What's top of the pops?

For as long as music has been marketed, the music industry has kept tabulations on which music sells the most. The origins of today’s “top pop singles” charts can be traced back to the popularity of sheet music in the period after the Civil War, when a new kind of printing, the stereotype process, allowed publishers to issue increasingly larger numbers of sheet music. This rise of “parlour music,” so-called because many of the middle class boasted a piano in their parlour, prompted advertisers to begin to market their products on the otherwise blank pages of music, establishing a relationship between music and marketing that has only strengthened with time.

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In the early twentieth century, the phonograph replaced the piano for family entertainment. In 1918, Hobart C. Niblack invented a machine that automatically changed records – the first jukebox. Advancements in coin-operated jukeboxes, which were popular in local nightclubs and bars, continued until standard machines of the era held 40 singles. Counters recorded the number of times each record played, so that jukebox owners could ascertain which songs were popular. It is generally assumed this marks the origin of the phrase, “top 40.”

Beginning in the mid-1920s, radio began to replace the phonograph as the centre for family entertainment. In the early days of radio, programming was mixed. Thirty minutes of news might be followed by an hour of music. Soap operas were a favorite fare. Radio stations typically purchased content from production studios. In the early 1950s, disc jockeys appeared on the scene, spinning the turntables themselves with popular music. Listeners often called in live, requesting favorite songs. Soon an all-music, “Top 40” format had spread across the nation. Radio stations kept listeners tuned in by counting down the top 40 records. Once again, marketing reinforced this sea change, providing jingles to promote their top 40 programs.

During this period, songs were primarily ranked on three charts. The “Best Sellers in Stores” ranked songs by the numbers reported by retail stores. The “Most Played by Jockeys” relied on radio stations to report which songs were played most often. The “Most Played in Jukeboxes” counted the top singles played on jukeboxes. In 1957, this last list was discontinued. In the early 1950s, the jukebox list had most accurately reflected the tastes of the younger, “rock and roll” generation, but as that generation moved from jukeboxes to radio, the jukebox list lost its relevancy. The end of the disc jockey list followed soon after, as stations consolidated tabulations of the most popular songs into one list.

In 1958, Billboard debuted its all-genre “Hot 100” list and quickly became the industry standard. This list served as the basis for the “American Top 40” radio program. Hosted by Casey Kasem, the show became the most popular of all the countdown shows and by the 1980s had been picked up by over 500 stations. The relationship between Billboard’s Hot 100 and the American Top 40 was severed in 1991, as radio stations began to fragment into specific musical formats. The era of radio stations presenting a wide array of genres was over.

The top pop charts continue to evolve. When the music industry first began to track a song’s popularity, single records were the norm. Early controversies about the charts were centred around “two-sided singles,” and the difficulties of accurately tracking “A” and “B” sides. The development of 12-inch singles complicated the matter. More significantly, “album cuts,” songs that were not released as singles, yet had gained popularity, were excluded from the list until 1998. From this point forward, charts would rank songs rather than singles. Recently, digital downloads have revived the concept of “single sales.” While the top pop charts have never been completely accurate, they endure as a written record of the world’s favourite songs over the last half century.

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