Chart Watch

Chart Watch Extra: Jackson Blitz Prompts Chart Change

Chart Watch

Billboard has seen the light. Starting in two weeks, the magazine's flagship The Billboard 200 album chart will include older "catalog" albums. The move was prompted by Michael Jackson's phenomenal success this year, little of which was reflected on The Billboard 200. Jackson's Number Ones was the best-selling album in the country for six weeks this summer, but because the 2003 release was a catalog album, it wasn't allowed to appear on the big chart.

"The events of 2009, and the continuing creativity in the repackaging of catalog titles, have led us to conclude that the Billboard 200 would be best served presenting the true best-sellers in the country, without any catalog-related rules or stipulations, to our readers, the media and music fans" said Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard's director of charts.

Starting in two weeks, the magazine will base The Billboard 200 on Nielsen/SoundScan's Top Comprehensive Albums chart (which includes both current and catalog titles) instead of the Top Current Albums chart (which excludes catalog titles). "Catalog" is the industry term for albums that are more than 18 months old, have fallen below #100 on the chart and no longer have a current charting single at radio.

This is a welcome development, and a much-needed move for the Billboard 200 to retain credibility. It means that the album chart that is reprinted in hundreds of newspapers, magazines and websites around the world (including this one) will be a reflection of what's really selling, regardless of when the albums were released.

The new policy will take effect in the issue dated Dec. 5, which is the first week of Billboard's 2010 chart year. The change will be confined to The Billboard 200. The magazine's other album charts (country, R&B, etc.) will continue to exclude catalog.

Catalog albums have become a bigger factor in recent years. Twenty-nine of the 200 best-selling albums so far this year are catalog titles. Just 19 of the 200 best-selling albums of 2008 were catalog titles.

From the beginning of 1994 through the end of 2007, only three catalog albums sold well enough to have appeared in the top 10 on The Billboard 200 (if rules had allowed). But since the beginning of 2008, 13 catalog albums have sold well enough to appear in the top 10.

Much of this is due to two of the biggest names in recording history-Michael Jackson and the Beatles. For two weeks in July, six of the 10 best-selling albums in the country were catalog albums by Jackson. For one week in September, five of the 10 best-selling albums in the country were catalog albums by the Beatles.

Both of these sweeps surpassed a record that was set in April 1966 by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, which, at its peak, had four of the top 10 albums on what is now The Billboard 200. But the fact that the albums by Jackson and the Beatles didn't appear on The Billboard 200 undercut the achievement. It made it seem less meaningful and real.

Here's another way of looking at this: From the beginning of 1994 through the end of 2007, there were only 10 weeks in which one or more catalog albums sold well enough to appear in the top 10. Since the beginning of 2008, there have been 26 weeks in which one or more catalog albums sold well enough to crack the top 10. That's a huge upswing.

One reason for the catalog uptick is the prevalence of deluxe reissues of classic albums. A 25th anniversary re-issue of Jackson's Thriller would have ranked #2 in February 2008. A deluxe re-issue of Pearl Jam's Ten would have ranked #5 in March of this year.

Here are the albums that spent the most weeks as "phantom top 10 albums," meaning they sold enough copies to place in the top 10 on The Billboard 200, but didn't show up there because of the catalog restriction: Jackson's Number Ones (14 weeks), Jackson's Thriller (including Thriller 25) (13 weeks), The Essential Michael Jackson (nine weeks), Kenny G's Miracles-The Holiday Album (seven weeks) and Josh Groban's Noel (five weeks). Next in line, with two weeks each: the Grease soundtrack, the Beatles' Abbey Road and Jackson's Off The Wall, Bad and Dangerous.

This isn't the first time that Billboard has reacted to changing realities in the marketplace with significant chart changes. Until December 1998, songs that weren't commercially available as singles were barred from the Hot 100. This meant that some of the biggest radio hits of the mid-to-late '90s didn't appear on the Hot 100. Among them: No Doubt's "Don't Speak," Will Smith's "Men In Black," Sugar Ray with Super Cat's "Fly," Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" and Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris." Clearly, a change was needed to preserve the credibility of the Hot 100. Beginning on Dec. 5, 1998, Billboard allowed non-singles to enter the Hot 100.

The magazine could probably have reacted faster in both cases, but it wanted to weigh all the ramifications before it acted.

Good move, Billboard.

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