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July 22, 2003

Slate columnist Rob Walker has some thoughts on Billboard's new "Top 25 Digital Downloads" chart. The volume of downloads (the legitimate, paid-for kind, that is) is so small that it wouldn't take much to game the system, as Walker points out: "A moderately influential Weblogger could probably pick a song at random from the current inventory, harangue his or her audience to buy it during a particular time period, and put in the Top 10."

That got me wondering if this chart could have a democratizing effect similar to that SoundScan had when it was introduced. SoundScan, a computerized system for tallying record sales based on actual inventory data, went online in 1991. Before that, record sales for the Billboard chart were basically calculated by calling up record store managers and asking "What's hot this week?" Seriously, they really did that. Anyway, when SoundScan was introduced, the Billboard chart was thrown into turmoil -- artists and genres formerly classified as having only niche appeal turned out to be outselling the alleged mainstream.

Following the smell of money, the record industry starting pouring resources into marketing to an even wider audience those formerly-niche artists that suddenly popped up on the charts: underground sensations like Metallica and Garth Brooks. So now I wonder if a strong showing on Billboard's new chart (via an online campaign much like, well, Howard Dean's) could push an indie artist onto the industry's radar, and ultimately into the mainstream.

<=> | July 22, 2003


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