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How SoundScan Changed Everything We Knew About Popular Music

Thirty years ago, Billboard changed the way it tabulated its charts, turning the industry on its head and making room for genres once considered afterthoughts to explode in the national consciousness

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Elton John twice. Stevie Wonder. Bruce Springsteen. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. That’s it. The weekly Billboard album chart—launched in 1956 as Best Selling Pop Albums with Harry Belafonte on top, and known today as The Billboard 200—logged exactly six no. 1 debuts in the first 35 years of its existence. “The list is so famous, I can rattle them off off the top of my head,” says writer, podcaster, and consummate chart guru Chris Molanphy.

And then he does. Sir Elton’s two albums from 1975, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies. Wonder’s immaculate Songs in the Key of Life in 1976. The Springsteen box set Live 1975–85, a five-vinyl-album behemoth released in ’86. Houston’s second album, Whitney, in 1987, and later that year, MJ’s Bad. (No, not 1982’s all-universe Thriller, which debuted at no. 11 nearly a month after release and took 10 more weeks to finally beat out the Stray Cats and Men at Work for the top spot.) “All mega, mega superstars,” Molanphy says. “Not just superstars. Mega, imperial superstars at the absolute height of their imperiality, right?”

Right. The seventh album ever to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart was Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind.

No, not the Skid Row album with “18 and Life” and “I Remember You” on it: That would be 1989’s Skid Row, which peaked at no. 6 in its 33rd week. Slave to the Grind, the New Jersey hair-metal band’s 1991 effort, cracked the no. 1 debut pantheon for Chart Reasons, not Rock Reasons. (The cowbell action on lead single “Monkey Business” holds up, though.) On May 25, 1991—30 years ago Tuesday—Billboard started using Nielsen SoundScan data to build its album chart, with all of its charts, including singles hub The Hot 100, eventually following suit. Meaning, the magazine started counting album sales with scanners and computers and whatnot, and not just calling up record stores one at a time and asking them for their individual counts, often a manual and semi-accurate and flagrantly corrupt process. This is the record industry’s Moneyball moment, its Eureka moment, its B.C.-to-A.D. moment. A light bulb flipping on. The sun rising. We still call this the SoundScan Era because by comparison the previous era might as well have been the Dark Ages.

First SoundScan revelation: Albums opened like movies, so for anything with an established fan base, that first week is usually, by far, the biggest. First beneficiary: Skid Row. And why not? “Is Skid Row at the height of their imperial period?” Molanphy asks of this ’91 moment. “For Skid Row, yes. But Skid Row is not Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, or Stevie Wonder. Skid Row is a middle-of-the-road hair-metal band at the peak of their powers, relatively speaking. So it’s not as if they are commanding the field. It’s just the fans all showed up in week no. 1, and it debuts at no. 1. And then we discover, ‘Oh, this is going to happen every week. This is not special anymore.’”

Next SoundScan revelation: Hard rock and heavy metal were way more popular than anybody thought. Same deal with alternative rock, R&B, and most vitally, rap and country. In June 1991, N.W.A’s second album, Efil4zaggin, hit no. 1 after debuting at no. 2 the previous week. That September, Garth Brooks’s third album, the eventually 14-times-platinum Ropin’ the Wind, debuted at no. 1, the week after Metallica’s eventually 16-times-platinum self-titled Black Album debuted there. In early January 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in September ’91, replaced MJ’s Dangerous in the no. 1 spot, a generational bellwether described at the time by Billboard itself as an “astonishing palace coup.”

Virtually overnight, SoundScan changed the rules on who got to be a mega, mega superstar, and the domino effect—in terms of magazine covers, TV bookings, arena tours, and the other spoils of media attention and music-industry adulation—was tremendous, if sometimes maddeningly slow in coming. Garth, Metallica, N.W.A, Nirvana, and Skid Row were already hugely popular, of course. But SoundScan revealed exactly how popular, which of course made all those imperial artists exponentially more popular.

