The popular music listener’s obsession with chart positions is nothing new. Ever since Billboard began publishing weekly chart information for pop songs, artists and their fans have been consumed by this seemingly objective measurement of a song’s commercial success and, by extension, its inherent value. But the history and methodology behind Billboard’s charts reveals much more about the values of popular music and its development than just counting sales.
Billboard is what is known as a “trade journal,” a magazine published primarily as an “insider” source of information for the record industry. Billboard’s subtitle for much of its history was “The World’s Foremost Amusement Weekly.” Unlike most trade journals, however, Billboard’s reach goes well beyond insiders because its charts have become icons of pop success. Every teenager in America since the 1950s seems to know what song is currently No. 1 on the charts.
Billboard published its first issue in 1894, when it was known as Billboard Advertising (the title was changed to just Billboard in 1897). The magazine’s title comes from one of the most popular forms of advertising going back centuries — the posting of “bills” or posters on public boards (the forerunner of today’s poster kiosks still found on college campuses). The magazine initially ran advertisements and reviews for all sorts of public entertainment, and had columns that detailed the news for several entertainment categories, including circuses, coin-operated amusement machines, movies, theater, fairs, carnivals, and burlesque shows.
In the early 1930s, Billboard began publishing a list of “Sheet Music Leaders” as well as songs most played by certain representative radio stations (“Network Song Census”), and the most popular songs on coin-operated juke boxes (“automatic phonographs,” as Billboard called them). But it wasn’t until 1936 that the magazine published its first record sales chart, which it would eventually call the “Hit Parade,” but the chart only appeared sporadically through the next four years. This first pop record chart did not have any genre categories, and it listed only the top-10 records released by each of the three major labels at the time: Columbia, Brunswick, and RCA-Victor.
Billboard’s 1939 description of how the Hit Parade was calculated gives an indication of the difficulty (and subjectivity) involved in making the list: “The Hit Parade checks on sheet music sales, record sales, request from band leaders at night clubs, ballrooms and hotels and request mailed to radio stations.” One of the reasons that record sales weren’t featured as a source of information at that time is that the record business had entered a steep decline in the early 1930s with the Great Depression, so record sales were not considered an accurate indicator of popular musical interest in the same way as radio and the much older business of sheet music sales.
In its July 27, 1940, issue Billboard revamped its music charts to come up with a comprehensive set of charts, “The Billboard Music Popularity Chart,” which still separated out radio-play, sheet music, and jukebox charts, but now featured “National and Regional Best Selling Retail Records.” This provides some evidence that 1940 is the year that record sales finally improved in both number and significance to finally rival, if not exceed, radio and sheet music as an industry-recognized measurement of commercial success. Prior to this time, the only regular record-sales data available was the jukebox chart, which Billboard published in the “Amusement Machines” section of the magazine rather than in the “Music” section. At this point, the music section of the magazine was still at the back of the magazine, behind general entertainment industry news and the sections on radio and television.
In its October 31, 1942 issue, Billboard made a major change to its charts by featuring a “Harlem Hit Parade” that listed the top 10 best selling records from selected record stores in the majority-black borough of Harlem in New York City. Though it took over 20 years after the first appearance of successful “Race Records” featuring black performers in 1920, Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade chart finally recognized the distinct popularity of black music that wasn’t reflected on its mainstream (that is, white) Hit Parade. In January of 1943, Billboard included a special feature on black music titled “The Negro Makes Advances: Edging into Radio, Films; Bigger Than Ever in Music; and Despite Many Obstacles.”
On Jan. 8, 1944, Billboard began running commercially promoted record charts, the “Lucky Strike Hit Parade,” which was tied to a CBS radio show of the same name. Lucky Strike was a brand of cigarette that sponsored the radio show. (At this time, radio shows were underwritten by sponsors in exchange for having the brand’s name attached to the show. That model would continue with early television shows in the 1950s, such as the “Texaco Star Theater” and “Colgate Comedy Hour,” two of the earliest television variety shows.) Tellingly, these two new charts continued the tradition of listing the songs with only the song title and publisher name, with no mention of a particular performer. This reflects the continued emphasis placed on songs, rather than performers, a lingering bias of the publishing-centric Tin Pan Alley model dating back to the late 19th century.
In February and March of 1945, Billboard introduced a series of significant changes to its charts, indicating that the post-war years would mark a significant turn for popular music in America:
- Beginning with its February 17 issue, Billboard replaced its Harlem Hit Parade with a new chart: Most Played Juke Box Race Records. This chart had a national scope, rather than being limited to Harlem radio stations, and used the old term “race records,” which had been used since 1920 to indicate records made by black performers for a presumably black audience.
- In the March 24 issue, Billboard introduced the “Honor Roll of Hits: The Nation’s Top-10 Tunes”. Unlike most other chart changes, this was accompanied by a first-page headline in the issue: “Honor Roll of Hits Tabbed,” which described the new chart as “the nation’s first Honor Roll of Hits, an authenticated tab of music popularity based upon weekly surveys of every known practical indication of public tune yens.” The Honor Roll of Hits continued the practice of referring to song titles and songwriters, but now added a list of performers who had made recordings of the featured song. The emphasis was still on the song, not the performer, but at least Billboard readers would now see the names of the performers who had recorded the song.
- The March 24 issue also added a “Play Status of Films with Leading Songs” chart to track what would continue to become an increasingly important tool for marketing popular songs: their connection with films.
- The article describing these changes in March provides a thorough explanation of the metrics tracked by each of Billboard’s charts and clearly shows the increasing importance to the magazine of its pop song charts.
