Billboard Celebrates 120th Anniversary: A Look Back at the Rich History

Dick Stabile reading The Billboard Magazine in the 1940s.
Elmer Holloway/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Dick Stabile reading The Billboard Magazine in the 1940s.

I was 14 when I discovered Billboard.

For a high school student who wanted to be a writer and who was interested in music, it was a window into a business I knew little about. But that quickly changed, as I became familiar with the names of industry leaders and the ever-changing fortunes of artists on the charts. I was also the first among my friends to know about cutting-edge technology like 8-track players, quadraphonic sound and DAT.

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Like most people reading Billboard, I had no idea how long the publication had been in existence. It was only years later that I discovered the first issue of Billboard hit the newsstands on Nov. 1, 1894 - just one year after the introduction of the ferris wheel at the Chicago World’s Fair. The magazine was originally called Billboard Advertising and it was a black-and-white monthly that soon transformed into a full-color weekly.

I also had no idea why it was called Billboard, when that name seemed to have no connection to the music business. When I eventually learned the publication was created to cover the outdoor advertising industry (as well as live entertainment like circuses and fairs), the title suddenly made perfect sense.

Billboard’s main areas of coverage changed over the years to include vaudeville, minstrel shows, motion pictures and recorded music, as well as jukeboxes, radio and, in the 1950s and early 1960s, television. The word “musicians” first appeared on the cover of The Billboard dated July 16, 1904, and the first regular column devoted to “Music” was published on Sept. 23, 1905. Promoters known as “song pluggers” were first mentioned in the magazine on Jan. 9, 1909.

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Reading Billboard as a teenager, my main interest was the charts. Until I saw my first issue, I had only been aware of my local top 40 radio station counting down the weekly hits. Then I discovered the Hot 100 and realized there were national charts -- this thing was bigger than I thought!

While the 200-plus regularly-published charts are the crown jewels of Billboard, weekly tallies didn’t appear until 1940. The first No. 1 single was “I’ll Never Smile Again” by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, with lead vocals by Frank Sinatra.

As the industry has changed over the years, so have the charts, adapting to current technologies and formats, from the introduction of the 45 rpm single on Jan. 10, 1949, to CDs, digital downloads and streaming.

Changing technology has also been reflected in Billboard’s editorial coverage over the years. Looking through decades of bound volumes, it’s hard to suppress a smile when looking at advertisements for the latest record changer with a central spindle, reel-to-reel tape recorder or VHS (and as of last month, the iPod classic). No matter how advanced we are as a society at any given point on the continuum, every leap forward will one day seem ancient and humorous. By Billboard’s 150th anniversary, we’ll be laughing at smart phones, Spotify and connectivity in our cars.

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At the ripe age of 120, Billboard is one of the oldest business-to-business publications in the world, but it is not the oldest continuously published magazine. That title goes to Scientific American, which dates back to 1845. National Geographic is also a longevity leader, with the first issue dated October 1888. However, Billboard is older than veterans such as Time (first published on March 3, 1923), Newsweek (Feb. 17, 1933) and Reader’s Digest (1922).

It’s unlikely that Billboard founders William Donaldson and James H. Hennegan knew that the eight-page magazine they published 120 years ago today (cover price: 10 cents) would still be thriving fourscore and 40 years later or that the Billboard logo - in all its incarnations - would be recognized around the world. Walk into a record store in Tokyo (yes, they still have record stores in Japan) and you’ll see the Billboard insignia displayed. International editions have been published in Russia, Turkey and Brazil and radio countdowns that rely on the Billboard charts have been broadcast in every corner of the globe (if globes could have corners).

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Just as fair organizers relied on those earliest issues of Billboard to keep up with the latest in amusement park rides, today’s music industry leaders read the weekly magazine and 24/7 websites to be aware of what is happening in their world moment by moment. While breaking news appears within minutes on Billboard.com and Billboard.biz, the weekly magazine provides insightful analysis and longer features that provide depth and understanding to relevant topics.

A whole new world opened up to me when I found that first issue of Billboard in a record store in downtown Los Angeles. A year later, I was part of the music industry, as a record store employee myself. By the time I learned to drive, I was going to local distributors to buy product for the mom-and-pop store in Culver City, Calif. Thanks to Billboard I knew which labels were which, what the latest releases were and which ones were worthy of stocking at Mr. Music.

Decades later, I still rely on Billboard to keep me current and ready for whatever is coming next. I still read the charts to know who is No. 1 and who has the highest debut of the week. And I expect to keep my subscription active as long as I’m breathing and enjoying music and interested in this business.

Fred Bronson is long-time Billboard reporter who wrote the Chart Beat column for many years. He is the author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.

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