The methodology involved—cash registers, bar-code scanners, and a national database that on launch day didn’t even include industry powerhouse Tower Records yet—is painfully mundane by 2021 standards. But the tools of revolution often are. “The old chart couldn’t begin to touch the democracy of this chart,” Timothy White, then Billboard’s editor in chief, told The New York Times in January ’92. “There’s no question,” he added, “that our old system was subject to manipulation, and that people abused it.”

Which does not make the pre-SoundScan era an entirely corrupt free-for-all. “There had never been that amount of transparency, to put it bluntly, in the music business before,” Molanphy says. “The music business operated in such murk. And it’s funny. I hear you snicker when I say that, and you should. But one point I often make when I tell the story of SoundScan is there’s a piece of this story that is ‘Oh, the corrupt old record business. Give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Payola, payola, payola,’ et cetera. There’s another part of this story that is simply ‘We didn’t have the technology for it to be any better prior to 1991.’ We truly didn’t.”

But in 1991: Let there be light. And Skid Row. And Garth Brooks, again and again. And Paula Abdul. And Van Halen. And Billy Ray Cyrus. And Ice Cube, whose 1992 album The Predator debuted at no. 1, just beating out Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard soundtrack, which went on to make a little noise of its own. But Cube was an early indication of rap music’s near-total takeover of the record industry. You could say that SoundScan saw these various genre revolutions coming. Or you could say that SoundScan, and virtually every chart improvement Billboard would make going forward, helped everyone see that those revolutions had already happened.

The music business is forever a back-alley crapshoot at heart, but everyone in the early ’90s was really guessing, whether they’d cop to it or not. “I remember well when the Nirvana album exploded,” says Billboard reporter Ed Christman, a three-decade veteran of the magazine who was there for the dawn of the SoundScan era. “That was an amazing thing. Everybody was scrambling to keep the record in stock.”

Because it turns out even Geffen Records, the major label that brought you Nevermind, was guessing, even with Nevermind itself. “They didn’t produce enough of it because they thought it was going to be a slow mover,” Christman says. “Matter of fact, I remember I was at a Musicland convention, and they did a product presentation, and they didn’t include Nirvana in the presentation. I went up to the [Geffen] head of sales, Eddie Gilreath, and I said, ‘What are you doing? That Nirvana album is freaking amazing.’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a slow burner. We’re going to build that. But yeah, that’s a great record. We’re gonna really get behind that.’ And then I see him about a month later after it had blown up, and he said, ‘Ha, I told you! I told you it was gonna blow up!’”

Musicland was a powerhouse mall record store in the ’80s and ‘90s; kids, please don’t make me define mall, or record store, or for that matter the notion of a record not being in stock. The SoundScan era began as a technological arms race that Billboard lost to SoundScan the company, founded by industry vet Michael Shalett and pollster Michael Fine, and since renamed MRC Data. This new venture was not exactly received with open arms: Shalett, in a 2001 New York Times article, recalled the industry big shot who wagged a finger in his face after the chart changeover and barked, “You have single-handedly, in one week, ruined the music business,” only to much later declare, “Let me tell you, SoundScan is the greatest thing that ever happened to the business.”

What gave SoundScan crucial early credibility, of course, was that Billboard itself bought in. “There was a disappointment that we had not succeeded in being the collectors of data ourselves, because that had been our original intent,” explains Geoff Mayfield, himself a pre-SoundScan Billboard veteran (in 1994 he was named director of charts) who now writes for several publications (Billboard included) and teaches at the Los Angeles College of Music. SoundScan perfected the formula and got record stores on board faster; Billboard, founded in 1894 to cover the advertising and bill-posting industries, had the industry clout to give these new numbers legitimacy. “It was like a shotgun wedding in a way,” Mayfield says. “But we both needed it.”

The business needed it, too. It is tempting to dismiss the pre-SoundScan music industry as a lawless and artless quagmire with pure corruption the only founding principle. Fredric Dannen’s landmark 1990 book Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business is a seedy and delightful overview of the pre-SoundScan vibe: Dig the story about a shadowy cabal of payola-saturated “independent promoters” who tanked the radio play of righteous 1980 Loverboy single “Turn Me Loose” when the Canadian hard-rock band’s label, Columbia, tried to stop paying for that promotion. But at first SoundScan was less a moral improvement than a mechanical one: The bar-code system was simpler and far more accurate, simple as that.

