On SoundScan and Music Celebrity

SoundScan data from September 12th, 2010

When it debuted in March of 1991, SoundScan was hailed as a long-coming revolution for the music industry. Developed by radio and marketing veterans Mike Fine and Mike Shalett, this simple system — what boils down to bar-code scanning — leveled the playing field for consumers by tracking each recording as it crossed the counter. SoundScan mapped pop music’s retail footprint into databases accruing previously unimaginable sales minutiae: units bought by zip code, by store, in a given timeframe, all easily cross-referenced. National chains and large shops signed on so quickly that Billboard magazine was cowed into adopting SoundScan as the foundation of its Top 200 album chart just nine weeks after the service launched. Though the year-zero quality once ascribed to Billboard’s May 26th, 1991 Top 200 has faded in the digital age, SoundScan had overthrown a tightly-guarded market information regime that ruled for over thirty years.

Prior to SoundScan, the only metric of music sales available was the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) tally of units shipped, less returns. As an indicator of consumer activity, this methodology was grossly skewed to benefit major labels, who inflated shipments to artificially crash the charts. Unsold albums were destroyed, unaccounted for, or made to disappear by distributors in exchange for kickbacks. Stores were constantly under pressure to keep poor sellers on their shelves. These loss-leading tactics deflated returns by floating stock within the supply chain, and so ensured notarization by both the RIAA and Billboard, whose charts were based on RIAA figures, with color from highly suspect “direct polling” of retailers. Smaller shops, record labels, and distributors — not least the artists they represented — were statistically drowned out by blatant market manipulation, and rank favoritism.

From the 1970s, following explosive, sustained growth in album sales in the late ‘60s, the Billboard Top 200 began to function more as a noise filter for inundated consumers than a triumphal town crier for the record industry. Billboard broadcast the official resume of pop music — the Record of records. Chart rank indicated which albums were likely to be Good, and, in attaining this status, Important. And so placement became the end-all-be-all of music marketing. RIAA certification was quickly recognized as a critical tool in the kit: not only were RIAA figures based on a record label’s declared shipping receipts, the RIAA’s grant of Gold (for sales over 500,000) or, from 1976, Platinum status (for sales over 1,000,000) was undertaken at the label’s request. This weighted system failed consumers repeatedly, breeding distrust and disappointment in the record-buying public.

Billy Shears Meets the Phantom of the Park

On July 23rd, 1978, RSO Records released a double-album soundtrack from the Bee Gees’ motion picture Beatles revue, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. RSO was a breakout independent label in the 1970s, its fortunes rising and falling with disco. Founded in 1973 by theater mogul Robert Stigwood (the O stands for Organisation), RSO’s stable boasted the Bee Gees, their baby brother Andy Gibb, and for a time, Eric Clapton. After a dizzying run of chart-topping, record-setting releases, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was mapped as a bar-raising entrée into film-making, elevating both RSO and the Bee Gees to Hollywood status.

With a then-astounding $1 million dollar promotional budget, advance airplay for the star-studded soundtrack album was strong, especially Aerosmith’s rendition of “Come Together.” First-week sales were in line with forecasts, but a landslide of critical and popular vitriol against the haphazard, indulgent film consigned both to oblivion by mid-August. Problematically, the soundtrack had been pre-certified Platinum by the RIAA, as initial shipments approached two million copies. When sales stalled short of two hundred-thousand, returns overwhelmed RSO’s distributors, who loudly called for reimbursement. Though it is largely forgotten today, the affair should compete with Mariah Carey’s Glitter as a definition for celebrity hubris.

Just as the public were ready to move on from the Bee Gees’ summer blunder, Casablanca Records unveiled four solo albums from the members of Kiss on September 18th.

Kiss were by some margin the highest-profile rock act of the late 1970s, so the presumptive Platinum certification of all four albums (shipping over a million copies each) was a realistic fait accompli. An unrivaled promotional onslaught presaged their release, a media saturation so complete that major television networks ran evening news spots heralding the set, many re-broadcasting Casablanca’s industrial infomercial. But it soon became obvious to store owners and fans that nobody was actually buying, or much liked any of these albums. Only Ace Frehley’s disc broke the Top 40 (peaking at #22), and all were excoriated in the press, fueling a general backlash against a vastly overexposed act. The LPs quickly shifted to discount bins, and returns were monumental. Total 1978 sales for all four solo albums was less than half that of their previous LP under the Kiss moniker, Love Gun.

