'Billboard' changes ranks -- The magazine's new ranking system stirs up a storm

It’s the biggest feud to hit the music industry since Vanilla Ice began dissing M.C. Hammer — only this time the stakes are much, much higher. Outraged over the new and supposedly more objective computerized system installed to compile Billboard‘s pop album charts (which are used by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and other publications), record companies are declaring war on the leading trade magazine in their field and on the company that devised the revamped method.

Under Billboard‘s old system, the information from which the charts were tabulated came from rankings provided by music-store clerks — a dubious method wide open to hype, manipulation, and scamming by labels seeking to goose their albums up the charts. With the new methodology, record sales are tabulated by electronic scanners at each designated store outlet. Approximately 7,000 record stores, many in suburban malls, are hooked into the system. One result, record companies fear, will be a surge by mainstream artists like Garth Brooks and other country music stars, with a corresponding decline in the rankings of new and alternative acts. ”In its present form, the chart has no value to us,” says Henry Droz, president of the large Warner/Elektra/Atlantic (WEA) distribution company that is behind such household names as Madonna, R.E.M., Prince, and Rod Stewart but also needs to develop its many less-established artists. Droz made his remarks in a May 17 internal memo in which he noted what he said was ”the precipitous decline of developing acts.” More than a dozen WEA albums had vanished from the Billboard pop chart.

But some relatively new or non-mainstream acts are benefiting from the new system. The militant rap group N.W.A’s second album, NIGGAZ4LIFE, zoomed to No. 2 its first week out. ”If Billboard didn’t use the system,” says Jerry Heller, N.W.A’s manager, ”we probably would have debuted much lower, maybe in the 50s.” Still, most major labels gripe that the new chart can’t be accurate because it doesn’t take into account sales from stores where offbeat albums often sell heavily, including urban-based Tower Records, which after Musicland is the country’s biggest music retailer.

”We’re not so sure that we’re going to advertise in Billboard anymore,” threatens one top exec at a WEA-distributed label, who asked not to be identified. Such reactions sound like sour grapes to the computerized method’s proponents. ”The new system is totally objective, not subjective,” boasts Mike Shalett, chief operating officer of SoundScan, the company that devised it and collects the data. ”That’s what everybody is really po’d about,” admits a sales rep for a major label, who routinely gave away boxes of free albums to encourage high rankings for his company’s albums. ”That kind of stuff won’t go anymore.”

There’s still more chart trouble brewing: The country music community in Nashville is miffed about Billboard‘s country singles charts, which for more than a year have been compiled by a new technique that electronically ”listens” to several hundred radio stations and ”recognizes” songs that have been previously encoded into a computer. But there have been glitches — singles such as Vince Gill’s ”Liza Jane” initially slipped through without being encoded — and record companies think Billboard monitors too few stations. Many country record labels now prefer the charts in Billboard‘s competitor Radio & Records. ”At one time, (Billboard) was considered the bible,” says Nick Hunter, senior VP for sales and promotion for Warner Bros. Records in Nashville. ”We just changed bibles.”

What does Billboard itself make of the brouhaha? Executives at the magazine’s parent company weren’t commenting, though some staffers privately grumble that the new pop album chart’s rollout may have been ”premature.” It may be hard to know just when maturity arrives in such a tangled enterprise, but in any case, the musical numbers game seems far from over. — Reporting by Alanna Nash