Music chart controversy -- Record executives dueled through album sales of Mariah Carey and Vanilla Ice, but is the tally system flawed?

The Grammy Awards are held to honor artistic achievement, but they can also produce a huge financial windfall. Last year, Bonnie Raitt won four trophies and her Nick of Time album went straight to the top of the charts. This year, record labels began jockeying on behalf of Grammy hopefuls Mariah Carey and Vanilla Ice even before the Feb. 20 ceremonies. Record retailers say that distributors for the two artists fought hard to put them on the top of the influential Billboard album chart, which is based on sales reports from stores. Carey’s distributor, Sony, and Ice’s distributor, Capitol, hoped to create a bandwagon effect, spurring retailers to order even more copies of their best-selling albums. When the smoke cleared, Carey was No. 1, ending Ice’s four-month reign at the top.

”The word came down that Sony and Capitol would do anything to have a No. 1 record,” says one retail-chain executive. Typically, that means corporate goodwill: underwriting an ad campaign for the store or discounting a hot record. (In the case of singles, labels also cozy up to radio stations, which can boost sales by adding a song to playlists.) One regional record chain receives at least 50 record-company faxes a week lobbying it to report particular records as hot sellers.

Manipulating the charts is nothing new, but it gained an air of desperation as the industry entered a recession. At Grammy time all record-company distributors felt extra pressure to end album-chart domination by such Capitol artists as Raitt, M.C. Hammer, Sinéad O’Connor, and Ice. According to the retail-chain executive, salesmen said, ”I’ll be damned if I’ll let Capitol have No. 1 for 52 weeks.”

Billboard works hard to insure the veracity of store reports, suspending those that hype sales figures, which can cut off promotional largesse. Sources say a number of suspensions are in the works at Billboard.

Influencing the charts will become even harder as the industry moves toward computerized reports. Billboard still takes data over the phones from radio stations for its singles chart, but it has begun to monitor directly what stations play. The magazine has also started to eliminate retail reporters by collecting hard sales data from leading record chains.

The labels may not welcome these technological breakthroughs. A.C. Nielsen Company, which rates the popularity of television shows, found few takers when it started a similar sales-counting service a few years back. Record labels ”may want to be able to manipulate the charts in cheaper and more efficient ways,” says one retailer, ”but, really, they just want to manipulate them.”