Monday, January 20, 2014

How Soundscan Works

barcode image from Bobby Owsinski's Music 3.0 blog
Many artists, bands and musicians have heard of Nielsen SoundsScan, but they're not sure how it impacts their musical lives. The fact of the matter is that if you want to be included in Billboard's charts, then you need to know about SoundScan because its at the basis of how their charts, and many others, work.

In the early days of the record business, the charts were mostly derived from a phone survey of record stores and radio stations to determine what people where buying or listening to. Obviously, this survey could be easily gamed and regularly was by a variety of methods. This changed with the introduction of SoundScan in 1991, when the company began to track sales through the inventory barcodes that each record, cassette and CD had printed on it for inventory control. As a result, a more or less accurate count of actual sales could be counted.

I say more or less because the system wasn't perfect. The data was originally collected from about 14,000 retailers, but many smaller stores chose not to be included in the survey because it required a Point-of-Sale inventory system and electronic access to SoundScan, which could be expensive at the time (it's less so today, but still too much for many of the 2,500 retailers left).

In an effort to somehow include the sales of the non-reporting stores, SoundScan introduced a weighting system where a single sale at a large chain store in a major area like Chicago could be counted as multiple sales. A sale a certain stores could be counted for as many as 10 or as few as 2, while a small mom & pop retailer's sale would be counted only as 1.

SoundScan was always careful about revealing which stores where weighted, but many record labels made intelligent guesses about which were large weighted stores and found ways to inflate their sales and therefore, the chart position of an album, which kind of defeats the purpose of SoundScan in the first place.

That said, SoundScan is still in use today, which is why it's essential that any physical product that you release has a barcode on it. You can purchase one from Tunecore or CD Baby, if you're using them to release your product, or use any of the online barcode generators like this one.

The Billboard charts use the input from SoundScan less these days, as they now also value digital sales and social media as well as radio airplay when determining airplay. That said, if you want a chance at the charts, make sure you include that barcode so SoundScan knows you exist.

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1 comment:

Derek said...

I think it is worthwhile to point out that SoundScan also does ingest sales information from electronic sources such as iTunes and Amazon.

Touring artists can also report their sales at live shows via their record label or directly using services like For heavy touring artists, the sales of physical media at live events can be significant. Kid Rock for example had incredible SoundScan numbers during his tour last summer due largely to an aggressive and creative effort to sell his CD at his shows.


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