Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Truth Of The Music Industry: The Billboard Charts

Posted by AmishThrasher at 4:39 pm
Two popular arguments defending top 40 songs are that:

1) They're on the radio, so there must be a lot of station managers who like them.
2) They're in the charts, so they must be good.

Well, I've already demystified the radio bit. Record companies, and managers, hand over huge sums of money to various 'Indies' associated with various radio station chains. Said Indies hand over cash on condition that a song gets added to the playlist, and regular rotation. Oh, but the cash is for 'promotional materials' (in theory, so the station can buy merchandise or albums to give away); in practice the station spends it on whatever they like. So, just because it's on radio doesn't instantly make a song anything.

But, hey, that song has made the Billboard Top 100; it must be great! Lots of people have bought it!

And that might just be slightly true, or at least a good indicator of the sheep mentality, if the Billboard Chart was a sales chart. Too bad it's not a pure sales chart at all. In fact, only 20% of the Billboard chart is determined by sales. Guess where the other 80% comes from?

Radio play. And MTV.

I wish I was kidding on that, but (as sad as it is) it's true. 80% of what ends up is determined by the Billboard Chart, which is determined by the record companies. Now, consider the following:

The control of what is advertised does not stop there. Instead, it only increases through payola and exclusivity contracts between MTV and record labels. MTV entered into a deal with CBS records in which MTV could choose 20% of CBS's annual clip production for exclusive broadcast on MTV networks, provided they agreed to play another 10% of videos, chosen by CBS, in light or medium rotation. Deals similar to this are common with all the major labels. According to these various contracts, MTV is required to play videos chosen by the labels, in effect guaranteeing promotions for major label artists. These contracts constitute a form of payola, a practice that is illegal according to the Communications Act. However, Section 508 applies the Act to broadcast outlets only, in which cable television is not included.

This payola applies to more than just contracts. Channels like The Box (a station where you call in to request what is played via a 1-900 number) have been part of payola-like practices as well. Large record companies oftentimes hire groups of people to call in and continuously request song from their artists. This practice can also be applied to MTV's new popular video show "Total Request Live." In this show, all requests in that day are tallied up and the eight most requested videos are played on MTV. There is no limit on how many times one person or company can vote, so the ballots are often stuffed by the record companies.


In other words, a record label can buy its way into the Billboard Charts.

Billboard's methodologies for compiling the charts have gone through several changes over the years. Since switching to Nielsen's BDS and SoundScan (see below for a little background), Billboard changed the weighting of airplay versus sales. Because tracking a single song through album sales isn't exactly accurate, singles sales have always been used to track the sales side of song popularity. But, since only about 20% of people actually buy singles and over 90% listen to the radio, it made sense to alter the ratio of points. Now, the overall points are weighted to 20% sales and 80% airplay.