On the back of these fiascoes, the press began to question the legitimacy of Gold and Platinum certification, and as a mea culpa, the RIAA instituted a delay policy, preventing labels from requesting certification until three months from the release date, so that returns during that period could be deducted from declared shipping figures. Yet as late as 1995, when improvements in information delivery shortened the certification delay from three months to one, Michael Jackson’s double-disc HIStory compilation was certified five-times Platinum (each copy counting as two “album units” under questionable RIAA rules). SoundScan figures show that HIStory did not even sell one million copies in its first six months. Which is not to suggest that HIStory was a failure — it is in fact the best-selling double-disc set of all time — but to underscore that disingenuous use of RIAA certification as a marketing tool was still rampant, even in the SoundScan age.

Are You Getting It?

17 million copies manufactured

The most stunning example of RIAA chart manipulation is probably Hysteria, a 1987 album by the British rock group Def Leppard. Hysteria sold strongly at home, debuting at #8 on the more accurate UK album charts, but faltered out of the gate in America, where the band’s profile had waned considerably since their stateside breakthrough, 1984's Pyromania.

Hysteria’s initial singles “Women” and “Animal” trod water on MTV and FM radio, requiring considerable inter-industry pressure to perform at all. A separate piece could be written about the machinations behind third single “Hysteria” breaking the American Top 10; it crested at #10 for just one week, on the March 26th, 1988 Billboard Hot 100, which granted Mercury Records license to include the crucial phrase “featuring the Top 10 hit single…” on all promotional materials going forward.

Mercury’s parent corporation PolyGram was very concerned about the tepid American response, as both financially and strategically, Hysteria was designed as a hard rock answer to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Seven singles — the same number taken from Thriller — were issued from Hysteria, including the entire first side of the album. This extraordinarily high bar was actually set by producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, in literal terms, to inspire and motivate a band distracted by substance abuse and the shocking loss of drummer Rick Allen’s left arm following a 1984 car accident. Lange’s gauntlet-toss became motivational mantra within the halls of Mercury Records, and the band struggled through a two-year process of heavily-scrutinized demos; committee debates over running order; specific word choices in Joe Elliot’s lyrics; and the rather dark album cover. Mixing and post-production work dragged on for nearly five months once recording sessions ended in January 1987.

Released in August 1987, Mercury shipped an estimated fifteen million copies of Hysteria over the next two years, qualifying it as one of the biggest-selling albums of all time by RIAA standards. During Hysteria…hysteria, the album spent a staggering seventy-eight weeks inside the Billboard Top 10 — exactly as long as Thriller, to the week. This is a farcical coincidence: the only other albums released since 1962 with comparable Top 10 longevity are Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. (eighty-four weeks beginning in 1984) and Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl (sixty-four weeks beginning in 1987). By the time Hysteria’s seventh and final single “Rocket” was released in February 1989, the RIAA had certified Hysteria twelve-times Platinum.

In the end, no one knows how many copies of Hysteria — or Thriller, for that matter — have ever been sold. All that is known is that, from the introduction of SoundScan in 1991 until Michael Jackson’s death in 2009, Thriller and Hysteria scanned roughly three million copies each (notably bested by Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction and Metallica’s …And Justice For All, which have both scanned +/- five million units). The notion that Hysteria sold twelve million units from 1987 to 1991, and merely three million thereafter, is somewhat absurd. Consider the sad but nonetheless headline-worthy death of guitarist Steve Clark in January 1991; the band’s celebrated return at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert; and the SoundScan-verified performance of Hysteria’s follow-up Adrenalize, which despite being seen as grievously uncool during the Grunge, Gangsta rap and Britpop days, scanned in excess of five million copies in 1992 alone. Even in the digital age, Hysteria still does substantial business: its watershed single “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (*cough*) has been purchased more than a million times.

Poring over the numbers, you reach the conclusion that the record industry simply lost perspective in its brinkmanship, blinded by an out-of-control obsession with ever-larger sales figures to guarantee chart performance. The story of the RIAA era is not one of artistic bankruptcy, but of record labels exaggerating the definition of popularity, in order to control access to that definition. Which is to say: the record label that can afford to ship the most copies of an album can lay claim to the highest position on any RIAA-based chart. With such tight control over these charts, the labels could also dictate what music would be allowed to appear on them, and they went out with a bang. From July 1st, 1990 through March 1st, 1991, two albums contiguously occupied the #1 spot on the Billboard Top 200: MC Hammer’s Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ’Em, and To the Extreme, by Vanilla Ice.

