The story of how SoundScan changed everything for popular music 30 years ago

SoundScan is the system by which the sales physical music formats are tracked. When it was implemented in 1991, it replaced an antiquated (and corrupt) system of tracking sales based on estimates. SoundScan data was far, far more accurate–and it changed everything about the music industry. The Ringer has this story.

Virtually overnight, SoundScan changed the rules on who got to be a mega, mega superstar, and the domino effect—in terms of magazine covers, TV bookings, arena tours, and the other spoils of media attention and music-industry adulation—was tremendous, if sometimes maddeningly slow in coming. Garth, Metallica, N.W.A, Nirvana, and Skid Row were already hugely popular, of course. But SoundScan revealed exactly how popular, which of course made all those imperial artists exponentially more popular.

The methodology involved—cash registers, bar-code scanners, and a national database that on launch day didn’t even include industry powerhouse Tower Records yet—is painfully mundane by 2021 standards. But the tools of revolution often are. “The old chart couldn’t begin to touch the democracy of this chart,” Timothy White, then Billboard’s editor in chief, told The New York Times in January ’92. “There’s no question,” he added, “that our old system was subject to manipulation, and that people abused it.”

Read the entire story here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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