“This is a hit”: history and records of music charts

We see all the time: they are played on the radio, they are written about in the media, they are found in historical references about long-released albums, compositions and musicians.

Elvis Presley lasted 79 weeks in first place on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Whitney Houston immediately won 7 songs in a row at the top of the Billboard charts - more than any other musician. Adele's album “21” held on the Billboard 200 chart for almost seven years (353 weeks) after the release, and the most “long-playing” record on the chart, Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon (1973), lasted more than 937 weeks (at the moment).

What does all this mean? How did the charts appear, how are they compiled, and why did they become important?

We understand.


Photo by JFHayeur CC

US Billboard Charts


In 1955, the first Hot 100 appeared in the American Billboard magazine - a list of the hundred most popular singles of the week. But materials similar to charts were published earlier, for example, in 1936, the first review material on the state of the music industry, the Hit Parade, appeared on Billboard. Since then, charts and charts have been captured by music media - they are made up of the editorial offices of newspapers, magazines and online sites, and they appear on radio and television channels. But Billboard remains the most authoritative - the charts of this magazine are considered to be the main indicator of the state of the music industry in the United States.

Now Billboard releases two main charts - Billboard Hot 100 (best-selling singles) and Billboard 200 (best-selling albums). The latter is practically a metaphor for the commercial success of the album in the USA.

In 1991, Nielsen, an American research firm that measured what people buy in stores and watch on TV, introduced a new research system. It was called Nielsen SoundScan and measured sales of music and music videos.

In the spring of 1991, the first release of the Billboard 200 hit parade (a list of the two hundred most popular music albums in the USA), based on data from Nielsen SoundScan, was released. In 2014, Nielsen SoundScan, in addition to monitoring sales in physical and digital stores, began to measure data from streaming services. Now Nielsen receives information from 39 thousand trading platforms from around the world .

But between the sixties, when the charts were just beginning to be actively used, and the beginning of the nineties, when Nielsen SoundScan entered the game, collecting data literally “from the cash registers of retailers,” 30 years passed. All these years, Billboard charts were compiled on the basis of aggregated data provided by American music stores, without any methodology or obligation. It was an unreliable and in no way protected from fraud method.

With the advent of the Nielsen SoundScan methodology, the music market has become more volatile - accurate data has shown that consumers' tastes change faster than representations of store employees who often evaluate sales “by eye”.

For example, there is a theory that alternative music suddenly became popular in the United States precisely because of Nielsen SoundScan - sellers usually underestimated the size of underground and music sales, but thanks to statistics, informal musicians climbed higher in the charts, and the popular culture responded to them.

Perhaps the most interesting is the charts records. Over time, they became a huge collection of a wide variety of information and a tool for a retrospective look at musical history.

The record for the number of weeks in the first line of the Hot 100 chart is 16 weeks. He was divided between Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men with the track One Sweet Day, released in 1995, and Louis Fonsi, Deaddy Yankee and Justin Bieber with the single Despacito of 2017.

The analytics of the Billboard charts includes a lot of interesting data. For example, there are artists whose singles soared from the bottom of the chart to the first line in one week - in 2009, My Life Would Suck Without You track Kelly Clarkson climbed to the top with line 97, in 2008 the same thing happened with Womanizer Britney Spears (he climbed to 1st place with 96 lines).

Most of the tracks on the first line of the chart were written by Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26).

Album records on Billboard 200 are also interesting - for example, the record for the number of weeks on the first line (54 weeks) of the West Side Story soundtrack (1962-63), followed by (37 weeks) is Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983-84), then (31 weeks) Calypso Harry Belafonte (1956-57).

Now Billboard is not the only platform that makes ratings. Their charts are prepared, for example, by streaming services and stores, such as Spotify and iTunes .

Charts in other countries


Since 1952, the UK has released the UK Singles Chart - a hit parade of British singles, compiled by analogy with the American Hot 100. Now the chart is called Official Singles Chart. It is based on data on sales of singles on physical media, paid downloads on various services and streaming listening. At first it had 75 positions, but now it has been expanded to 100.

It is interesting that at first in the UK charts and charts published several sites at once, which added to the agenda confusion - radio stations had to quote a number of sources whose readings often diverged. Because of this turmoil, now it’s difficult to calculate the exact number of musicians who occupied the first line of the “official British hit parade”. One thing is certain - the first song topping the UK Singles Chart on November 14, 1952 was Al Martino's Here in My Heart.

The volatility of the charts in the UK and the USA is about the same - the records for the number of weeks in the top are comparable. So, the record holder for the number of weeks in the first line of the chart is Frank Belay's single I Believe, who led 18 weeks (but not in a row). Elvis Presley led the hit parade 21 times, The Beatles 17 times, Cliff Richards 14.

An interesting story with Russian charts - they began to appear in 1975 under the heading MK Soundtrack of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. It is interesting that in the USSR they were not compiled on the basis of data received from sellers, but according to surveys of listeners and letters from readers. Thanks to this mechanic, the “Music Parade” appeared in 1977 (later - the “Sound Track Hit Parade”) - a full-fledged hit parade that still exists. In 1977, it immediately included 7 songs by Alla Pugacheva. In 2003, Soundtrack awarded the first music award based on a survey of readers.


Photo Mark Kent CC

Other charts?


Interestingly, in no other medium the “ideology” of the charts has taken root as firmly as in the music industry.

In literature, however, there are bestseller lists compiled by different media (for example, one of the most respected is the New York Times list , where books can be sorted by genre). Best seller lists are based on data from Nielsen BookScan , which counts book sales and provides this data to bookstores (so that they can make a more informed decision about placing books on bookshelves).

Nielsen BookScan was launched in 2001 - until that moment only their publishers had the most accurate book sales data, and they had no reason to share this information. Therefore, bestseller lists were compiled on the basis of "gray" and often very conditionally representative information received from bookstore chains.

In the cinema, instead of the charts, an assessment of the success of the film is based on the size of its box office grossing by week of film distribution. The rest of the formats — ratings of the “best films” by any criterion or by the opinion of any platform - are most often compiled on the basis of audience voting or reviewers' ratings. For example, the top 250 site of KinoPoisk It is formed on the basis of movie ratings by site users and critics - this is not related to the payback, salability or popularity of the film at the box office.

Now the music charts are starting to have problems - despite the fact that for decades they have been the main indicator of the success of a musician. But the streaming services change the rules of the game, where it’s not the purchase of a new album that comes to the fore, but the listening of the same familiar tracks. This greatly affects the totals used by chart compilers.

For example, in March 2017, as many as 16 tracks of Ed Sheeran entered the top 40 UK chart - Such a fantastic popularity is due not least to the fact that streaming services encourage passive consumption, rather than searching for new music. The charts cease to be informative and gradually become outdated - but this is just one of the signs of how the entire music industry has changed in recent years.



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