Business

How SoundScan Changed Music, Driving Metal, Rap and Alt-Rock Up the Charts

Metallica
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection

Metallica

Thirty years ago, pop-rock dominated the industry. Then Billboard began tabulating charts using sales information from store checkouts.

Thirty years ago, in the spring of 1991, around the time Wilson Phillips had the fourth consecutive hit from its 1990 debut album, The Triplets seemed like a sure thing.

Diana, Sylvia, and Vicky Villegas were the daughters of an American mom and Mexican dad — they were actual triplets — who harmonized on sunny pop-rock in much the same vein as Wilson Phillips. They were seasoned, with a 1986 debut on Elektra, and willing to work to promote the album Thicker Than Water, which Mercury released in March 1991.

"We toured for months, and we did the old-time promotion, going through radio stations to promote our album," remembers Sylvia Villegas. "Consequently, we entered the charts fairly high. But as a new artist with a new album, you weren't going to have high sales numbers yet. It takes a while for those to kick in."

By late spring, their work was paying off: On the Top Pop Albums chart (now known as the Billboard 200) dated May 18, The Triplets' album was No. 131, and its first single, "You Don't Have to Go Home Tonight," had risen to No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Then came SoundScan.

SoundScan, which is now known as MRC Data, measured album sales as they happened — stores scanned bar codes at the checkout register — and over the next few months it upended the conventional music business wisdom about what sold, as well as when and how. It revealed the popularity of several genres — alternative rock, country, hip-hop, harder metal — that had been seen as commercially marginal compared to bread-and-butter pop-rock bands. Those, including The Triplets, no longer seemed like such sure things.

On the Top Pop Albums chart dated May 25, 1991, the first compiled with SoundScan data, Thicker Than Water fell — not just down the album sales chart, but off of it entirely.

The center couldn't hold. As soon as Thicker Than Water fell off the chart, the Triplets' radio support vanished. Over the course of June, "You Don't Have to Go Home Tonight" fell like a stone: 24, 36, 51, 73, 97, then off the Hot 100 entirely by July. And that was months before that chart adopted SoundScan data that fall. It was as if the band had a scarlet number — or a lack of one.

"It was like opening a restaurant right before COVID hit," says Diana Villegas.

Paul Natkin/Getty Images
Pop and Rock group the Triplets perform on stage at the Poplar Creek Music Theater, Hoffman Estates, Illinois, June 8, 1991.

By changing the way music sales were counted, SoundScan changed the way music was sold. It established a clear and transparent way to count sales that couldn't easily be gamed by stores, which in turn changed the practice of tabulating sales "from a subjective methodology to an objective methodology," says Jim Caparro, former president of Polygram Group Distribution.

Hype didn't help as much anymore. "There were albums that people thought were doing great," adds Jim Cawley, then a sales and distribution vice president for EMI Records. "SoundScan exposed a lot of those projects for the fact that they didn't really sell very much. It was like the emperor had no clothes."

Revolution at Retail

For decades before SoundScan, the Billboard 200 albums chart had been based on ranked lists from retailers and one-stop distributors. It was "Heisman Trophy voting — the most points go to No. 1 and you go down from there, on a graduated reverse scale," remembers Geoff Mayfield, then associate director/retail research of charts & research. Until 1990, the ranked sales lists from stores weren't adequately weighted, so that sales from Musicland's 800 stores only counted several times as much as those of a mom-and-pop shop.

Back then, "there was a belief that the charts dictated behavior instead of the charts being a reflection of that behavior," Mayfield remembers. "I think that the labels and — to some degree, some of the people who oversaw Billboard's charts — felt like if a record lost the bullet, or if it went backwards, or got stalled, that all of a sudden, retailers were going to return records." Most albums presumably had their biggest weeks when they first came out, as SoundScan statistics eventually showed, but "our charts didn't reflect that."

One of the columnists Mayfield edited in the ‘80s was Mike Shalett, who had "a cool little research business" that laid the groundwork for SoundScan. But getting the point-of-sale data SoundScan needed wasn't easy: It required outfitting every major U.S. music retailer with a computer system that could scan and recognize UPC codes, which was the stuff of science fiction at a time when few stores had a computer.

When the data came in, the biggest surprise was how well older albums continued to sell. For years, retailers and one-stop distributors had omitted catalog albums when they sent ranked sales lists to Billboard. SoundScan didn't, though. So Billboard created a new chart, Top Pop Catalog Albums, which debuted May 25, 1991, topped by Best of the Righteous Brothers, Steve Miller Band's Greatest Hits, and — to the surprise of several Billboard writers — Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell. "If the catalog albums were included in the Top Pop Albums chart, all 50 would show up on the 200-position chart," Mayfield wrote in the June 1, 1991 issue. "The Righteous Brothers would have shown up at No. 43, Steve Miller Band would be in the top 50, and Meat Loaf would rank in the 60s." (The Righteous Brothers CD included "Unchained Melody," featured in the film hit Ghost.) 

To separate out the new releases, Mayfield says he "spent the good part of two weekends, plus some late weekdays with reams of sales reports from SoundScan and the latest Joel Whitburn [chart statistics] book to figure out which titles should be flagged as catalog." The initial definition: A two-year-old album that had been off the album chart for two weeks in a row.