“We knew our charts were fuzzy,” Mayfield says, describing the old process of calling each individual record store. “They were based on ranked reports. If you were reporting, you would tell us your Top 30, and then after that we would ask for X number of titles that were selling, quote, ‘Strong,’ and X number of titles that were selling ‘Good.’ We also knew that, aside from subjectivity coming into play, that there were efforts by record companies to have people report things as doing better than they were.” (Tom Silverman, then chairman of the rap label Tommy Boy, mildly observed in a 1992 New York Times piece that “in the past, the major labels gave away refrigerators and microwaves to retailers in exchange for store reports,” a scheme that continued on the specialized rap and R&B charts until SoundScan was adopted there, too.)

SoundScan didn’t wipe out those nefarious impulses overnight. Mayfield recalls a genial post-SoundScan airplane conversation early in his Billboard career with a high-ranking CBS Records exec who summed up the potential new charts this way: “‘I want them to be more fair, but I want to have an edge.’” But a computer keeping track of a record store’s Top 30 is far preferable to a human being quite possibly improvising a Top 30 over the phone.

From Kurt Cobain to, uh, Sebastian Bach, the immediate winners of the SoundScan era are well known at this point, but who lost? Who did not benefit, immediately, from greater chart accuracy? Some dizzying drops even in that very first week in May 1991 felt arbitrary and undeserved. “The only name I can remember specifically is Lisa Fischer, and the reason I remember it is at the end of a long, draining day, my last duty was to receive a phone call from her manager,” Mayfield says. “Lisa Fischer. She was a great background singer who sang for Luther Vandross, and she sang with the Rolling Stones on their tours. She was really talented, and she had an appealing album. I don’t remember what her specific drop was, but I got a call from this guy, like, ‘You weren’t ready for this’ and ‘You’re hurting my artist.’”

The chart dip for Fischer’s debut album So Intense was 30 spots, from her no. 146 debut to no. 176 the following week post-SoundScan. But for a certain breed of rock snob, the chart dip experienced by Sting’s January ’91 solo album Soul Cages—from no. 22 to no. 56 in that same span—was far more amusing, as the former frontman for ’80s new wave giants the Police was already exuding a certain classic-rock pompousness. “There was a layer of music that the industry just assumes is a hit and were nudging their way up the chart,” Molanphy says, noting that the 1991 Rolling Stones live album Flashpoint took a tumble as well. “You just assume week to week that Sting album’s just got to be selling. Well, he was, but not anymore. I go back to my movie metaphor: Albums open big and then fall off unless they are lucky enough to generate five singles. You think, ‘Well, it’s Sting. He’s just going to keep selling through the summer.’ No. Sting’s going to have about four good weeks, and then that album’s going to plummet.”

Let the record show that Sting’s “All This Time” rocks a respectable 35 percent as hard as Loverboy’s “Turn Me Loose,” but the point stands: SoundScan took a wrecking ball to some long-held industry assumptions. “It wasn’t like pure corruption,” Molanphy says, “so much as mass delusion.”

No early-’90s industry delusion was more harmful than the idea that rap and country didn’t count as pop music. It is not quite right to say that SoundScan made Garth Brooks: His second album, 1990’s No Fences, was already a Top 20 hit, though it did jump from no. 16 to no. 4 the week of the changeover. But it’s safe to say he doesn’t score a no. 1 debut with Ropin’ the Wind later in ’91—let alone kick off a string of nine no. 1 albums—if the chart isn’t better reflecting how gargantuan he’d already gotten.

“Once you realize Garth Brooks is selling better than Mariah Carey and Pearl Jam, and consistently every year, you promote him accordingly,” Molanphy says. “Does Garth Brooks get a Central Park concert in 1997 without SoundScan? Maybe, maybe not.”

