I first became an active chartwatcher during the mid-1990’s when I was a teenager. During the time there was a strange disconnect between the charts and the music that was actually being consumed. This is by no means a new phenomenon, as there is often some sort of lag between the habits of the music-buying public and the way that these habits are recognized to get a picture of consumption. Indeed, it is likely that to fully understand the way that music charts work (or do not work), we must go back to the early 1990’s, as there is a subtle change that has affected what has gone on since then to the present day in clearly identifiable steps.
In the early 1990’s, a drastic change was made in how sales were recorded that greatly shifted the perception of how music was consumed. Previous to this time, sales had been recorded based on the buying habits of music stores. This tends to start gradually and then ramp up as albums or singles become popular and peak and then decline, often rapidly, when supplies did not need to be refilled at the back end of a run. One thing that was found when sales were included at the point of sale rather than by the store refilling inventory was that the peaks were higher at the front end but also that the tail end was longer with slower and more shallow declines, thus leading both to bigger debuts and longer chart runs, both phenomena that remain important to this day when it comes to looking at the chart run of songs and albums. A change in accounting had led to a recognition of customer behavior, and this had consequences.
These consequences were not straightforward or automatic, though. Once record labels had an understanding of how it was that customers bought music, they changed their strategy when it came to releasing singles. Recognizing that the profit margins on albums were higher than on singles, labels started reducing the amount of songs that were released as singles and promoting the sale of albums through releasing airplay only songs whose popularity over the course of months would drive up the sale of albums, because that was the only way such songs could be obtained by the listener. By creating an atmosphere of scarcity where consumers were unable to purchase the songs that they heard on the radio and liked but had to buy albums of uncertain quality, the labels in the short term made a lot of money from albums during the course of the 1990’s, which was in many ways a golden age for the music industry in terms of album sales.
There were at least a couple of unfortunate consequences. For one, Billboard was slow in recognizing the chance in music consumption habits thanks to the behavior of labels. Instead of recognizing airplay only songs as singles because of their promotion on the radio, such songs were only included on the charts when physical singles were sold until the latter part of the decade, thus destroying the chart runs of many songs who never or only belatedly received such releases. Secondarily, the absence of songs released as singles and the fact that many albums were disappointing because only those songs released as singles were often any good trained listeners to eventually download their favorite songs in .mp3 format, which after a period where labels tried suing their potential customers, led to the digital sales era and eventually to the streaming era where, for the most part, people passively listen to music via streams rather than seeking to own digital or physical copies of it, for the most part.
There is a short line from there to here. The presence of more accurate sales information helped change the behavior of labels to emphasize album sales instead of single sales. Their short-sided approach to this led to distortions in music charts because Billboard was slow to recognize airplay only songs as singles being actively promoted by labels due to the tradition of singles being related to physical copies. This in turn led to failures to recognize digital copies for years until a legitimate means of purchasing digital copies and counting streams could be found, all of which was shaped by the desire of people to choose what songs to listen to on their own terms and the desire of labels to promote the music that was under their control, and the desire, though hardly the competence, of Billboard in seeking to track and count the consumption of music over various channels. The search for more accurate data and the use of that data to shape behavior affected all players differently, so that now we exist in a world where artists themselves and their fans are aware of how to game the system to achieve the best chart positions and are engaged in competitive chart manipulation with other artists and fanbases seeking to do the same thing with varying degrees of success.