📑 1991 saw the music industry turned upside down, and 30 years later, its echoes remain

Bookmarked 1991 saw the music industry turned upside down, and 30 years later, its echoes remain by Matt Neal (ABC News)

In the music industry in the ’80s, there were two worlds of music — the mainstream and the alternative. Then a new decade dawned, the worlds collided and music changed forever.

Matt Neal reflects on the impact of 1991 in music and how it brought the two worlds of together. Beginning with bands like REM, Jane’s Addiction, Metallica and Faith No More, alternative artists were starting to show up on the charts. It was Nirvana and the grunge movement which totally changed things:

If the likes of Metallica, Faith No More, and Pixies had prised the door open, Nirvana kicked it off its hinges.

Neal explained how this paved the way in Australia for acts like SIlverchair and You Am I.

Another approach is suggested by Matthew Ball and the development of SoundScan, a computerized sales database:

Until 1991, Billboard charts weren’t based on actual unit sales or radio play. Instead, it was assembled using (white) retail clerk estimates of what was selling best and what (white) DJs considered to be “hottest” each week. According to The Atlantic, both groups had reasons to lie. For example, labels would pressure radio stations to favour “hand-picked hits” if they wanted to keep receiving the newest single on time (stations sometimes received bribes to play specific tracks, too). Meanwhile, labels would force inventory on their retailers, who would then overreport sales to convince music fans to buy excess inventory.

Naturally, those who ran the music industry saw little need to overhaul how it worked. And thus while the book and film industries had shifted to computerized sales databases in the 1980s, not one of the top six record distributors signed onto SoundScan before its release in June 1991. But this resistance didn’t stop N.W.A.’s N***az4life from debuting #2 on the Billboard Top 100 the very next month under SoundScan. This was the highest charting performance in rap history – and happened without any radio airplay, music video airings on MTV, or a concert tour. The failings of the old honour system were further demonstrated by the fact that N.W.A. debuted at only #21 on Billboard’s R&B chart, which wasn’t yet on SoundScan. Somehow it was possible that N***az4life was the second biggest album in the country by units purchased, but 21st in its own genre when it came to what was “selling” and “hottest.” One week after it’s release, the album hit #1 on the Billboard chart (displacing R.E.M) as hundreds of thousands flocked to the record store in search of the “surprise” hit.

In the following years, the R&B/hip hop genre achieved three other industry “firsts.” It saw the fastest rise from a non-top ten genre to Billboard’s most popular one, has been the most dominant #1 by share, and holds the longest run as #1 (note the chart below ends in 2010, but this reign persists through to date).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *