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Is May 21, 1991, a day that should live in infamy? That’s the date Billboard published its first album chart based entirely on data from SoundScan, which uses bar-code-generated sales data to track actual sales. The pop-music biz has changed dramatically since that development 10 years ago, and at least some of the transformation must be attributed to SoundScanning itself.

For those who don’t remember, the Billboard album chart (now called the Billboard 200) was once based on airplay reports and sales estimates—both often guesstimated or even ad-libbed by low-level clerks—and other hunches. The results gave more power to hype and apparently downplayed music that wasn’t considered hip. Thus the first big beneficiary of SoundScan was country music, which sold lots of albums in the heartland but wasn’t taken very seriously in New York and L.A. An account of this shift, published in the June 2 Billboard, notes that “some observers were surprised by the ascent of country, but Billboard’s chart department was prepared for the Nashville invasion.”

Yeah, well. The article, written by Billboard Director of Charts Geoff Mayfield, is not a total puff for SoundScan, but it does skip mentioning some of the problems with the chart-making technology’s debut. When SoundScan began, it was well connected to major retailers, especially ones like Wal-Mart, whose strength is in rural and mid-American areas—country-music territory. But in 1991, most Washington, D.C., music retailers were not reporting sales to SoundScan—a situation mirrored up the East Coast and down the West. Tower, the chain that dominated the L.A.-to-Seattle market, was not sending its sales to SoundScan, and neither were most small urban and college-town retailers that sold lots of hiphop and alt rock. To use the classic scientific distinction, SoundScan was precise, but it wasn’t accurate. (Since then, the service has significantly expanded its reach.)

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The first new multiplatinum act anointed by SoundScan was Garth Brooks, but the second was Nirvana. How did that happen? Well, MTV, of course, and the metal component that sold the ex-Sub Pop band’s post-punk to the suburban- and exurban teen male mainstream. Nirvana’s success led to a major-label signing frenzy that was doomed to failure. In part, this was simply a matter of scale: Most Nirvana fans didn’t have the time, money, or interest to track down all the major-label releases from such Puget Sound peers as Tad and Mudhoney, let alone discs by arcane Cobain favorites such as the Melvins and the Raincoats.

But the alt-rock bear market also was a result of major labels’ not learning one of the essential lessons of SoundScan: In the album chart’s first SoundScanned week, Billboard reports, 45 discs that had charted the previous week “fell off the charts altogether. Many of the albums that fell to lower levels were by developing artists.” In other words, without the well-meaning fibs of radio and retail underlings, fIREHOSE, Material Issue, and Fairground Attraction just weren’t chart-busters.

SoundScan extended the chart life of successful albums, thus leading record labels to milk such albums longer and postpone follow-up releases. (Hardly any pop act puts out an album every year anymore.) It boosted the chart profiles of easy-listening acts such as Celine Dion, Yanni, and Neil Diamond, and, occasionally, an adult-oriented curiosity such as Chant. It also more accurately captured first-week sales of widely anticipated albums. As Mayfield notes, before SoundScan, only six albums ever debuted at No. 1; since May 1991, 140 have. (Last week, it was Tool’s Lateralus, one of no fewer than five albums to open in the Top 10.)

Billboard says that sales-oriented (or “reality-based”) charts “ultimately proved to be more democratic than the old chart system.” Point taken, but that’s democratic in the American sense, not the Athenian one. In fact, the SoundScan-shaped music industry might better be called republican (with a small “r”). Consumers get to choose, but only from a limited pool of possibilities. As the Internet has demonstrated, in a corporate-dominated, advertising-driven culture, expanded choices sometimes just mean new ways of acquiring the same old stuff.

Which isn’t to say that the music industry didn’t make plenty of mistakes under the old, more aristocratic system. Maybe the principal difference is simply the speed with which the record labels find out what is and isn’t selling. But that efficiency slams shut the window through which listeners might discover something offbeat that didn’t immediately grab their attention. Decreased room for error also means less space for eccentricity.

It’s impossible to say how much of this would have happened without SoundScan. Certainly, there are other major factors in the music industry’s transformation over the past decade, among them the consolidation and globalization of the major labels, MTV’s abandonment of music videos, the buying power of the “echo boom” of tweens and teens, new FCC rules that have essentially eliminated radio stations’ local identities, and the mass media’s growing preoccupation with the sales, rather than any other attribute, of cultural products.

For 30 years, rock critics have debated issues of obscurity and popularity. SoundScan’s enshrinement of the latter hasn’t destroyed the former: There are more little labels, unknown bands, and hermetic pop genres than ever. And there’s something thrilling when uncelebrated, unexpected music breaks the barrier. SoundScan guarantees that everyone will notice when that happens, but also makes it increasingly less likely that it will. —Mark Jenkins

Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.