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POP EYE

Hype, Hokey-Pokey and the Hot 100

September 22, 1991|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Is something funny going on with the Billboard singles charts?

For the past few months, Billboard's conversion to the SoundScan system has been one of the most hotly debated topics in the record industry. With SoundScan, Billboard ranks albums using a projection of actual computer-reported album sales. Under its old system, Billboard estimated album sales based on reports from record stores, who ranked the popularity of albums at individual stores, but did not provide actual sales figures.

By using actual sales numbers, SoundScan has largely killed off the age-old industry practice of "hyping" the charts.

"It used to be that if you gave enough incentives--cash, prizes, free tickets, whatever--to the key stores reporting to Billboard, the stores would say your album was selling more than it really was, which could boost your album up the charts," says one veteran record exec. "Now if you have a Top 30 album, at least you know it's a real Top 30 album, not just what you hyped up from No. 115. The days when you could play games with the charts are over."

Or are they?

In the hubbub over the album charts, it seems to have escaped notice that Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart still hasn't converted to the new system. It raises an obvious question: If SoundScan provides so much valuable information, why isn't Billboard using it for its Hot 100, whose chart numbers provide record companies with a powerful weapon in convincing radio stations and retail outlets to play or stock records by the chart's most popular artists?

Billboard now has three charts that measure singles activity: the Hot 100; the Top Point of Sale Singles Sales, which measures record sales; and the Top 40 Radio Monitor, which tracks airplay. Since the Hot 100 combines retail sales and Top 40 airplay, you'd think it would roughly reflect the numbers from the other two charts.

Not necessarily. In the Sept. 7 issue of Billboard, Paula Abdul's "The Promise of a New Day" was ranked No. 26 in the Point of Sale chart and No. 5 on the Radio Monitor chart. It's Hot 100 rank? No. 2. (A week later, Abdul's single actually dropped in sales while it went up to No. 1 on the Hot 100.)

In the same week, Michael Bolton's "Time, Love & Tenderness" was ranked No. 49 on the Point of Sale chart and No. 15 on the Radio Monitor. It's Hot 100 rank? No. 9.

This week, Rod Stewart's "Motown Song" was ranked No. 45 on the Point of Sale chart and No. 24 on the Radio Monitor. It's Hot 100 rank? No. 10.

What's going on? Billboard chart director Michael Ellis acknowledges that the current system has "definite discrepancies," but said they were largely due to variations in chart methodology. He explained that the Hot 100 chart uses input from nearly 250 Top 40 radio stations, about 100 more stations than report to the Radio Monitor chart.

As for the differences between the Hot 100 and the Point of Sale column, Ellis noted that the POS column compiles sales from record stores who are part of the SoundScan system. The Hot 100 gets its sales information from a completely different set of stores, largely chains (like Tower Records) who are not part of the SoundScan system.

"It's a discrepancy we need to fix as soon as possible," he says. "We're hoping to switch over to a new system by the end of the year, which would combine SoundScan sales results with information from the Broadcast Data System, which electronically monitors airplay. We've been waiting for BDS to get fully deployed so that when we switch over, they'd represent about the 85 top markets in the country."

However Ellis admits that as long as the Hot 100 relies on reports from record stores, it remains open to influence from record labels who pay store staff for high rankings. "We can't audit their sales reports, so we realize there can be definite discrepancies," Ellis says.

Perhaps a bit bruised by the controversy over its album-chart conversion to SoundScan, Billboard has quietly prepared a sample singles chart, using its new SoundScan and BDS information, which it has been faxing to record labels to gauge their reaction. "We're still experimenting with different formulas," says Ellis. "Our charts have to be totally honest, but we don't want to do anything to hurt the industry either."

Most label chiefs seem to welcome the new chart, though they are concerned that it would take considerably longer to break a new single. "The new chart is dramatically different," says one exec. "You see songs that are in the Top 5 on the Hot 100 that aren't even in the Top 20 on the new chart. But at least it's an honest-to-God chart. The numbers look real--no more hokey-pokey. Maybe it's time we took some of the hype out of the record business."

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