new song
added to the weekly playlist. Although the practice of paper ads was looked down upon by trade
magazines, the abuse inevitably distorted music charts until Billboard's electronic
monitoring debuted in 1991.
Billboard's charts have changed dramatically over the years. In the fifties through the
mid-seventies chart action displayed much more volatile behavior than from the mid-seventies through
late eighties. It is interesting how records began to move in more predictable chart patterns after
1974 on the Billboard Hot 100. Instead of songs falling from #1 to #12 in one week, which was
common in 1974, top records quit falling out of the top ten starting in 1975 for many years to come.
That same year also saw the end of records making big jumps to peak positions. Usually the industry
was warned before a drop with a slowing trend of just a couple upward positions or less before the
actual decline. When Billboard introduced its electronic methodology in 1991, unpredictable
volatility returned to the charts.
The concept of national charts is further complicated by several factors. In the first place, not
all stations in a format panel give airplay to a given song at the same time. Sometimes a record
will start out hot on the West Coast and then by the time it's hot in the Midwest, the West Coast is
done spinning it. So, it is possible for a mid-chart record to out-sell a song that tops airplay
charts. Another distortion is the fact that "top 40 radio" or CHR has become synonymous with "pop"
or "popular music" even in periods when other formats such as Country or Adult Contemporary command
bigger radio audiences, as in the 2000s.
The complexity of charts leads to at least one reasonable conclusion for the music researcher. That
conclusion is that music charts of the past merely reflected the marketing of the music industry
for that given week. Perhaps a better method of tracking or ranking popularity of songs is by
using broader categories such as "A" and "B," meaning "A" songs are the most popular and have stood
the test of time while "B" songs may still have been popular but to a lesser degree. A third
category, "C," may be a list of untested songs for the period or just a long list of everything
else that didn't make the "A" or "B" list.
That's a whole lot better way of remembering and measuring song popularity than studying chart
positions. If all we cared about were chart positions, what would one think of "Louie Louie"
by the Kingsmen held at number two and blocked out of the top for several weeks by a forgotten song
called "Dominique" by the Singing Nun? It's obvious from many more examples that chart positions only
have meaning in the short run and do not determine whether or not the song will be have longevity
in pop consciousness through radio airplay or lots of play in public places. The most popular songs,
that appeal to a wide range of ages, are the ones that stay popular for generations.
With the emerging internet landscape redefining everything including charts, the new way of looking
at music popularity is not one chart that is supposed to be a cross of all genres. Each genre not
only has its own chart, but now we are seeing more and more subgenres with charts. This expansion of
charts not only marks the end of "top 40" as anything meaningful for society, except from an
industry-minded prerogative. In the sixties almost everyone had heard of the top selling recording
artist, the Beatles. But in the 2000s you are lucky to find one in ten people who has even heard
this week's top 40 or even chart topper. For that reason, top 40 is no longer the king of all
formats and music fans no longer rely on so-called "all hit stations" to stay up to date on their
It used to be from the sixties through the nineties that radio listeners would tolerate the
repetitious radio rotations of hearing the same short list of songs over and over again all day
long. But it's been different since the iPod came on the scene in the early 2000s. Now more and more
people want to control their own playlist, not of 40 songs, but playlists that include thousands of
songs. It's simply a new era in which people are becoming their own programmers of media and music.