No Longer the Loneliest Number

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Bob Dylan has seen better days. Yesterday, for instance, when the craggy rock poet was No. 1 -- and had the Billboard chart to prove it. But by the time you read this, Dylan's marvelous new album, "Modern Times," will be ancient history, having been booted out of the top slot on the magazine's weekly sales chart by Beyonce's "B'Day." (Could it be that the folk legend was obsessing over the wrong hip-hop/soul starlet when he sang about his Alicia Keys fixation on "Modern Times"?)

Although it may have been startling to see a Dylan album at No. 1 for the first time in 30 years -- 1976's "Desire" was his last -- it was all but inevitable that this week would feature a fresh face in the penthouse suite. In a period of unprecedented churn atop Billboard's U.S. album chart, nearly every week brings a new No. 1.

The charts, they are a-changin'.

So far this year there have been 28 different chart-toppers -- including Beyonce's, which will officially be declared the new No. 1 today. (Billboard, a trade publication, works ahead of the actual calendar, so the chart will be dated Sept. 23.)

That's more chart-toppers than 1992 and 1993 combined, when 27 different albums reached No. 1 over two years. Last year brought 36 No. 1 albums. Oh, those fickle music fans!

"There's been a lot of turnover," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard, which has published an album-sales scorecard since 1955.

There are multiple reasons behind the instability at the top of the Billboard 200, as the chart is officially known. For one thing, album sales continue to decline (they're off by about 7 percent this year), and the threshold for reaching No. 1 is dropping accordingly. In fact, in July, Johnny Cash reached the top slot for the first time in 37 years with the posthumous album "American V: A Hundred Highways," despite selling just 88,000 copies in its first week of release. It was the lowest-selling No. 1 debut since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking album sales in 1991.

There's also a newfound, Hollywood-style emphasis on acts opening big, as with the movies. Marketing campaigns -- particularly for CDs from popular, youth-skewing artists -- are geared to immediate, out-of-the-box success.

"There's more and more pressure on the first week," says Greg McCarn, vice president of marketing for Lyric Street Records, home to country-pop chart-toppers Rascal Flatts. "That first week speaks to the health of your fan base. Have you been able to maintain or expand your fan base since the last record? Or have you seen some deterioration? We've seen that first week become increasingly important over the last few years."

SoundScan, the sales-tracking outfit, has also been a contributor to the churn by its mere presence. Between 1983 and 1984, when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" spent a combined 37 weeks at No. 1, just 10 albums reached the top of the charts. In the early 1960s, the "West Side Story" soundtrack owned the top slot for a combined 54 weeks, a record. But all of that happened in the pre-SoundScan era, when Billboard used sales estimates to determine chart rankings. Fifteen years ago, the magazine began to rely on SoundScan's point-of-sale data. "There probably should have been more number-ones pre-SoundScan, but we didn't have specific sales data," Mayfield says.

But most significantly, he says, the major record labels have held back many of their biggest releases for the fourth quarter -- the music industry's busiest sales period of the year. As such, there haven't been any blockbuster albums squatting at No. 1: No "Bodyguard" soundtrack, no Usher's "Confessions" or Santana's "Supernatural" or any of the other runaway hits that sell by the truckload.

The closest thing from 2006: "Me and My Gang," the latest power-balladeering album from Rascal Flatts. The CD spent three consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the spring and may wind up as the year's best-selling title, with 2.3 million copies sold so far. Yet it's hardly been a monster smash along the lines of Billy Ray Cyrus's "Some Gave All," which spent 17 consecutive weeks at No. 1 in 1992.

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