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Knowledge Base Article: KB2378
Topic: FAQ - Music Business Questions & Issues

Title: Can you please explain how the Billboard Charts work?

Last Reviewed: Dec 16, 2011

Q.  Can you please explain how the Billboard Charts work?

A.  Billboard has always been the ultimate authority of gauging the popularity of hit records in the United States, although the digital age is changing that rapidly. While Billboard’s charts are updated and printed weekly after assembling a vast amount of data, today iTunes sales charts are constantly updated. As a result, the top ten positions in any of iTunes charts-albums, singles, music videos, and anything else ITunes sells-are likely to be somewhat different almost every hour, although a true hit record will remain near the top for many weeks.

The charts in Billboard are still regarded as the official charts of the industry, however, and Billboard bases it’s United States Hot 100 chart on a combination of airplay and sales. The Hot 100 officially began in 1958, but Billboard had been publishing charts of popular music almost since its inception as a trade paper for the amusement industry.

Joel Whitburn of Record Research ( has written and published many books based on many of Billboard’s charts over the years, the earliest of these chart books begin in 1940. They are an extremely useful reference tool for anyone who really wants to understand the history of popular music of all forms.

For the Billboard Hot 100, reporting Radio stations in larger markets are given greater importance over those in medium markets, so that overall audience impressions are supposed to balance correctly. This is similar to a system used by another source of music industry charts published for years in another leading industry publication, Radio and Records. Billboard purchased Radio and Records a few years back, and the publication itself no longer exists. The methodology used by Radio and Records is still a large part of how Billboard formulates their charts, however.

It’s hardly a perfect system, but it’s better in the era of digital information than it has been in the past, as far as accuracy. During Christmas season, sales are heavier than at other times of the year. This results in sales producing a greater effect on the Hot 100 charts than usual, weighing heavier in the algorithim. During slow sales periods, the reverse happens. They aim for a mix of 50/50, sales and airplay, when determining chart rankings, but it isn’t perfect. Throughout rock and roll history, some of the songs that have stood the test of time, to the point of being selected as all time classics in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, did not chart very well or at all in some cases. Some, like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, never were released as singles-therefore pre-1998 they wouldn’t chart, regardless of how popular they were.

Over the years, Billboard has changed chart policy to reflect trends, often much later than the actual trends. For example, a major change in December 1998 gave songs that did not have a physical retail single the chance to appear on Billboard’s Hot 100, reacting to a trend that saw record labels withhold singles to sell full CD’s of artists. Billboard kept a separate chart for sales and airplay that comprised the Hot 100, which they still do. They didn’t start this until the digital age, which, for the Hot 100 charts, begins in late 1991. As a result, pre-1998, five popular songs-Fly by Sugar Ray featuring Super Cat, Men In Black by Will Smith, Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, Don’t Speak by No Doubt, and Torn by Natalie Imbruglia, reached No. 1 on the Airplay chart but never charted on the Hot 100. Today, of course, sales of non digital product are quickly on the wane.

Another instance of Billboard reacting late to trends, costing popular songs not to appear on the Hot 100, is Madonna’s 12 inch vinyl single from 1985, Into The Groove. At that time, if a record was not available as a 7 inch vinyl single, it wouldn’t chart. Although Into The Groove sold over a million copies of the 12 inch single and charted very highly on Radio and Records CHR (Contemporary Hit Radio, aka Top 40 Radio charts), the chart rules dictated that the record did not chart. Had that not been the case, Into The Groove would likely have been yet another No. 1 hit single for Madonna. The rule was finally changed in 1990, when U Can’t Touch This, M.C. Hammer’s 12 inch vinyl single only, became the first record to chart on the Hot 100 under this rule, peaking at No. 8. Several noteworthy records whose 12 inch singles greatly outsold their 7 inch counterparts, such as Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight would have charted higher than they did had 12 inch single sales been factored into their Billboard Hot 100 chart positions as well, had the rule been reversed earlier.

Album charts such as the Billboard 200 albums chart are sales only, while most format and song specific charts, such as the R&B Hits and Country Hits charts are airplay only. Billboard publishes new charts every Thursday.


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