Vox Pop Rocks Charts

It's long been evident that the instant communication allowed by computer technology has almost unlimited possibilities to enhance democracy...or to destroy it. In the pop music arena it's time to chalk one up on the plus side.

American pop music's equivalent to television's Nielsen ratings is found in Billboard magazine's weekly pop music chart. What's topping the charts this week determines what gets played on the radio next week, what kind of acts get signed next month, and what records get released next year.

For decades the Billboard chart was compiled by the magazine staff using a mysterious formula based on radio play and record store sales reporting. The formula was known to be arcane and imprecise. There was no way to get a true and pure national sample of actual sales numbers out of the stores on a weekly basis. So chart position was based on what records the managers of big chain record stores reported to be hot in a given week.

That process was bound to be rife with cultural biases and blind spots, not to mention woefully susceptible to all manner of corrupt manipulation. Both have happened throughout the years. Payola in the music business has received occasional spurts of publicity, but the cultural bias of the charts was less well-known. However, anonymous insiders have confided to reporters over the years that if Billboard went to a straight sales-only singles chart there wouldn't be a white artist in the Top 10.

WELL, TECHNOLOGY FINALLY rendered the "old-boy-network" system untenable. All the chains now use UPC (Universal Product Code) scanners, meaning all sales are instantly recorded by computer and there is no longer any excuse for imposing the "interpretation" of biz experts between the people and their music.

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Sojourners Magazine February-March 1992
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