SoundScan was supposed to close this loophole, to reflect back to consumers what they were expressing through dollar votes, but the sacrosanct accuracy it lends the Billboard charts apparently comes at substantial cost. Just as Platinum certification is still ostensibly available to the highest bidder, access to SoundScan’s sales figures is restricted to a very select class.

Pegging the Euro to Justin Bieber

More Maseratis are sold via Bloomberg’s POSH market than by dealers worldwide.

Bloomberg’s desktop software is a portal through which all activity in financial markets is monitored and, via actual trading or the direct influence of its news and data feeds, conducted. The company attracts an ever-growing staff of top flight reporters and analysts tasked with scooping CNN, Reuters and the Associated Press, so that their customers enjoy prima facie access to information, and can act with situational advantage. The Bloomberg application is robust bordering on bloated, but it allows traders, portfolio managers and analysts the simplest available means to organize, test and track strategies against current market conditions and forecasts. Factoring in the private loop of email and chat with other subscribers (which is really the driving force behind its success — exclusivity), your access to this tier of information is paramount to your success. Without a Bloomberg license, it is impossible for any financial services organization to compete.

Most subscribing companies have between ten and twenty Bloomberg licenses. With additional charges for network appliances, futuristic Bloomberg keyboards, and biometric James Bond authentication cards (called, in comically Orwellian terms, “B-Units”), this level of subscriber pays annual dues in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. The largest houses pay Bloomberg tens of millions a year in licensing fees alone, but individual access to the same information and software such giants of industry hobnob within is a fixed, published rate: $18,000 per year, per seat.

Unfettered yearly access to SoundScan’s pop music sales data is a considerably more exclusive $50,000.

Sales reps are quick to offer a multitude of lower-cost packages to curious parties: artists can pay $500 per quarter to track their latest release (a hefty $2000 annually, more than most could expect to generate from album sales). Record labels are billed at scale, for historical accounting of their entire catalog, as are distributors, who are restricted to information about the records and labels they service. Distributors invariably pass this cost onto their clients, usually at an indefensible markup — which is vexing but ultimately difficult to indict, as SoundScan’s operating costs are a black box, and the value of its data to artists and the industry overall is indeterminate. But a December 8th, 1991 LA Times article by Chuck Phillips revealed a more breathtaking subscription tier, giving the lie to any supposed consumer benefit SoundScan touted: the biggest media conglomerates — Sony, BMG, PolyGram, MCA, and WEA — were paying SoundScan $800,000 a year.

Each.

What was marketed as an equalizing response to the RIAA’s laughable tracking methods was actually bought out, from the start, by the same companies who had long falsified the charts. The exorbitant cost of a SoundScan account is a barrier to entry demanded by big labels; if they could no longer inflate sales, they would make them a trade secret. Rather than shake up the music industry, the precision SoundScan introduced meant moving money from one ledger entry to another, from “promotional copies” of albums to “SoundScan fees.” The labels retained control over sales figures, and so retained their ability to capitalize on music, to know who to promote, because they could see what was selling, and more importantly, what wasn’t. Enter Garth Brooks, Snoop Dogg, and Nirvana. Adieu, Color Me Badd. Record labels don’t care what kind of music you buy, as long as you buy it from them.

Musician, or “Music Celebrity”?

The practice of pricing-out SoundScan access cripples the press, who at peak profitability (the 1990s) would have had no problem paying $30-$50,000 a year for a SoundScan account, but given the downturn in revenues trailing the rise of the internet, would be hard-pressed to lay out the financial equivalent of an annual salary on what is ultimately unexciting information.

The press is in the business of promoting artists, their take on said artists, and of selling advertisements based on their content. Sales figures are not sexy, and therefore not a primary concern, yet without this information, critics are incapable of developing a realistic view of the pop music landscape. Their impressions cannot be tempered or adjusted to account for an artist’s true reach, leading to blind critiques based solely on preference and prejudice. Which is all well and good if there’s nothing at stake — if the musician isn’t trying to make a living from their music — but the publication is going to make money either way, profiting from the artist’s renown — from public interest in their work — by selling unrelated advertisements. To illustrate how unfairly this situation can break for the artist, I’ve pulled sales figures for three acts with a comparable popular profile over the last ten years.

