For years, Billboard magazine reigned supreme as the top industry trade magazine. I had followed their charts since the late 1980s, but noticed something went wrong starting in August of 1995, when Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” suddenly topped the charts and debuted at number one. Even though the song is probably one of the best songs of 1995, it was anything but a real number one hit.
Jackson’s HIStory was flopping hard in the United States (at least when compared to expectations). In order to give it a boost, Sony needed a publicity stunt. “You Are Not Alone” became the very first song to be reduced to 99 cents at retail, while other songs sold for at least $2.49. Sony also had deals with record stores so the single would be placed in bins by the cash register.
When the song illegitimately debuted at number one, Billboard announced it as the very first song ever to hit number one. I don’t have the links, but there were several news outlets, such as Rolling Stone, who denounced the deep discount tactic that produced a fake number one chart position.
Sony’s Michael Jackson stunt would be repeated. Mariah Carey would soon debut at number one with the song “Fantasy,” which was sold at either 99 cents or 49 cents at some stores. In late 1995, Whitney Houston debuted at number one with the 99-cent “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” even though the song never topped radio station playlists. In 1997, Mariah’s “Honey,” which wasn’t as well received as Sony hoped, was reduced to 49 cents and instantly hit number one (Entrepreneur). At least that song was a true hit. You can’t say the same about “Heartbreaker,” “My All,” and “Thank God I Found You,” which also topped the charts due to 99 cent and 49 cent deep discounting. No offense, Mariah fans. This was obviously Sony’s call.
Remember Janet Jackson’s wonderful “Together Again?” It was a great song, but not a legitimate number one hit. Still, it was given the 99 cent and 49 cent treatment after Janet’s previous single “Got Till It’s Gone” flopped so hard it couldn’t even get a single release.
But as long as the music industry felt good about cheap lies, so did Billboard. However, to Billboard’s credit, they finally changed their chart system to weigh monitored airplay more. That didn’t stop record companies from cheating.
Billboard‘s adding more weight to monitored airplay gave rise to payola, where radio stations and deejays were paid money and given special gifts to play songs. Ever wonder how Celine Dion’s horrifying remake of Lauper’s “I Drove All Night” became a hit? Well, stop wondering! Ever wonder how Mariah Carey’s “It’s Like That” became a hit? There is no proof of payola here, but many people I worked with in the industry suspected it. It’s important to note that Mariah’s actual comeback single, “We Belong Together,” was a true hit and possibly one of the best songs of the 2000s.
Billboard was smart to allow iTunes sales into the total, but record companies found a way to cheat sales by buying a single several thousand times. When Billboard added streaming into the mix, record companies and artists have encouraged fans to download software that allows fans to put a song on repeat at least 5,000 times. Billboard can’t change how people cheat, but they can be honest and more upfront about it when they present their charts.