Country music as a whole, in fact, got an immediate, startling boost. “It had an effect throughout the entire industry,” says Brian Mansfield, a longtime country journalist and historian. “If you go back and you look at that first chart in 1991, I think there were 34 country albums on that chart that week. There had been 20 the week before. There were nine in the top 50; there had been three the week before.”

Indeed, Hank Williams Jr. jumped 37 places, Reba McEntire 20, and Dolly Parton 29; beyond the top 50, the Judds jumped 36 places, Travis Tritt jumped 82, and Dwight Yoakam jumped 85, from no. 181 to no. 96. One further salient factor here is that some country artists themselves didn’t want to appear on a Billboard chart that in 1991 was still named Top Pop Albums. Billboard vet Mayfield, as it happens, recently guested on Molanphy’s invaluable Slate podcast Hit Parade, where he discussed the pop-based reticence of country superstar Randy Travis: “He didn’t want his albums being reported to Top Pop Albums,” Molanphy says, “because he thought it would dilute his audience and make people think he wasn’t credible country anymore.”

Billboard, in fact, soon renamed the album chart the Billboard 200 just to get “pop” out of the name. The Nashville machine as a whole, meanwhile, was delighted by the brighter spotlight SoundScan brought to country music, even if nobody was especially surprised. “Nashville and the country music industry had a longstanding underdog complex, where they felt that everybody else ought to take them more seriously than they did,” Mansfield says. “They felt like they were underrepresented come awards time, on award shows. That people would stick hay bales behind them whenever they sang on TV. Nashville always felt that if the true numbers were known, people would appreciate just how much they were doing. And so I don’t know that it was so much a surprise as it was validation.”

Quadruple that disrespect and you have the situation facing rap music in the early ’90s. SoundScan quickly facilitated no. 1 albums for the likes of Ice Cube and N.W.A, and in 1992 everyone from Cube to Kris Kross to Sir Mix-A-Lot to Naughty by Nature to Cypress Hill to the Beastie Boys to Black Sheep cracked the best-selling 100 albums of the year. Rap’s post-SoundScan leap wasn’t as gaudy as country music’s in the short term, but by one accounting there were 43 no. 1 rap albums by the year 2000, and 185 more since then, counting J. Cole’s no. 1 debut this month with The Off-Season.

But a Central Park–sized coronation eluded hip-hop for longer than it should’ve. For Danyel Smith—who was SF Weekly’s music editor when SoundScan hit, joined Billboard as rhythm and blues editor in 1993, and went on to become editor in chief of both Vibe and, later, Billboard itself—the genre’s true dominance wasn’t acknowledged until the rise, and fall, of Biggie and Tupac in the back half of the ’90s. (Smith currently hosts the Ringer podcast Black Girl Songbook.)

“I’ll just be honest with you,” she says. “Nobody wanted—let me not exaggerate, let me be smart, calm, and intellectual. It was a quiet resistance to the facts, I believe. Not just from the older rock and country people, from older and more conservative Black people. You got to remember, this was when Calvin Butts was rolling over rap CDs in Harlem with a steamroller. This is when Tipper Gore didn’t want rap. This is C. Delores Tucker.”

To write about rap music in the ’90s—to put rappers on magazine covers in the ’90s—was itself a political act. “I don’t think I thought about it this way at the time, but it was a lot of just advocacy journalism,” Smith says. “Because I just always felt like, ‘I have to prove to you all that the facts are the facts.’ A lot of us felt that way.”

And before the age of undeniable chart dominance from the likes of Eminem, Drake, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne, rap needed all the advocates it could get, even as the Billboard charts better reflected the genre’s popularity. “There was a quiet resistance to those facts,” Smith says. “If you were to break out a publication, any publication of that time: Billboard, CMJ, Spin, Rolling Stone, even the British ones. And you say, ‘Let’s break out their music coverage and compare it—are they assigning things based on what’s actually popular?’ How does that pan out? It would just never be fair.”

TV suffered from an even greater disparity. “It would never be fair with regard to who was booking the late-night shows,” Smith continues. “You could have the smallest and most random indie-rock band. I have so many girlfriends that were publicists for rappers in those days. I remember even being in their offices—this isn’t even hearsay, this is me in the office with them. And they’re literally begging the booker, like We are quadruple platinum. We are no. 1 in radio airplay for the last 12 weeks in a row.” And the rapper still wouldn’t get the gig. “Then it would be a small band not even bubbling under the Hot 100,” Smith continues. “So it was awful.”

