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From Payola to "Billboard"- The Chart-Obsessed Music Industry

When Billboard launched its widely popular charting system in 1940, no one could have imagined how it would become an iconic part of its brand. Almost 90 years later, every artist dreams of being on the Billboard charts - let alone making it to #1. In an industry obsessed with making hits and doing it in whatever way they can, it is no surprise that everyone has their opinions on who makes it on the charts - and some even question the credibility of these charts. Now you can't go on X without seeing your feed erupt in fan wars when the week's chart gets released. Is the industry moving towards quantity over quality? How far can stan wars go before it becomes an issue?

Artists make music because they are trying to make a living; no surprise there. When radio play and physical media sales dictated whether an artist could afford to eat, new ways of getting exposure emerged. During the late '50s, the rock 'n roll revolution took the world by storm. Established industry professionals had an issue with this revolution at its beginnings. Rock was provocative, featuring sexually charged lyricism and the emergence of African Americans in popular music. Although white Conservatives were mad at this revolution, it didn't slow its popularity. Gone were the days of ballrooms - in was the era of clubs and concert halls.

Alan Freed became the face of Payola.

The Payola scandal was one of the earliest forms of "buying your way to the top." As many artists relied on radio airplay during this time, the practice of paying DJs to play their records emerged. DJs were responsible for going through hundreds of records to find music to play on air. Labels realized how important this radio play was, so they had to figure out ways to bribe DJs to play their artist's music so they could make more money. Some mid-level DJs were making $50, as reported in Medium, while others were making thousands of dollars and commissionable income on tours, album sales, and even publishing rights on the music they played. The scandal wasn't exposed until the TV Quiz Show scandals, where contestants were chosen to win beforehand to secure advertisements and make more money. This led to the government getting involved to put a stop to these shady and unfair practices.

Alan Freed was an important figure during this time because he coined the term "rock 'n roll," and supported Black and White music. However, he was heavily involved in the Payola scandal, reportedly making six figures. After he and other DJs were exposed and brought to court, Freed's career and reputation tanked, and he eventually drank himself to death. People like Dick Clark who were heavily involved in Payola went on to have long and prosperous careers, showing just how unjust this whole thing was.

You may be asking - how is Payola tied into these current chart systems? Well for one - Payola is still happening in the industry. Labels and artists can pay Spotify to boost their music in different areas. The catch is that artists take a cut of their streaming royalties. If they believe their song will do well, they can pay more to have that extra boost which could help them make more money and chart higher. Those who are making it to the top of the charts have the money to market their music and encourage their fans to purchase digital units.

This isn't to say that every artist who makes it to the top of the Billboard charts doesn't deserve it. There are plenty of talented musicians who deserve their top ten spots and who are doing amazing things. Music is subjective and an opinion-oriented industry, so of course people have reservations about who they believe should be deserving of it. The focus here though is the chart-obsessed mindset controlling the industry now.

A pop culture account on X.

Fan wars are one of the biggest issues plaguing the industry right now. Accounts like Pop Crave and Pop Base report on trends in pop culture, and also the music industry. Whenever the charts come out, there is usually a post about who is occupying it this week. When these posts come out, the comments are filled with hate and negativity. It is exhausting and draining just looking at these comments, but to be the artist and see how many people are praying for your downfall must be a mentally taxing dilemma.

Now as Billboard tracks sales and streams, the push that fans have in forcing others to listen and purchase singles is astronomical. For example, Ariana Grande released her comeback single "yes, and?" last month. As someone who enjoys her music, I was on the side of social media that saw her fans conspiring on how to get that track to the #1 spot on the chart. With an insurmountable amount of peer pressure, top stan accounts were making people feel bad for not purchasing her single on iTunes and the CD from her website. It was an interesting thing to witness and as her album release is approaching quickly, there are more and more people forcing others to buy CDs and records to help Ariana.

Single cover for Ariana Grande's "yes, and?"

With an artist of her stature, she would be fine financially if her album tanked. She even said she doesn't care about charting - she loves creating music for music's sake. As the parasocial nature of the industry gets worse, people believe they have a connection with artists and know everything about them when that could be further from the truth. That is what is fueling this chart-obsessed mindset; fans believe that if they buy a record or CD they will get closer to their favorite artists. They aren't buying it because they want it (although I will note MANY people buy vinyl to collect) - they are trying to appease their favorite musicians.

As artists keep striving to be on top of the charts, their music is becoming a formula devised by their labels. Most songs in the top ten have the same vibe to them - pop-oriented tracks with simplistic lyrics that appeal to that Gen Z mind. As songs start sounding more and more alike, how will this affect future artists and music listeners? Time will tell. The main thing that will never go away though is the strive for charting and the evident stan culture aspect the industry relies so heavily on.


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