Change how album sales are measured, change perceptions of popular music

The music industry changed in 1991 when how album sales were measured changed:

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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.

This is all about measurement – boring measurement! – but it is a fascinating story. Thinking from a cultural production perspective, here are three things that stand out to me:

  1. This was prompted in part by a technology change involving computers, scanners, and inventory systems. The prior system of calling some record sales and getting their sales clearly has problems. But, how to get to all music being sold? This requires some coordination and technology across many settings.
  2. The change in measurement led to changes in how people understood the music industry. What genres are popular? What artists are hot? How often do artists have debut #1 albums as opposed to getting discovered by the public and climbing the charts? Better data changed how people perceived music.
  3. The change in measurement not only changed perceptions; it had cascading effects. The Matthew Effect suggests small initial differences can lead to widening outcomes when actors are treated differently in those early stages. When the new measurement system highlighted different artists, they got more attention.

Summary: some might say that good music is good music but how we obtain data and information about music and then act upon that information influences what we music we promote and listen to.

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