At the time of the SoundScan changeover, within Billboard, Mayfield remembers getting a sense of that resistance. “After I moved over to the charts department, at the end of each year I’d get called by newspaper columnists who covered pop music,” he says. “What predictions do you have for the year ahead? The question I got most tired of was ‘Is rap finally going to be less popular?’”

No. Rap music is not finally going to be less popular. Billboard has made further colossal chart adjustments in the 21st century: The Hot 100 first added digital sales in 2005, and SoundScan’s incorporation of streaming numbers started way back in 2007 via the addition of “weekly data from Yahoo and AOL,” adding major streaming services starting in 2012 and tinkering with a convoluted but more or less accepted album-equivalent-streams format ever since. It’s confusing, but it works.

By which I mean it works well enough, by the way, not works perfectly. Just as it’s a stretch to dismiss the pre-SoundScan era as entirely fraudulent, it’s folly to regard the modern system as entirely foolproof. Not every store had bar-code scanners at first; not every store can be trusted with one. “When SoundScan got its weekly data set, if they noticed that in one store in Podunk, wherever, there was a suspicious number of sales happening of one artist or one album—such that you could basically suspect that after the place closed, somebody paid somebody to take a CD and go, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, over and over again—they would throw it out of the pool,” Molanphy notes. “You can’t completely eliminate human corruption, or the desire to game the charts.”

More recent schemes revolve around the industry scourge known as bundling, tying album sales to concert tickets or other merch, which Billboard has taken great pains to curtail. “It’s not a perfect methodology by any means,” Molanphy says. “It’s just that I never heard a quibble, and I use that word carefully, about SoundScan that was more compelling than the data you were seeing. It’s like, ‘OK, yes. This is not perfect. Yes, it’s probably missing a bigger chunk of the retail economy than we think. Yes, yes, yes.’ But Jesus Christ, look at these patterns. We never knew any of this. It was clearly better. It’s so unmistakably better.”

And as that accuracy ramps up, the facts can finally be the facts. Nielsen officially declared hip-hop the most popular genre in 2018, but Smith still sees room for improvement: “Where’s that reflecting in festival bookings, folks? You can look at any week of this past year, this crazy pandemic year. It’s so much rap. If you look at the Billboard Music Awards nominees right now, it’s basically rap and Taylor.” (Meanwhile, in May, Billboard officially named Drake its Artist of the Decade for the 2010s.)

Molanphy, my personal favorite chart expert, is still reckoning with how the SoundScan changeover compares in impact to the “slow-motion car crash” effect streaming has had on the Billboard charts in the past 10 years. (“I’m making that sound more negative than I want it to.”) On a long enough timeline, streaming may prove the more cataclysmic event, in part thanks to the schemes labels have adopted to juice their streaming numbers, all legal but just a little … thirsty. Deluxe editions! Thirty-song albums! Lil Nas X–style antics that boil down to constantly re-releasing the same song! But there is little question that May 25, 1991, marked the single most important overnight change to the Billboard charts—and thus, by extension, to the music industry—in music history. You could spend a lifetime reveling in the havoc SoundScan wrought: That’s arguably what Molanphy does for a living. My favorite of his personal theories is the post-Christmas chart bump.

“Here’s what happens during the holidays,” he explains. “Parents go out and buy gifts for their kids. They buy something cute. The kid gets it, is like, ‘Fuck that, I want the record by this metal band that makes my parents’ toes curl.’ Or, ‘I want this record with the naked baby chasing a dollar bill on the cover,’ or ‘I want the album with this blood-drenched rapper on the cover.’ And so then the week after Christmas, suddenly you get the phenomenon of the album the kids actually want to own topping the charts.”

So if you happened to exchange a Sting CD for a Skid Row CD on December 26, 1991, just know that you weren’t alone, and congratulations on being ahead of the curve.

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