The Hit Parade ► A Musical Appreciation
The first issue of The Billboard Advertiser

It was 80 years ago today that Billboard Magazine launched The Hit Parade, a countdown of the most popular recordings in the country based on sales and radio play. While the chart has changed over the years — and has been balkanized into just about every genre of music known — the main list is now known as The Hot 100.

We know Billboard today as a music magazine, but when it was launched in 1894 it was a circus magazine. At the time the circus was the biggest form of entertainment in the country. Atlas Obscura tells all in Number One With A Bullet: The Rise of the Billboard Hot 100:

According to a history written by his grandson, Roger S. Littleford, Jr., the founder of Billboard,
William H. “Bill” Donaldson, built the magazine to serve an entirely
different need. Donaldson worked for the family business, a Newport,
Kentucky-based lithography shop that churned out advertisements and
posters for the circuses, fairs, and other traveling shows that
criss-crossed the country. Donaldson realized that most of his
clients—the managers and owners who ordered the posters, and,
especially, the billstickers tasked with staying one step ahead of the
shows and pasting the posters to every available surface—lacked
permanent addresses, and thus were unable to communicate with each

In 1894, Donaldson started to spend his nights and weekends putting together Billboard Advertising,
a trade publication dedicated to gathering all the news that might be
relevant to his more itinerant peers. The first issue, published that
November, had eight pages of relevant tidbits, laid out in columns like
“Bill Room Gossip” and “The Indefatigable And Tireless Industry of the
Bill Poster.” Now the “advertisers, poster printers, bill posters,
advertising agents, and secretaries of fairs,” as the issue categorized them, could pick up a magazine at a newsstand anywhere in the country and know what to expect on the opposite coast.

This is the first #1 tune on the first Billboard Hit Parade in 1936

Over the years as the entertainment industry expanded, so did Billboard’s coverage of it; from sheet music, to plays, to movies, to musicals, to radio, to recorded music, to downloads. It was all a natural progression to follow what was popular in ‘Merkin entertainment and technology. The WikiWackyWoo picks up the story:

On January 4, 1936, Billboard magazine published its first music hit parade.
The first Music Popularity Chart was calculated in July 1940. A variety
of song charts followed, which were eventually consolidated into the
Hot 100 by mid-1958. The Hot 100 currently combines single sales, radio airplay, digital downloads, and streaming activity (including data from YouTube and other video sites). All of the Billboard
charts use this basic formula. What separates the charts is which
stations and stores are used; each musical genre has a core audience or
retail group. Each genre’s department at Billboard is headed up by a chart manager, who makes these determinations.

For many years, a song had to be commercially available as a single to be considered for any of the Billboard charts. At the time, instead of using Nielsen SoundScan or Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems (BDS), Billboard obtained its data from manual reports filled out by radio stations and stores. According to the 50th Anniversary issue of Billboard,
prior to the official implementation of SoundScan tracking in November
1991, many radio stations and retail stores removed songs from their
manual reports after the associated record labels stopped promoting a
particular single. Thus songs fell quickly after peaking and had shorter
chart lives. In 1990, the country singles chart was the first chart to use SoundScan and BDS. They were followed by the Hot 100 and the R&B chart in 1991. Today, all of the Billboard charts use this technology.

IRONY ALERT: When I worked at Island Records Canada, I promoted this tune

There was a time in my life when I lived — literally — and died — figuratively — by the Billboard charts. When I worked for Island Records Canada as a Promotion Rep, I spent hours with each new issue of Billboard, trying to discern trends the same way astrologists look for signs in their charts.

Trying to get Bob Marley played on FM radio in Canada was a nearly impossible feat at the time. This was when Rastaman Vibration was just released. It was such an uphill struggle because few people even knew who Bob Marley was and Reggae still confused a lot of people. I told people it was just like Rock and Roll, except the beat didn’t go KUH-thunk, KUH-thunk. It went Thunk-kuh, Thunk-kuh.

We badgered one radio station in Canada after another to add Marley to their playlists, with almost no luck whatsoever. Only the odd campus radio station were sold on Marley’s power as an artist.

CHUM-FM was the station we worked on the hardest because it was the biggest station in the country. Consequently it was a leader among Canadian radio stations. CHUM’s music committee consisted of Benji Karsh and Brian Masters. They hated Marley. Week after week, we’d pitch them Bob Marley. Each week we’d send them photostatic copies of charts from around the world, showing which radio stations were smart enough to jump on the Bob Marley bandwagon. Every week they just laughed. Finally one week they said, “We won’t play this until it charts in Billboard.”

Guess what?

A few weeks later Rastaman Vibrations finally appeared on the Billboard chart. We were able to go back to CHUM-FM and make them eat those words. From that day on Bob Marley was heard on CHUM-FM. Later I was amused to hear them pretend to have discovered Bob Marley, even though they had to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.