- Billboard added a “Best-Selling Popular Record Albums” chart. We might at first suspect that this chart tracked the first LPs, or “long-playing records.” However, the LP would not be introduced until 1948, so what this chart tracks is the sale of a collection of multiple 10-inch records sold together as an “album,” a practice that dated back to the 1920s but had been used mostly for classical music, which required more than one 10-inch record due to the length of classical pieces. Billboard begins tracking classical albums as well in this issue. In this first “popular music album” chart, the Nat King Cole Trio’s album, Collection of Favorites, holds the top position.
- Billboard added a new chart, “Most-Played Juke Box Folk Records,” that tracked the top six songs of the genre we now call “country” music (though it was confusingly referred to as “folk” in 1945). Now, in addition to the “race record” category tracking the popularity of black artists, white southern musical styles had their own chart. Although barriers to racial integration of the music industry were falling, the separation of styles based on perceived racial difference was still ingrained in the industry’s approach to marketing popular music. Featured in this first list of best-selling country songs are artists such as Al Dexter (the first country musician to record a song with the term “honky tonk” in the title), Bob Wills, Spade Cooley, and Gene Autry. Notably, six of the eight songs on this inaugural country chart were recorded by Okeh records, the company that pioneered the recording of both southern black and white musicians in the 1920s.
Billboard’s chart configuration remained relatively stable until the June 25, 1949 issue quietly ushered in two changes in nomenclature that reveal a continued effort to keep pace with importance of southern music styles in shaping national listening habits. The previous “folk” label for white southern music was altered to include, in parentheses, the name “country and western,” and more significantly the “race record” label was now changed to “rhythm and blues.” The “rhythm and blues” term was apparently coined by Jerry Wexler, famed producer for Atlantic Records. Nowhere in the magazine is there any commentary on these changes to the chart names, but they indicate a belated recognition of the growing importance of these styles on the eve of the 1950s, the decade that would see these two styles merge into “rock ’n’ roll”. Both genres continued to be separated into separate retail record sales and juke box play charts, even though the song position listings on each chart were nearly identical. In its first issue of 1953, Billboard dropped the connection between folk and country music, with the chart now just labeled “country & western” rather than “Folk (Country & Western)”.
On Nov. 12, 1955, Billboard debuted a new chart, “The Top 100” that was a forerunner to the “Hot 100” which remains today the primary pop singles chart. When it was introduced in 1955, the Top 100 was an auxiliary chart to the “Honor Roll of Hits” chart that was still the flagship chart for the trade. Like the Honor Roll of Hits chart, the Top 100 aimed to combine various metrics (retail sales, juke box plays, and radio plays) to determine a listing of pop song popularity for the previous week. Billboard had for years displayed these various metrics in separate charts for pop, country, and rhythm and blues, so these were not new metrics. But the primary and most significant change represented by the Top 100 was its focus on performer recordings rather than songs. The Honor Roll of Hits had focused on songs, listing the songwriter in prominent type next to the title, and in smaller type listing all current recordings by various artists of that song. This was the persistence of the old Tin Pan Alley business model, which valued songwriters and their compositions over performers.
The debut of the Top 100 indicates that in 1955, Billboard recognizes that the performer and their iconic recording of a song are becoming the point of attention rather than the song itself. By way of example, in the Nov. 12 issue in 1955, in which we first see the Top 100 chart, the number 41 song is Chuck Berry’s groundbreaking first hit single, “Maybelline.” Berry’s song is also listed on the Honor Roll of Hits chart for that week, at No. 29. Because Berry is the song’s composer, Berry gets the large-type credit next to the song’s title. However, by this point, several other performers had recorded covers of “Maybelline” — Johnny Long (and his orchestra), Jim Lowe, and Marty Robbins. So, Berry’s iconic recording of “Maybellene” is listed in the Honor Roll as just one of many with no indication that it is of any more importance than Johnny Long’s laughably forgettable rendition. (I urge readers to listen to Berry’s “Maybellene” side-by-side with Long’s cover, both easily found on YouTube, to hear first-hand how different they are.) By this time, the Tin Pan Alley songwriter-based business model was rapidly moving to the performer-based model we know today, and Billboard was struggling to keep its charts relevant to these changes.
Billboard introduced another chart in 1956 that indicates an important change in the industry and that would grow into one of its most important metrics, the “Best Selling Pop Albums” chart. Introduced in the March 24 issue, this chart (limited to 10 entries) would eventually become the Billboard 200 chart, listing the top 200 albums. The album had been tracked by Billboard prior to this, but not specifically for “pop” albums. Most early album sales were of classical music, whereas the single was still the primary sales unit for popular music. Increasingly in the 1950s, the album became an important vehicle for popular music sales as well. RIAA sales data highlighted in Billboard show one reason the album would become so important to the industry: the LP album earned a 37.6% share of sales revenue for 1955, while only accounting for 12.2% of the unit volume. The higher price charged for albums spiked industry revenues for the next several decades (particularly in the 1970s). Sales of albums in 1955 (by unit volume) were up 125% over 1954!
Calypso-folk crooner Harry Belafonte tops the inaugural Best Selling Pop Albums chart with his debut album, Belafonte, and the list also includes several film soundtracks (a perennial strong seller in albums). By the May 5 issue, Belafonte’s hold on the No. 1 album spot had been taken over by Elvis Presley, with his debut album entitled simply Elvis Presley. Interestingly, this album does not include his big hits from 1956, such as “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Mystery Train”. Oddly, the practice at this time was to exclude big hits from albums and put only the artists’ slower-selling material on albums. The “Greatest Hits” album concept would not take off until the 1970s.