Portland, Oregon’s Decemberists have enjoyed steady career growth since forming in 2000. Their third album Picaresque arrived fortuitously during a period of popular interest in nostalgic, doleful art, and the breakthrough video “16 Military Wives” (a tribute to Wes Anderson’s Rushmore) helped crystallize this worldview. The band’s reputation swelled with broad support from MTV and a series of successful tours; in 2006, the Decemberists signed with major label Capitol, and via an appearance on Comedy Central’s then-ascendant Steven Colbert Show, greatly expanded their fan-base. Ever politically active, they stumped for Barack Obama throughout 2008, winning a few national bylines in the process. To date, the Decemberists have sold almost exactly one million albums.

Vampire Weekend is a newer and much more commercial band than the Decemberists. In 2006, they signed to arguably the most chic imprint of the last ten years (XL) before releasing any material. There is an instamatic quality to Vampire Weekend’s success that begs comparisons with the Strokes’ millennial ascent: with pop-culture references bursting from their songs, videos, and wardrobe, Vampire Weekend continue to draw breathless fawning from every major player in the music press — Rolling Stone, MTV, Pitchfork, the NME — and have appeared on a number of television programs, including Saturday Night Live. Like the slower-boiled Decemberists, they have recently crested the one million mark for lifetime album sales.

No stranger to Saturday Night Live, Joanna Newsom has probably received more attention than either of these bands since her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender. Discovered by Will Oldham and persistently loyal to his parent label Drag City, Newsom’s popularity is perhaps disproportionately down to her beauty and fashion sense, glaring Appalachian cadence, and instrument of choice, an enormous pedal harp. After a series of glamorous cover features, she appeared in a widely-discussed and rather edgy video for the band MGMT’s Grammy-nominated single “Kids” (the #1 single of 2008, according the NME). As noted in the pages of People magazine and various gossip websites, Newsom is currently dating SNL cast-member Andy Samberg, whose Rahm Emanuel impression won the couple a perfunctory visit to the White House.

Newsom recently gave a controversial interview in which she indicted Lady Gaga as self-important and redundant, crowing, “she just makes me miss Cyndi Lauper” (which is a very strange complaint, contextually speaking). She also called Madonna a “dumb-ass,” a comment she panic-redialed to retract, having clearly overstepped her bounds. These solipsistic pirouettes came on the heels of a similar broadside leveled at finicky bloggers, whose oft-presumptive dissection of her career she finds unsettling (though to be fair, her comments on this score were much more intelligent). At the moment, her profile is a bit outsize — especially if you take sales figures into account.

Joanna Newsom enjoys comparable catalog advantage with the Decemberists, and through her personal life a similar media-chic to Vampire Weekend, but in terms of exposure is presently many rungs up from either band, a bona fide pop culture talking point. Yet she has sold less than two-hundred thousand records. Her latest, a poorly marketed multi-LP set called Have One on Me, scanned just seven thousand copies in its first week, and is an unlikely candidate for long tail redemption. Newsom’s dubiously pharisaical treatment of music writers is a potentially serious misstep: by the numbers, the blogs she’s broadsided constitute her entire audience.

For her part, Lady Gaga has booked quite justifying sales in excess of fifteen million singles, and +/- four million copies of her 2008 debut The Fame. Joanna Newsom clearly relies on alternate sources of income to remain a full-time musician, but as a music celebrity, can generate advertising revenue at par with the monster she beholds.

Where Do We Go Now

In 2009, when Lady Gaga was just beginning to assert herself as a legitimate pop phenomenon, Taylor Swift was the best-selling recording artist in America. Figures for her Fearless LP should have outlined peak sales expectations these days, and with a larger, more media-savvy audience perpetually inundated with advertisements, you would expect figures to at least jibe with historic norms (and profit margins to be significantly lower). But the #1-selling album of 2009 moved only three million copies.

The collapse in album sales that began in 2006, off a peak of nearly ten million units registered by SoundScan for ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached in 2000, to just over three million for Swift’s Fearless in 2009, appears to be permanent. No Strings Attached sold more copies in two weeks than Fearless has in almost two years — ouch — but a more comprehensively mind-blowing example of the format’s decline is seen in the ten best-selling albums since SoundScan began tracking sales. Not one was released after the year 2000.

