Topping the charts is the holy grail for most recording artists, an indication of their popularity with the music-buying public. The first music chart appeared in 1913 in the US entertainment magazine Variety. At a time when recorded music was not yet available for sale and even radios were scarce, this weekly chart was based on sales of sheet music in New York City. That same year, Billboard magazine published its own similar chart, and in 1936 it released the first pop chart based on record sales. 


Early Billboard charts also incorporated radio airplay as data. However, some corrupt record label executives bribed radio DJs to play their songs! This practice became known as a ‘payola’ — a portmanteau of ‘pay’ and Vitrola, the name of a popular record player. It was outlawed following an FBI investigation in the late 1950s.


The UK did not release its own chart until 1952, when the editor of music magazine NME telephoned a few record shops to ask what songs were popular that week. The result, the UK’s Official Charts, was a massive success. As pop music boomed, the record industry also began to recognise their artists’ achievements with a system of certification. The first Gold Disc was presented in the US in 1958 to Perry Como for half-a-million sales of Catch A Falling Star. A UK Gold Disc is awarded for a hundred thousand sales. Higher sales qualify for a Platinum or even a Diamond Disc. 


Pop Music Chart Day is now celebrated every 4 January, and the USA’s Billboard Hot 100 (singles) and Billboard 200 (albums) remain the music industry’s best-known charts. With the evolution of technology and the decline of physical sales, however, the charts have changed. Now largely based on downloads and streaming, some songs linger for over a year, and old songs strangle the charts at Christmas time! Ed Sheeran’s Perfect spent 191 weeks on the UK chart, and both Mariah Carey’s and Wham!’s Christmas tracks hit number one decades after their release. 


This means that some artists miss out on being listed on the charts, despite being popular. As a result, some countries are imposing new rules, including banning songs more than eighteen months old from the charts. In 2017, after an Ed Sheeran album release placed nine of his tracks in the top ten singles chart, the UK changed its rules, allowing only three songs by an artist in the Top 100.  

Chart records

US singer Elvis Presley holds the record in the UK charts with twenty-one #1 hits, while The Beatles achieved nineteen in the US. Whitney Houston holds the record for the most consecutive US chart toppers, with seven, while Mariah Carey has spent ninety-one weeks in the top spot. Drake’s 431 weeks on the Hot 100 is by far the longest of any artist. 


A 2019 viral social media post claimed that the song that was No.1 on your 14th birthday defines your entire life. Is this true for you?