One of the coveted positions in the music industry is the No. 1 spot on the charts. Although musicians dream of it and work toward it, many don't fully understand what being No. 1 really means. This column is a guide to deciphering the mysteries of music charts and making a plan for getting your music on them.
Generally, music charts are trade information put out by music and media publications that report on commercial recordings. Most music charts share a few traits. They are periodical, meaning that they are a snapshot of how the music scene looks during a period of time (usually a week but sometimes two weeks or even a month, depending on the publication). Charts also rank or order the music being reported. Some people find that unsettling because it appears to turn art into a popularity contest, but it may be of some comfort to realize it is simply informational.
The various charts also differ in a number of ways. The main difference is the target market of the publication putting out the chart. For example, a chart found in a publication primarily concerned with the radio industry may be an accurate indicator of radio play but might not pay as much attention to retail sales, Internet downloads, or nightclub popularity. Another difference among charts — even within the same publication — is musical genre. The buying and listening patterns of people who enjoy country music are generally not the same as those who enjoy dance music, so the type and sources of data for those two charts will be different. Encouraging for artists is the fact that charts recognize a wider variety of music than they did in the past, so you can find specialty charts such as “Ñ Alternative” (see Fig. 1) in CMJ (College Music Journal), “Top Internet Album Sales” in Billboard, and “Smooth Jazz” in Gavin, a broadcasting industry publication.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The publications that compile charts use various methods to survey the music heard and purchased by the public. In some cases, the entities being surveyed log the music activity relevant to their business and report the results. Others use tracking services to gather and report the information. Results are submitted to a publication's chart manager, who compiles the data and assembles the chart for print.
For example, Billboard compiles its “Hot 100” chart using a combination of the data-tracking services of Broadcast Data Services (BDS) to track radio airplay and SoundScan to track sales. The reporting radio stations and retail stores have their airplay and sales monitored by BDS and SoundScan (now do you see why the UPC on your release is so important?), which in turn send the information to Billboard. The chart is assembled and published to Billboard's readers, including a variety of industry professionals.
In contrast, Gavin's “Triple A” chart uses a select number of representative radio stations across the country to determine its list of songs. Likewise, the CMJ “Radio 200” album chart relies solely on a reporting panel of several hundred college and noncommercial radio stations for its data, which means the magazine has to take into account the differences among the reporting stations. “The CMJ ‘Radio 200’ album chart is based on airplay reports that are collected from a panel of mostly college and noncommercial stations, but the number of reporters varies from week to week and season to season,” explains Colin Helms, CMJ editor. “For example, during the summer when colleges are not as populated, our total number of reporting stations can go down to 250 or so; during the school year, it is between 500 and 600 stations. Our stations are weighted, meaning that we assign a number to each station, from 1 to 6, based on its respective potential market impact, the enrollment of the school, its geographical location, et cetera. A high-wattage station in the middle of a densely populated urban area potentially has many more listeners — including nonstudents — than a college station in a remote rural area that only hardwires its broadcast in the dormitories and cafeterias, so they will be weighted differently.”
IS ANYBODY LOOKING?
Depending on the periodical and chart in question, many people important to your career might be looking. For example, if you have music rising on the CMJ chart, major labels looking for the next big thing might be interested in how your career is shaping up and will keep a close eye on the buzz you generate on noncommercial stations. If you have a single starting to pick up enough airplay in certain regions to chart in Gavin, radio programmers around the country might be interested in playing your song as well. Billboard's “Hot 100” is viewed as the music industry's version of the New York Times “Best-Seller List.” Portions of Billboard's chart are reprinted in a number of consumer newspapers and broadcast on radio shows, serving as a benchmark for consumers — thus, retail stores — to decide if an artist is the “in thing” to buy.
How well artists fare in the charts can put a label's promotional budgets and payroll, as well as its artists' futures, on the line, which in turn puts pressure on the publications to make sure the information in their charts is accurate and timely. Gavin's music research editor, Jimmy Leslie, explains that each Gavin chart is researched differently. “For some charts, we use Mediabase, a computer-based research system that monitors a sample of selected stations,” Leslie says. “For others, we receive reports from a combination of commercial and noncommercial radio stations that report their current playlists to us. Reporting days around here can get really busy, as you can imagine.”
Understanding the language of industry charts is crucial if you want to use the information they provide to your best advantage. Here is a glossary of some key phrases that will help you interpret charts.
Adds. New releases that are added to a radio station's playlist (see Fig. 2).
BDS. Broadcast Data Systems. A tracking service that monitors broadcast music.
Bullets. A chart annotation for music showing extraordinary chart action and rising quickly in popularity. Heatseekers and similar terms may also be used.
