US charts

August 1980

The American charts are (even) less reliable than the British ones. They’re also much longer … going for one hundred rather than 30, 40 or 50. Regional differences were also wide with different radio stations promoting different records, so that something could be a large local hit in one city or state, without necessarily being a national hit. In any case, it was common to have a local hit on a local label, then switch to a major label to press and distribute the national hit.

While British charts made some effort to record retail sales, the American ones combined retail sales, radio play and records shipped (rather than records sold). Companies found it better to promote with free records than discounts. Discounted records had to be accounted for royalties; free ones didn’t. 

For much of the period, American charts separated pop, R&B and country (with even more sub-divisions appearing later) and pop was not necessarily the best-selling, though big hits in other charts were funneled into it. Or rather records that reported big sales in the specialist R&B and country retailers, were also selling in general retailers. R&B was known for a while as ‘Race.’

Billboard had a separate R&B chart from 1942 onwards, but suspended it between December 1963 and January 1965. They had a run where the charts were getting intermingled too much. This record miscegenation saw The Beach Boys, Paul & Paula, Bobby Vinton and Rolf Harris hit the R&B chart. Well, Sun Arise was arguably ‘ethnic.’ The issue was what was played on R&B radio stations, and what was sold in shops in African-American neighbourhoods, so just as black artists entered the general chart, so white artists could enter the R&B chart. Even when they re-established the R&B chart, Herb Alpert was getting in there.

The chart reliability is questionable. For example, Casablanca’s retailer incentive was one in five free on albums, one in three free on singles. The number shipped could be used to manipulate the charts (and a third were free).

By the 1970s there were eight music trade papers. Billboard is regarded as the authoritative chart and they publish the chart books in the USA. They never publish the weekly detailed lists that you can find for the UK, and it’s far harder to find the information on US chart positions on a specific date. The biggest distributors ordered stock on the basis of the Billboard chart, so they were the most important. Rolling Stone magazine reproduced the album chart, and were the most authoritative rock paper, but were never interested in singles.

Cashbox would make deals on chart placings based on advertising. Record World was considered the most honest chart.

Larry Harris of Casablanca Records said:

A record company would tell the Billboard chart department, headed by Bill Wardlow, how many copies of an album it had sold and what level of airplay the album was getting; it would also inform Billboard about any special initiatives such as tours or advertising blitzes. Bill would somehow rate this information – I still firmly believe he used a Ouija board – and decide where to place the album. The singles charts were based on a combination of Top 40 airplay and sales, weighted more heavily towards airplay.

Tommy James (Me, The Mob & Music, 2010)

The three big trade papers were Record World, Cash Box and Billboard. Billboard were always the most difficult to deal with. Cash Box had a slant towards retail. Record World had a slant toward radio airplay. Billboard claimed to be in the middle … if you put out a record and it generated some excitement, it immediately went on the radio. That would be reflected in Record World. But it would take two to three weeks after you heard a song on the radio before your record would start charting in Cash Box … if the record was a hit, it would start climbing very fast, which meant you might be number one in Record World, but only number twenty on Cash Box, Billboard took the average of the two, and listed you at number ten in their paper. That sounded okay, and you might eventually go to number one in Cash Box and Record World, but you would have to stay that way two or three weeks to get to number one in Billboard. There was always a controversy about Billboard’s lists, because the whole industry was screaming at them over the discrepancies. And now, because the other trade papers collapsed over the years, Billboard,  by attrition became the keeper of the flame. When young researchers and historians go back to check the archives for a record’s history, they inevitably get a skewed sense of how popular it really was.

Tommy James & The Shondells had fourteen US chart hits between 1966 and 1969, so he should know.

There were a number of freelance independent radio pluggers, and it cost between $100,000 and $300,000 to employ their services to circulate a record and ensure airplay. They acted in concert, and one sub-contracted the services of the others. Without the payment, chart success was highly unlikely. The two leading pluggers were Fred DiSipio in New Jersey and Joe Isgro in Los Angeles. CBS was spending $10 million a year with them, or a full 30% of its pre-tax profits.

In Hit Men, Frederic Dannen describes the case of The Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall single. In 1980 the band toured the USA to sell-out concerts, and 80% of radio stations were playing the single in heavy rotation. It was #1 for Top 40 airplay. The week they opened a five-concert run in LA, all four big stations refused to play the song at all. CBS had decided to see whether they could buck the system by getting sales and airplay without paying the pluggers. They failed.

By the 1980s, the purpose of the singles chart was to promote albums. Dannen gives a telling example, Carly Simon’s single, Jesse. Industry insiders estimate that the top whack was paid to pluggers, $300,000. It got plenty of airplay. It reached #11 on the Billboard chart as a result, but they sold very few albums on the back of it, and probably few singles either.

Dave McAleer produced Hit Singles: Top 20 Charts From 1954 to The Present Day (Carlton 1994 – 2007) which gives side by side British and American charts, using NME (1954-64) then Record Retailer for the UK, and Billboard for the USA. It’s different from every other chart book in giving monthly charts, not weekly ones. Monthly charts were never published. In the list of top singles and artists of all time, a points system was applied, so I suspect that the same system converted four weekly charts into a monthly chart. i.e. it’s not straight sales, but based on chart positions in each of the four weeks.

Billboard Hot 100 28 March 1960