Music History

Published on May 26th, 2016 | by Alan Cross

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25 Years Ago, The Album Charts Changed Forever

If you’ve watched the HBO series Vinyl, you’ll know that accounting for album sold was, er, something of an inexact science. To say that sales numbers were fudged doesn’t do justice to the corruption, obfuscation and outright lying that went on. Everything was based on units shipped (often exaggerated), estimates of sales from record stores (easily manipulated) and what can be generously called “creative accounting.”

All that changed forever in 1991 when SoundScan was introduced. Instead of relying on the human fallibility of counting records as they were sold, a sale did not register until the bar code was scanned at the checkout. This more precise method of tallying sales turned the industry upside down. Ultimate Classic Rock picks up the story.

In 1991, a gargantuan shift occurred in popular music. No, it didn’t smell like Teen Spirit. And, no, it wasn’t an album that could be “none more black” (though both Nirvana and Metallica would ride the wave of this watershed moment). It actually had nothing to do one specific artist at all.

On May 25, 1991, Billboard made a change to the Billboard 200 Top Albums, when the magazine began using SoundScan data to tabulate the positions on the top albums chart. After decades of gathering numbers via a flawed honor system, the industry leader in deciding what was “popular” in popular music started employing accurate sales reports.

Woo! Accuracy! What’s more rock ’n’ roll than that?

Actually, not much. SoundScan’s data collection returned the power to the people, the genuine fans who buy and listen to music. Twenty-five years ago, the firm started counting how Joe Music Fan was spending his bucks, instead of listening to a record store manager’s easily corrupted opinion.

It turned out that people were buying a lot more metal, hip-hop, country, R&B and alternative rock albums than the old system claimed. The change on the charts was immediate. The change in the industry was almost as fast. Artists that had been relegated to their genre pools (from Nirvana to Ice Cube to Garth Brooks) were now free to swim in the mainstream.

SoundScan not only altered the music landscape of the early ’90s, it completely changed how music, albums, artists and songs would forever be perceived, managed, promoted and heard. It changed everything, but to understand how much, we have to go back to the days before the SoundScan era.

Keep reading. (Link via Charles)




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About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker.

In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.


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