Reporters. Key people (or groups) who report to the chart compilers what music is being played or sold. Reporters can include retailers, radio stations, and clubs.
Rotation. A general indicator of how much a song is being played by a radio station or in a club. A song in light rotation is being played regularly, but not quite as much as a song in heavy rotation.
SoundScan. A computer tracking service that monitors music sales.
Spins. The number of times radio stations play a song during a given period of time. For example, when a song grows in popularity because of simultaneous release of a single and a movie with the same song, radio stations will get tons of requests to play the song, resulting in hundreds of spins in a short period of time.
Tracks. Songs that are treated like singles for chart purposes but have not been released commercially for individual sale by the record company. Examples are an album track or a song from a movie soundtrack.
CHARTING YOUR PATH
Knowing how to increase your visibility and work the charts can do wonders for your career. You can do a variety of things — even at a grassroots level — to get on a chart and keep that chart momentum going.
Familiarize yourself with the chart you are targeting. Research the reporting radio stations, retailers, and clubs for the periodical and the specific chart you are trying to impact. Send those reporting stations your music, along with a specific request that they consider reporting your activity (in the case that they play your music) to the periodical you've identified.
Time your promotional effort. Getting a record on the charts requires a sustained push over time rather than sporadic waves of effort. Mail all of your promotional records at approximately the same time. If you get one or two clubs or radio stations in a geographical area to play your music, give them a reason to keep playing it by doing an interview or scheduling a gig in their area. Simultaneously, work on other reporting clubs and stations in the area, letting them know that their competitors are discovering who you are and what you're capable of.
Get reviewed or interviewed. Be media savvy by preparing your press kit and honing your interview chops so you can be ready to meet the press. Most charts are compiled by companies that are primarily involved in printed media, so it is key that you are familiar with how to work with that media.
Meet and greet. Some periodicals with charts have conventions or special programs, such as the CMJ Music Marathon convention or the Gavin radio convention. Meeting face-to-face with the professionals responsible for charting your music can be an invaluable experience.
Hire a professional. Spending the extra money on an independent promoter to handle your promotional effort could be well worth the investment. Someone who has experience and relationships in the industry might be able to keep your charting effort moving forward more efficiently than you could yourself.
Engage in shameless cross promotion. Keep your industry contacts posted on your chart position. Let concert promoters, clubs, record labels, friends, and fans know how you are doing and what they can do to help. If you open for a well-known act, if a college station receives barrage of requests for your song, or if a reporting retailer has a steady stream of buyers, your project can garner much attention.
Create and maintain visibility. Helms offers a bit of advice to up-and-coming artists. “A great way to use CMJ effectively is to remember to work on developing a strong local following; an audience will begin to find you from there,” he says. “There is some argument as to whether college or noncommercial radio actually translates into sales. Perhaps it won't do it immediately, but if you build your story, buzz, and following with a college audience, you are doing so with the tastemakers of the community. These are people who will be loyal and spread the word about you as an artist.”
Be ready to back it up. Preparation will go a long way in sustaining success. Don't let up on your creative efforts, even though you are working hard on your promotional efforts. Stay in contact with radio stations, retailers, clubs, and promoters between projects if possible, keeping them informed as to when your next project will come out.
Even if you should hit No. 1, find your picture pasted on every magazine cover in the country, and see your song become the most requested hit in the history of humankind, every project peaks and then eventually falls off the charts. Remember that charting (or not charting) is based on an objective reporting of data and is not a subjective editorial about the quality of your artistry. Understanding, planning, and using the charts to your advantage will help you immensely to continue on course.
Frequent “Working Musician” author and entertainment attorney Michael A. Aczon is also a health and fitness enthusiast who can often be found in the gym or on the running trails of Northern California, while sweating out details for his contributions.
The three music trade magazines discussed in this article all make their charts available on their Web sites. Each chart is accompanied by an explanation of how the data for that chart is compiled.
John Mayall and Friends (22) Along for the Ride (Eagle)
Marcia Ball (20) Presumed Innocent (Alligator)
Various Artists (16) Bridget Jones's Diary OST (Island/Def Jam)
Turin Brakes (12) The Optimist LP (Astralwerks)
Alejandro Escovedo (11) A Man Under the Influence (Bloodshot)
Spincrease Lucinda Williams+259Cowboy Junkies+204R.E.M.+185Black Crowes+141Blues Traveler+133Stevie Nicks+99
FIG. 2: Gavin provides supplemental data for its weekly “Triple A” album chart. “Most Added” (a) notes the albums that were added by the most stations, with the number of stations shown in parentheses after the artist name. “Spincrease” (b) shows the artists who experienced the greatest increase in spins in the previous week.