Billboard Charts (NOW & THEN) – How are they compiled & what do they show (Part I)

 Billboard Charts – How are they compiled and what do they show (Part I)


Billboard History –The first official music charts published in World

Charts and hit parades were initially made to serve the music industry but early on the general public showed interest on them. Music industry support the charts industry financially as they represent a big part of their market research. Even tough there are a lot of charts published most of the data is not available to general public.

The first music hit parade ever published was by Billboard on 4th January 1936. At the time it was still an early songs chart based on best sellers in stores, most played by jockeys and most played in jukeboxes.

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But why is Billboard called Billboard?

But why is Billboard called Billboard? Going a few years back we find out that Billboard was founded in Cincinnati on November 1, 1894, by William h. Donaldson and James Hennegan. Originally titled Billboard Advertising it was a trade paper for the bill posting industry, hence the magazine’s name. Initially it as a monthly magazine.

A few years after was founded, it began to carry news of outdoor amusements, a major consumer of billboard space. Later Billboard became the paper of record for circuses, carnivals, amusement parks, fairs, vaudeville, minstrels, whale shows and other live entertainment. Still no music could be found on this magazine that began covering motion pictures in 1909. The first Billboard sheet music best sellers charts & top songs in vaudeville theaters published in 1913 but it was not a regular chart yet.

The radio was only introduced in the 1920s. With the development of the jukebox industry during the 1930s, The Billboard began publishing music charts. Originally, there were only three genre-specific charts: Pop, Rhythm & Blues, and Country & Western. In the 1950s it introduced a section covering the television industry, including ratings charts for programs. It continued to carry news of fairs, carnivals, theme parks and other outdoor entertainments until 1961 when these departments were spun off into a new weekly magazine called Amusement Business.

By this time the television coverage had also been moved to another publication. At the start of 1961, The Billboard was renamed Billboard Music Week as the publication was now devoted almost entirely to the music industry, with some coverage of coin-operated vending and entertainment machines on its jukebox pages.

The title changed to simply Billboard at the start of 1963. Just for the record Amusement Business prospered for a few decades, but was struggling by the beginning of the 21st Century. Shortly after then its frequency of publication was reduced to monthly, and it finally ceased publication following its May 2006 issue.

Billboard Early Charts – Pre-rock era 1940 – July 1955

Billboard music charts at their early stage were not representative of United States taste for many reasons. Data compiled was not enough to cover 5% of the whole country (most data was from New York City only) but that wasn’t the biggest issue.

The songs listed were not necessary ordered. Only the song and songwriters were listed without any mention of the singers. The chart listed the most popular songs forgetting about the performers. If for example a song was performed by three different artists the song would featured as one single entry with all data added together. The disc jockey chart started in 1934 (regularly in 1936) and was based on a list of songs played. The juke box chart started on 1938 and was compiled based on how many juke box owners added the song to their juke boxes that week, as opposed to number of plays. Those are some of the reasons why we don’t talk about those charts much nowadays.

The most popular charts back then:

“Sheet Music Best Seller” – compiled from sales of music sheet in a few stores

“Records Most Popular on Music Machines” – compiled from national reports from phonograph operators

“Songs With The Most Radio Plugs” – compiled from an handfull New York stations


From July 27, 1940 the era of “good charts” started. This was when the first chart that didn’t have all those drawbacks listed bellow was published. It was called “National List of the Best Selling Retail Records” and had only 10 positions. It was compiled from 53 stores from 25 cities nationwide (Lower 48).  This was the first chart based on a poll of retailers nationwide on record sales and was on a weekly base. There were also 4 regional charts that also had 10 positions (East Coast, West Coast .

This is the look of the first chart ever:

Position, Title, Artist
No. 1, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” Tommy Dorsey (feat. Frank Sinatra vocals)



No. 2, “The Breeze and I,” Jimmy Dorsey
No. 3, “Imagination,” Glenn Miller
No. 4, “Playmates,” Kay Kyser
No. 5, “Fools Rush In,” Glenn Miller
No. 6, “Where Was I?,” Charlie Barnet
No. 7, “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” Glenn Miller
No. 8, “Imagination,” Tommy Dorsey
No. 9, “Sierra Sue,” Bing Crosby
No. 10, “Make Believe Island,” Mitchell Ayres

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This first period considered between 1940 and 1955 had many changes and improvements along the years.

Initially the charts compiled were TOP 10 and were as follow:

Songs with Most Radio Plugs – Initially only from New York City outlets (WEAP, WJZ, WOR and WABC) and independent stations (WHN, WMCA, WNEW and WOV).

National Best Selling Retail Records – also included 4 sub-charts regional best selling retail records for: East Coast, West Coast, Midwest and South.

National Sheet Music Best Selling – also included 4 sub-charts regional best selling retail records for: East Coast, West Coast, Midwest and South.

Later the charts compiled were longer than TOP 10. In 1950 you could find the following charts on Billboard:

– Best Selling Sheet Music (TOP 20)

– England Top Twenty (TOP 20)

– Records Most Played By Disc Jockeys (TOP 30)

– Best-Selling Pop Singles (TOP 30)

– Children Record (TOP 15)

– Classical Singles (TOP 5)

– Classical Albums (TOP 5)

– Pop Albums (TOP 10)

– Most Played Juke-box Records (TOP 30)

– Best Selling Retail Rhythm & Blues Records (TOP 15)

– Most Played Juke-box Rhythm & Blues Records (TOP 15)

– Best Selling Retail Folk (Country & Western) Records (TOP 15)

– Most Played Juke-box Folk (Country & Western) Records (TOP 10)

– Country & Western Records Most Played By Folk Disc Jockeys (TOP 10)

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On November 4,  1950 Billboard changed the layout and added the TOP 30 Songs with Most Performances on TV. On that week “La vie en Rose” was the most performed song.

Later they got the Popularity chart called Honor Roll of Hits (Top 20). It was compiled by a statistical formula which automatically measures the comparative popularity of each tune, based on the results the applicable Music Popularity Charts in that very issue where the chart was published. Also a territorial TOP 10 for a few American Cities was created (New York, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington/Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Dalas-Ft/Worth, Denver and Cincinnati).

The July 02 of 1955 issue was the last one of the now called pre-rock era.  The charts were still the same though they were more representative than ever before with more stores and radio DJs added to the compilation. More cities were part of the chart even Toronto was now also a territorial city chart. There were also for the three different music genres: Popular, Folk (Country & Western) and Rhythm & Blues.

The Honor Roll of Hits was getting bigger and was already more representative of the popularity of the songs as it was made with points based on the songs success on the sales chart, disc Jockeys playing and juke box adds.

Read the part 2 of this article click here

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As in:

Editions of Billboard from 1940 to 1955:

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