The Top Pop Albums chart dated May 25, 1991, which didn't include catalog, was topped by balladeer Michael Bolton's Time, Love & Tenderness, in its third week on the chart. The week's highest debut was Huey Lewis & the News' Hard at Play, at No. 27 — notably high for a first-week position, and a sign of things to come.

So was the album at No. 4, up from No. 16 the week before: Garth Brooks' No Fences — a country album with no pop crossover hits that reached a previously unimaginable position.

In fact, Mayfield had worried No Fences might do even better. "If the very first week we had debuted that chart with Garth Brooks at No. 1, I don't know how ugly that day would have been for me," he remembers. The flak would have come from both sides: Pop fans who hadn't heard of Brooks, plus country hard-liners like singer Randy Travis.

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Garth Brooks sits on his Chevy truck which he drove to Nashville in at the start of his career, now parked at his Nashville Home January 1, 1992 in Nashville Tennessee

The real firestorm, though, came over recent releases that fell fast, like So Intense, the solo album from Lisa Fischer, who had sung backup for Luther Vandross and The Rolling Stones. "I got a call from her manager at the end of the day, because hers is one of the records that that really took a huge dip," Mayfield remembers — from 146 to 176.

Then there were The Triplets. Their label, Mercury Records, was furious: "All my baby acts — Material Issue and The Triplets, for instance — they're all off the charts now, and [SoundScan co-founder Mike] Shalett's going to come in and try to sell me his service?" Mike Bone, a Mercury vp, said in the June 1 issue of Billboard. "Kiss my ass, mother—." (Bone declined to comment for this story.)

Numbers Won

The most immediately visible gains were made by metal bands. The June 29, 1991, chart featured the first No. 1 debut of the SoundScan era: Skid Row's second album,  Slave to the Grind, which built on momentum from the band's opening slot on a Guns N' Roses tour. A week later, Van Halen's  For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge bumped Skid Row to No. 2 — the first time two hard rock albums had occupied the 1-2 positions in three years. Van Halen's album stayed at No. 1 for three weeks.

In August, Metallica's self-titled fifth album, "the black album," not only debuted at the top — and stayed there a month — but broke  SoundScan's first-week sales record, with nearly 600,000 copies. "We sold more units of Metallica in its first day alone than we sold of Van Halen in the first week," Bruce Jesse, vp advertising and sales promotion of the Wherehouse Entertainment chain, told  Billboard. That October, Guns N' Roses' same-day release of  Use Your Illusion I  and II  totaled nearly 1.5 million sales in their first week.

Metallica had managed to build a big audience without significant radio play, only to dominate the album chart when it recorded commercially viable singles ("Enter Sandman" peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100). But N.W.A accomplished something even more impressive: Its second album,  Efil4zaggin, debuted at No. 2 and hit No. 1 without a single in the Hot 100. Hip-hop was popular on the charts, but it usually involved the bubblegum likes of MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice.

"What was unique for N.W.A was, it was not just rap — it was rap on an independent label," says Mayfield. "Along with hip-hop, independent labels also became much better represented."

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
MC Ren, DJ Yella, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre of the rap group NWA pose for a portrait in 1991 in New York, New York. DJ Yella is giving the middle-finger.

Patterns of sales changed, too. Even the biggest albums tended to start big and then tail off, according to SoundScan. With one major exception. Garth Brooks' Ropin' the Wind topped the album chart dated Sept. 28, 1991 with an impressive 300,000 units sold. A week later, though, when Use Your Illusion II took the top spot, the album still sold 300,000. Radio helped. During the mid-'80s pop radio revival, many cities had multiple top 40 stations — but by 1991 some owners converted to other formats. Many switched to country, making Brooks more widely visible than any Nashville artist in a decade.

The other format many secondary top 40 stations turned to was modern rock/alternative. The format had been growing for years, and alternative acts like The B-52s and Sinead O'Connor had crossed over to pop radio. And as a Warner Bros. back-page ad in Billboard trumpeted, R.E.M.'s seventh album, Out of Time, became the first album to hit No. 1 both before and after the advent of SoundScan.

Nirvana's Nevermind famously topped the album chart in January 1992. Even before then, though, SoundScan boosted the fortunes of U.K. alternative acts like EMF, whose first album, Schubert Dip, bowed on the album chart at No. 20 a week after SoundScan's debut — far higher than it would have previously. (It eventually reached No. 12 on the June 22, 1991 chart.) It was fueled by the single "Unbelievable," No. 1 on the Hot 100 dated July 20. "It was a shock for all of us," says EMF's Ian Dench. "I remember a lot of talk about how it took a long time for a record to climb the charts in America. [Billboard  said] that it had a ‘bullet.' It was a strange term to use when it was so slow."

What SoundScan gave, though, it could also take away. That November, Billboard began tabulating the Hot 100 chart with a combination of SoundScan and Broadcast Data Systems (BDS) airplay information, which almost entirely eliminated the reliance on playlists that could contain "paper adds" that radio stations didn't actually play. That week, EMF's follow-up single, "Lies," dropped from No. 18 to No. 66.

"In a sense," says Dench, "it confirmed what we thought, which was that 'Unbelievable' was a great intro, and a one-off record. I guess we hoped against hope that we had an album full of 'Unbelievable's, but when we saw 'Lies' drift away, then we thought, 'We're gonna try and write another one.' And I've tried to write another one for the last 30 years and not managed to do it."