Pre Sound Scan era- why so few album #1 debuts?

Inspired by a current thread about singles and number one debuts- @1991 a new method for charting singles began which de-emphasized physical 45 sales and placed more value on airplay, as the single was beginning its descent into oblivion. Since then @35 songs have debuted at number one, whereas before that none did.

This is because it was not possible to have a single both in stores across the country and getting airplay its first week- most singles went to airplay before you could by them, probably due to not wanting to produce large quantities of a 45 that no one was requesting from radio. And to have a big chart hit then, you had to be selling the 45 in large numbers and get large airplay across the country.

With albums, Sound Scan was able to chart with some certainty the exact number of albums sold in a week, whereas before, I believe they just polled record retailers. Which makes me wonder why Elton John’s ‘Rock of the Westies’ and "Captain Fantastic’ were the only albums up to that point, and for a long time after, to debut at number one? Yes he was massive popular, but so were many other bands- Beatles, Stones, etc. and none achieved that feat.

Was recording buying different back then? Was it not a thing to get the new album from a favorite artist the day it came out, as it was in the 1990’s and 2000’s pre-Napster? Or does this tell us that relying on the word of the shopkeep was not really as accurate as they would have liked? Or was it just not possible due to the times to have a new album in most stores across the country within a week of release? Can we say for certain that Rumors was really outselling new titles by big artists enough to be the real top selling album in the US for 31 straight weeks, when no album in modern times has come close?

Would be interested in opinions or facts from anyone in the know, thanks all!

It might be that the record store owners might have taken several weeks to realize they had a hot seller on their hands and thus always underreport the sales of new singles.

Also, before 1990, distribution was a lot slower and more uneven. The process of ordering and shipping could take at least a few weeks depending upon how close the record manufacturing center was and the size of the record company (i.e., a big label could get its product in the stores a lot sooner than a smaller label).

You assume the old system was accurate. It wasn’t. To simplify, before Soundscan Billboard would call a few hundred record stores and chains to measure album sales. To measure the popularity of singles, they would mix these sales reports with playlists from top 40 stations. But these reports weren’t double checked, so Billboard had to take the reliability of these reports on blind faith. And by all accounts stores and radio stations were easily swayed by record companies to report what the labels wanted, not what was really selling or getting airplay.
How out of whack could things get? For about six months in 1991, Billboard was printing Soundscan data while still using the old system to calculate the charts. For example, a Jesus Jones single reached #4 on the charts–but Soundscan showed it didn’t break the top 25 for airplay or sales. Even worse, a Paula Abdul single hit #1 despite never even cracking the top 20 for monitored sales.

In addition to the inaccurate reporting in the past, I’d also speculate that news about new music releases is far more widely available now than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.

If you were, say, a hardcore fan of a particular artist back then, you’d undoubtedly know that they had a new album in the works, and you might, I imagine, be able to figure out the release date from various sources (like talking to the staff at your record store, or from DJs playing the first single from the album and talking about when it’d be available). But, I wouldn’t be surprised that, for the more casual fan of an artist, it probably took longer for you to figure out that a new album was out (especially if you didn’t go to the record store regularly).

Sure there was. Records were sent to stores a little before the release dates and were embargoed until then. For an established big name, airplay would begin the day after the sales rankings were compiled, and the actual single was already in stores.

It’s the same system that was used when the final Harry Potter book was released on a specific date. Bookstores had copies several days before, but were not allowed to sell them until the official release date.

Airplay was not a factor for albums. So if a big name group (e.g., the Beatles) released an album people bought them as soon as they were available.

This would be my guess as well- TV commercials and magazine ads for new albums were much more common then vs. now, but I don’t recall them touting specific upcoming release dates, only that an album was now in stores. And these days people know the specific release date and demand it be available that day, whereas back then, as you say, most didn’t know an album was out until they saw it in stores.

Also thought perhaps the masses didn’t just automatically buy the album of a favorite artist blindly back then, they may have waited to see if they liked the first single or two before deciding to splurge on the album.

Unless it was a flat out error in reporting, obviously some strange confluence of events occurred for Elton John to have the only two number one debuts in chart history until Soundscan, and was curious why it never happened with another popular, major label artist.

But the idea of Rumors in its 31st week still outselling newer releases seems ludicrous, like Avengers being the number one movie in its 31st week, and must be either bad or lazy or dishonest reporting at the time. These days, you have a new number one debut per month, and dozens of artists can do so- there are tons of albums that didn’t even go gold these days that debuted at number one.

Music ratings were scammed for decades. The payola scandals in the 50s revealed this. Sales were always pumped by shills sent to the record stores, or by the stores themselves. As mentioned above, the figures came from a small sampling. Now it’s possible to track actual sales, and broadcast doesn’t matter as much. In the industry ratings never mattered as much as the sales figures. A number one on the charts was good for promoting a band but didn’t compare to going gold or platinum.

Minor mistake in reporting. There were 4 #1 debuts pre-Soundscan. The other 2 were Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976) and Bruce Springsteen’s* Live 1975-1985* 5 LP/3 CD set (1986). But still, it was noticeable for rarely happening pre-1991 and becomng a regular occurrence once accuracy was introduced into the calculations.


Why? Adele’s “21” spent 24 weeks at No.1, not far off, and it topped the chart on and off for 16 months. And a lot of the albums that kicked Adele off the top in their debut week dropped like a rock after the first week. Now that seemingly everyone can debut at No.1, record companies put a lot more effort behind high debuts than in the past.

Because of the exact reasons in your post:) Adele’s 24 total weeks were spread out roughly over the course of a year, with 30-35 different number one albums intermingled, Adele no more than ten straight weeks at number one . Rumors’ 31 was @over the course of 38-40 weeks with only two other albums in between, and something like 23 straight and 29 of 30.