In an effort to prove its continued relevance and value to the industry, SoundScan began tracking all sorts of vague statistics, like “Song Detections” and “Artist Internet Streams.” But these market spaces produce little direct income for Taylor Swift, for example, or for her record label. Instead, Taylor Swift’s music was used, during the Nielsen-detected forty-six million instances it was played over the Internet in 2009, as a marketing adjunct for the companies who brought it to you — chiefly Apple, Spotify, and Google — and the companies who advertise with them.

For years now, technophiles have been stitching up record labels and their corporate parents as straw men in an overzealous celebration of the digital age, proclaiming “New Business Models” are necessary, that a profit windfall waits on the other side of concessions the entrenched, entitled labels refuse to make. This is possible bordering on probable, but said business models, and any potential profits from them, will not benefit musicians, or the music industry: they will benefit the Internet industry.

Artists are no longer paid well or directly for their work because there is no longer a distribution channel through which consumers are impelled to contribute direct patronage. Physical media functioned foremost as just such a conduit. In 1999 and 2000, ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys each sold — actually scanned — between twelve and fifteen million compact discs. The only real controversy surrounding these staggering figures was a brief sticker-shock panic at the turn of the century. In Europe and the UK prices were beyond absurd, with major releases — massive hits available in petrol stations — selling for $30 or more. In America, CD prices trended from $14 in 1996 to to $17 in 1999, a 20% increase despite lowered manufacturing costs and higher profits; in 2000, the Federal Trade Commission filed a class action lawsuit alleging price-fixing. The labels were guilty, and of pure gouging, but that’s not the point: the market not only tolerated their abuse, it continued to grow, astronomically.

Given this history, the problem clearly isn’t one of cost, or really even convenience; it is one of attitude and expectation. The Internet sells itself as an improved content-delivery service, giving you whatever you want, whenever you want — by no small coincidence is its premiere streaming-music service called Pandora — but there is an increasingly clear downside to opening the on-demand box. We no longer feel compelled to “own” music, because it has no scarcity value. Music has become ether, navigable by desire, or impulse, and so the need to patronize musicians, whom we were previously cowed into compensating by a protectorate of record labels, becomes not only optional, but indistinct.

We assume musicians are taken care of, because their music is getting to us, and in that way, they have succeeded — they have communicated, and they may even be famous as Joanna Newsom — but they will never profit, because neither they nor their ostensible parent labels control the medium by which we increasingly receive and interpret their work. To the extent their fame is driven and/or sustained online, artists are subservient to the Internet, and must engage with that audience on its terms, begging for donations — tithing — or prostituting themselves via cost-denominated special editions, guest appearances, personal concerts and personalized songs.

This is What You Want, This is What You Get

Represented by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and signed to the Beggars Group conglomerate, Grimes’ major label debut Art Angels sold 15,000 copies in its first month.

The musician’s plight is compounded by the disconnect between theirs and the Internet’s core functions. The artist needs to sell their music, but the only real profit stream available is advertising, because so many consumers have already passed by MP3 as a transitional format, and no longer consider music a commodity at all. Casual listeners are returning to the radio — both traditional FM broadcast and interactive Internet streams — in droves, because for them music is about satisfying an itch, and they would rather scratch it for free. As total digital sales bear out, acquisitive attitudes toward music are fading away.

Seeing these trends unfold, Billboard disposed of its eligibility requirements for the Top 200 in November 2009. Previously, only albums released in the 18 months prior to the current chart date would be tallied, making the Billboard Top 200 functionally a trending metric. Now, it is a true glimpse of overall record sales nationwide. This shift dramatically altered promotional budgets for reissues, cutting into seed money for new artists, and represents a further blow to marginal genres, where new artists cannot hope to compete with enduring catalog standards (see Anne Midgette’s dour piece on classical music’s chart dilemmas in the Washington Post). This writing was on the wall from the moment SoundScan hit the scene, and is why Billboard concocted separate “Heatseeker” charts in 1993, to isolate new, supposedly exciting artists from the embarrassing truth: that they were being outsold by old Michael Bolton records.

The ultimate outcome of a statistically accurate, genre-agnostic chart is that artists and labels are no longer able to use chart placement as a promotional tool. And in a way music and musicians lose the stature that afforded, subjected totally to our day-to-day buying habits, as reflected back in real time. A song featured in a commercial or film is suddenly back in the Top 10, a Pyrrhic victory in which the original piece of music is subsumed by the context in which it was rediscovered, fixed to a definition created by “music supervisors” rather than musicians. The profits from this exposure are diluted by film studios, publishing houses and advertising agencies before reaching the record label, who has the direct relationship with the artist. In the rosiest scenario, the label is committed to seeing said artist through peaks and troughs in popularity, insuring both theirs and the artist’s opportunity to profit from future works. Sans this support system, and given the debasement of music as a static commodity — be it CD, MP3 or even fetish vinyl — what hope is there for a career in pop?


NOTES

  1. Gold Album Awards were distributed from 1958, for then-staggering sales over 500,000. Apart from the Beatles’ Capitol compilations, million-selling albums were rare before the ’70s, but anecdotally date from 1957, when Harry Belafonte’s Calypso was celebrated as the first “double-Gold” LP. For the most part, Gold Album status was a self-congratulatory victory lap, advertised in trade magazines to herald the parent company’s success, as opposed to the artist, or album.
  2. Following Hysteria, “Mutt” Lange’s next “Thriller of [genre]” project was his then-wife Shania Twain’s 1997 LP Come on Over, which is the best-selling album by a female recording artist of all time, with over fifteen million copies scanned to date.
  3. Digging deeper into the realm of RIAA magic, consider the treatment afforded the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975. Originally certified in 1976 as part of the promotional thrust around Platinum designation, 1971–1975 was inexplicably re-certified twelve times platinum in 1990, and in 1995, an inconceivable twenty-two times. This ballooned to twenty-six times in 1999, with a final certification of twenty-nine times platinum in 2006 — a broadly publicized crest, as it meant the compilation had overtaken Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best-selling album of all time. According to the RIAA, Their Greatest Hits 1971–1975 shipped seventeen million copies between 1990 and 2006. Yet according to SoundScan, over the same period, it sold just over five million. Given that between 2006 and 2010, it barely scanned half a million — and that figure includes digital downloads — we can see that not only was the RIAA on a mission of intent rather than accuracy in trumpeting this album’s significance, they have totally disregarded widely-available statistics in the process. Even under the RIAA system, there were twelve million copies outstanding — potential returns — to count against the Eagles at the moment Hits was certified twenty-nine times platinum, and supposedly surpassed Thriller
  4. The Gaga potshot hugely overestimates the aesthetic loyalty of these fans. At a craggy thirty-four years old, with two daughters, even I can see that kids today have little use for the monastic firewalls of austerity and authenticity Newsom seems eager to hide behind, or perhaps rebuild. Which is probably just another way of admitting I read Hipster Runoff and Zerohedge with equal fervor. My point is, Joanna Newsom was one year old when Cyndi Lauper’s culture-reboot, proto-Harajaku landmark She’s So Unusual hit shelves. The only version of Cyndi Lauper that Newsom is capable of “missing” is her end-of-the-decade tailspin, which culminated in an utterly tawdry and racist single called “Hole in My Heart (All the Way to China).” It is unclear whether Newsom intended to invoke this period (or perhaps Lauper’s winning turn in Vibes?) but easy jokes aside, she reveals the worst sort of lazy, received vantage: halcyon nostalgia for an era of which one has no experience. “The Strokes just make me miss Richard Hell & the Voidoids. 50 Cent just makes me miss Charlie Patton.” And so on.
  5. Ignoring new releases, the best-selling catalog album in the SoundScan era by considerable margin is Bob Marley & the Wailers’ Legend, which broke the ten-million copy mark late in 2009. Unsurprisingly, Legend competes for the top spot on this chart with Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, but the divide between these two records, and all other pre-SoundScan LPs, is nearly insurmountable. At #3, Journey’s 1988 Greatest Hits is two-and-a-half million units behind the Floyd. In the realm of laughable predictability, six of the Top 10 and nine of the Top 20 albums on this list are greatest hits packages. The value of hits compilations to record labels, derided as unethical and gross by some critics and fans, is simply incontestable.
  6. The week’s most popular songs across all formats by new or developing acts, defined as those who have never appeared as a lead artist in the top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100 (or the top 50 of Radio Songs prior to Dec. 5, 1998). If a title reaches top 50 of the Billboard Hot 100, it and the act’s subsequent songs are then ineligible to appear on Heatseekers Songs. Titles are ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen BDS, sales data as compiled by Nielsen SoundScan and streaming activity data provided by online music sources.

This piece was originally published on May 12th, 2010. Apart from the appended images of Taylor Swift and Grimes, it is unchanged.