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To be precise, "Billboard' changes

Music industry and radio professionals call upon an array of trade bibles to aid them in going about their business. But when it comes to lay people and the music charts, Billboard magazine must be considered the definitive source. If a new Janet Jackson single doesn't reach No. 1 in Billboard _ forget Radio and Records or the Gavin Report _ it just didn't go No. 1. Billboard, one of the few music-biz periodicals that is available on newsstands, recently made a landmark change in the way it gauges the positions on two of its charts: Top Country Albums (with 75 entries) and probably the magazine's most important survey, Top Pop Albums (200 strong). Instead of relying on ranked reports by retailers, the sales are gauged by scanning bar codes to count precisely the number of each title sold. The tallying is done by a computerized system known as SoundScan.

Most of us tend to bemoan the loss of the human element in today's society, but the chart "reporting" system is one human aspect that should not be missed. Were the people at stores actually counting the number of units sold? Was a "reporter" busy one week and take a ballpark guess? Did the Sony sales rep offend a store manager and find his titles deleted from that week's survey? Insiders also suggest that some reporters for prominent chains are heavily schmoozed by record companies with _ nudge, wink _ the idea that their titles might get better placement. You know, the human factor.

Billboard currently has nearly 20 regular charts, from classical to jazz to modern rock tracks. Some of these, most notably the Hot 100 singles chart, factor in radio airplay. Billboard soon will begin combining SoundScan with the Top 40 Radio Monitor, which electronically monitors 118 Top 40 stations 24 hours a day, every day. It will replace the current system of radio program directors reporting their play lists.

Although a welcome breakthrough, the new POS (point of sale) system provided by SoundScan has a way to go. At the moment, Billboard estimates that 40 percent of the albums sold in the United States are tracked by SoundScan. Obviously, that number must increase, and SoundScan promises it will.

Glitches aside, it is encouraging to know that hard-core music fans will be getting the straight scoop based on real numbers instead of rankings.

As expected, SoundScan's first weeks have featured some wild chart fluctuations. Soul singer Luther Vandross, who I always suspected got short shrift on the pop surveys, saw his Power of Love album hurtle from an entry position of No. 41 (a week prior to SoundScan's introduction) to No. 7 in its second week. Country artist Garth Brooks' No Fences leaped to No. 4 from No. 16. R.E.M.'s Out of Time fell from the top spot to No. 5 in SoundScan's debut, then reclaimed No. 1 a week later.

All of this is a lot of fun to watch, unless you're a record company executive witnessing an act take a nose dive. So far, the chief complaint from labels is that SoundScan's sampling of mostly mainstream stores (Camelot, Record Bar and the like), along with the "rack-jobbers" that service department-store record bins, skews heavily toward established stars and slights new and developing acts.

In turn, Billboard is asking labels to be patient while it brings 300 independent and alternative stores into the mix. These are the outlets where many new acts get their first retail action, and for the time being they may go under-represented. Record labels cringe at the notion. Success breeds success; chart positions breed airplay, video rotation, higher chart positions and better sales. Despite the huge sales racked up by established stars like Springsteen and Madonna, the true life's blood of a record label is breaking new acts.

As further consideration toward upcoming artists, Billboard has spun off a new chart, Top Pop Catalog Albums (50 entries), that will include discs that have fallen off the current chart for a "significant period of time." (Yes, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon has been on there.)

Another upshot of the transition to SoundScan is that country albums are making a bigger impact on the pop chart. This could result from a couple of factors: 1) that some reporting agents used to leave country titles off their pop list, indicating that country has been under-represented all along, or 2) that a country title is more apt to be purchased at a Wal-mart than an alternative rock act; thus the heavy weighting toward "rack-jobbers" is giving country too much clout.

One phenomenon that's bound to happen is that hot new titles by superstar acts will enter the charts at higher positions and perhaps drop a bit quicker. It makes sense. If Mariah Carey's album has been on the chart for 48 weeks and is a steady seller with a Top 5 position, but then Paula Abdul puts out a new album with a lot of hype around it, which release is going to sell more copies that week?

Just in case there are any doubters, Abdul's Spellbound entered the Top Pop Albums list at No. 5. on June 1 and shot to Numero Uno a week later.

Happy chart-watching.

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