The Magic… and Misery of Soundscan

Matt Bacon December 29, 2016 0
The Magic… and Misery of Soundscan
The Magic... and Misery of Soundscan

Soundscan is… shall we say… interesting to me. Soundscan is in many ways the worst thing going on in the music industry right now and something that we all need to figure out how to deal with. It’s perhaps the most lied too organization in the industry as well, with the possible exception of the IRS. Why? Because Soundscan is also one of the most outmoded systems in all of entertainment and has a long history of being manipulated. I know this sounds very jaded and nihilistic but in time it will become clear. Soundscan needs to die, and fast – otherwise bands will be left depending on traditional mediums even after the last CD is sold. We are rapidly reaching a point where Soundscan is realizing this and it seems to me that they will eventually figure it out – even if you do have to remind yourself that when these things finally do adapt they will still be hopelessly behind the times. Such is the beauty of the clusterfuck that is the Nielsen Soundscan rating system.

I’m not going to go into the history of Soundscan because fuck that, rather I will tell you what you need to know as a background. Soundscan is what Billboard uses to publish their charts. Billboards charts started up as a way to help radio DJ’s determine what songs were popular, in their genre, regionally and more. In many ways that makes sense. DJ’s need to know these things if they want those sweet sweet advertising dollars. The issue is that Soundscan rapidly became a way for labels and managers to claim bragging rights. Now again – this too is not TECHNICALLY a problem since labels and managers work hard! They want to brag. Hell I’ve bragged about this sort of stuff and I’m just some fucking dork who manages nerdy metal bands. The problem was that the bragging soon impacted reality. If you’re charting then odds are you’re going to keep charting for a while at least. Not just that but if you are charting then it means that the label is going to pay more attention to you.

This is in turn leads to one of the more… shall we say morally gray areas of the music industry – and on two fronts. The main one is that it gives bands a reason to fudge numbers. When you’re dealing with niche markets you get to be put on niche lists like Heatseekers or Hard Rock. Being in te top 40 of those lists is not that hard – you only need to sell a few thousand copies, a relative trifling for a big band on tour. However… as many naive youngsters are disappointed to find out bands fudge the numbers. The reasoning behind it is simple. Soundscan, especially when you are only moving a few hundred copies is bullshit, so you might as well take advantage of what you can. You’re a band and you’re hungry and not all bands are created equal. This is perfectly natural, capitalism at work. You gotta break a few eggs and all that. This has been going on for decades too – it’s why there are often scandals about artists packaging tickets with albums in order to boost sales or convincing crooked retailers to scan records twice, or for their competitors, not at all. The system is that easy to fool.

The other big issue it creates is payola which operates at all levels of the industry. Again – I know that sounds shitty but it’s been going on for like seventy years now and isn’t going to stop anytime soon. I know you want to think that your local radio station is playing music that they love and believe in but sadly that is not, will not be, and never has been the case. The reason that bands engage in payola is exactly the same though – it boosts their spot on the charts by boosting sales and by being boosted on the charts you know that you are going to sell more copies and get more attention from your label. In a day of limited resources this is ALL THAT MATTERS. That being said – it’s important to also know that many of the radio people get bonuses based on the chart position of the bands they are working – meaning payola is important for them too. Long story short – it’s all scrabbling for the same scraps and that sucks.

So what IS a good indicator of how popular a band is if all this other stuff is, according to your esteemed columnist only so much bullshit? Youtube views and Spotify streams. Real people aren’t buying records. More importantly – most serious fans are not buying records because there is too goddamn much to buy! Sure some have a ton of discretionary income and will invest in the physical product but odds are your average fan doesn’t want to be burdened with that hit. So they go to Youtube and Spotify. Now that’s fine – but it doesn’t fucking pay. Like, at all. So now you’re up shit creek without a paddle and life has become utterly meaningless right? WRONG. There are services already out there that help pitch you to these sorts of things and I think as more people come to terms with the new reality of the industry they will be the true locus of power.

So yeah – lots of harsh lessons in todays article. I know that I come off as rather bitter and seem like a know it all but I’ve been around a time or two. You can call me out if you want – I am legitimately curious about other peoples experiences. This is all just a reflection of my own work. As strange as it may seem, label people are still really fucking out of touch most of the fucking time and they don’t seem to understand that by the end we are all going to have to embrace the unfortunate reality of Youtube and Spotify (And hope that they start paying more) or remain slaves to an increasingly irrelevant format.

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The Magic... and Misery of Soundscan

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