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An Insider's Look: What the changes in the Billboard album chart mean to you
Michael Jackson and the Beatles lose out, but you win
It’s too late for the Beatles and Michael Jackson, but the next time a superstar artist—living or dead—reissues catalog, look for it to be included in the Billboard 200, the album chart of record.
As you know, this summer, when Michael Jackson died, threw the chart world into some kind of cosmic chaos. Many of his past releases, as well as those from the Jackson 5, went soaring back up in sales—as often happens following a death. For many weeks, Jackson’s “Number 1s,” a greatest hits set, was the nation’s top seller, according to Nielsen SoundScan, but because the Billboard 200 only charts sales of current albums, not catalog, the title never showed back up on the Billboard 200. Competing charts, such as the one compiled by Hits Daily Double, and even Billboard’s own comprehensive chart, included the catalog titles and, therefore, provided a clearer picture of what was actually selling. Then when the Beatles albums were reissued in September, they, too, were excluded from the Billboard 200.
Billboard and the chart’s data collecting arm--Nielsen SoundScan --will now include catalog titles on the big chart, they announced yesterday. That’s a great and smart move. While I was not in the charts department, my time at Billboard taught me a few things about the charts. Changes are made slowly and deliberately with good reason: while Billboard’s charts aren’t the only ones out there, they do still count as the chart of record and, therefore, much deliberation accompanies any kind of change. The Billboard 200 and the singles charts, the Hot 100, are the ones every artist dreams of topping. Aware of the gravity and importance of those charts, the chart managers, working in conjunction with Nielsen SoundScan, always have an open ear and are willing to move—even if it seems to an outside world like it is at a glacial pace.
For example, a few years ago when Garth Brooks released a limited edition set only through Wal-Mart (the first superstar to do such an exclusive deal), even though the collection sold enough to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, it was nowhere to be seen because the chart gurus at the time did not think it was fair to include titles that weren’t available to all retailers. As the winds shifted and more and more artists started releasing sets solely through one retailers or another, the chart adjusted. By the time the Eagles put out “Long Road to Eden” in 2007, again, exclusively through Wal-Mart, it was included in the Billboard 200.
Labels have a voice—although not an ultimate decision—in the chart process and labels did not want catalog titles on the Billboard 200 for quite some time. How does it look (and we saw that this summer) if a 25-year old title is outselling the hottest title by a current artist? It looks pretty bad and makes the current state of affairs look even worse than it already is, doesn’t it? It makes it look like the labels can’t compete with their own past. Guess what… they can’t some weeks.
So the change has come. It starts with the issue dated Dec. 5, which means (and this is very confusing even when you’re working inside the magazine, it will affect the chart week that starts Nov. 16.). You may ask why not wait until the beginning of the year? That’s because even thought the SoundScan charts run year-round, the year-end issue of Billboard is based on the charts taken from Dec. 1-Nov. 30, so this is the right time to make the change.
What it means for you, chart followers, is that the Billboard 200 will now be representative of how the sales picture looks in total—not just a segment of it—and will be an accurate reflection of what is moving the needle in any given week. Good call, Billboard.