Monday, March 23, 2009

Blame the Charts

Someone once said (my Google-fu is weak today, I can't figure out who) that we change something by measuring it. That's why "reality TV" is such a contradiction in terms - by definition, filming what people do changes what they're doing. A corollary of that principle might be that by changing the way we measure something, we can change how it develops.

That's the operative theory behind this piece over at HuffPo by John "Don't Call Me Cougar" Mellencamp. He blames the downward spiral of the music industry on the change in how the charts were figured back in the 1980s:

At this very same time, new Nielsen monitoring systems -- BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) and SoundScan were employed to document record sales and radio airplay. Prior to 1991, the Billboard charts were done by manual research; radio stations and record stores across the country were polled to determine what was on their playlists and what the big sellers were. Thus, giving Oklahoma City, for example, an equivalent voice to Chicago's in terms of potential impact on the music scene. BDS keeps track of gross impressions through an encoded system that counts the number of plays or "spins" that a song receives. That number is, thereafter, multiplied by the number of potential listeners. SoundScan was put in place at retail centers to track sales by monitoring scanned barcodes of units crossing the counter. A formula was devised whereby the charts were based 20% on the SoundScan number and 80% on BDS results. The system had changed from one that measured popularity to one that was driven by population.

Record companies soon discovered that because of BDS, they only needed to concentrate on about 12 radio stations; there was no longer a business rationale for working secondary markets that were soon forgotten -- despite the fact that these were the very places where rock and roll was born and thrived. Why pay attention to Louisville -- worth a comparatively few potential listeners -- when the same one spin in New York, Los Angeles or Atlanta, etc., was worth so many more potential listeners?
That makes some sense, but I'm not sure things weren't headed that way long before. The music biz underwent a huge shift in the 1970s, particularly as artists started filling arenas and stadia. It was no longer enough for an artist to make some money for the company over a long term. Instant and, preferably, huge success was more important.

It reminds me of something Bill Bruford said once about Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records in one of the old Yes documentaries (Atlantic was home to Yes for years). He said that the early record labels were started by guys like Ertegun who were basically zealous collectors. In other words, passionate about the music itself, not so much the biz. Once that generation was passed by, the paradigm shifted.

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