Popular Music

Research Article

Reading the charts – making sense with the hit parade

Martin Parker

One of the formations which helps to shape the meaning of modern pop music is the charts. In theory, the charts define the most popular of popular musics, the goal, the pinnacle of success. Both professionals and audience dedicate large amounts of time and money to producing and consuming this series of comparative market histories produced at rapid and regular intervals. Technology is bent to the service of the research in order that the figures be produced more quickly and with the appearance of accuracy. But why should we be interested in the Top 40 itself rather than its music? Writers on pop have provided us with some detailed descriptions of the charts (Frith 1978; Harker 1980; Wallis and Malm 1984; Street 1986), but few have noted that this level of consumer obsession with sales figures is almost unique to the record industry. Consumers of other commodities do not usually consult a specialist book or magazine in order to discover the past sales history of their favourite brand, nor do they listen to particular radio stations in order to ascertain the best selling product of the week. Why then should the sales results of EMI, Polygram, WEA and others be of interest to their consumers when the same data about multi-national corporations in other market sectors are primarily of interest to market insiders and analysts? An important caveat needs to be added in that popular music is now not the only type of cultural production that foregrounds sales figures. More recently popular literature (the ‘Bestsellers List’), video and films have all begun to use this format but in none of these cases is the chart as central as it is with pop music.