"The Charts" we are talking about here are, of course, the record charts - the ultimate reference to music popularity as determined by record sales. But it wasn't always that way...
I first became aware of popular music in the mid 1950s, when there were no charts - not in Australia, at least. In 1955, when "Rock Around The Clock" was heard on Australian radio stations, it was played during the final minutes of half hour radio programmes called "Hit Parades". Its particular time slot within the programme was because it was named as "Number One", and had been preceded by six or seven other songs, played in reverse numerical order.
All this is very elementary to those who are accustomed to today's "Top 40 Countdown" programmes, but at that time, the intriguing mix of statistics and this exciting new music called Rock 'n' Roll started a ball rolling which hasn't stopped yet!
My interest in hit parade programmes was insatiable, and each week I tabulated all songs on all programmes on all stations into a weekly list which I kept as an overall historical guide to week-by-week song popularity. The resulting "charts" have been used for many purposes since this time, including the first "Top Forty Research" book published in 1978.
"The Charts" began in Australia in March 1958, when Radio Station 2UE, Sydney, published its first giveaway chart distributed via record stores. Giveaway charts were mainly a promotional tool for radio stations who, not long after the advent of television, began to switch to continuous music programming; the "Top 40" format was adapted from (or copied from) American radio where it had long been established successfully.
Top 40 charts were also published in newspapers, again the sole purpose being advertising for specific radio stations. It would be many years before the music industry would realize the full potential of these lists, which in the early days didn't even give recognition to the singer who sang the song!
Moving from the late fifties to the twenty-first century in one paragraph skips a lot in the development of charts in Australia, and there is probably enough history to fill several chapters of a book. However, to provide an answer to the question "Why Are There Charts?", the answer in the 2010s is three-fold:
Firstly, charts continue to serve the same purpose as when they first appeared in 1958 - to promote the medium they are associated with. Not only radio, but also television and the music print media use charts in their programming and publications; and many music retailers have published their own charts on the Internet. Additionally, the information obtained in compiling the charts is frequently used as valuable research for the media. There is a vast difference between the 7 or 8 titles broadcast in a 1955 Hit Parade and the 500-plus titles subject to sales reports in the weekly chart research in the 2010s!
Secondly, the people in the music industry value the information, and its accuracy, in today's charts very highly. The Charts are an important guide to a recording artist's success - and such success is used in planning concert and promotional tours, determining international releases, selling performer-related merchandise, and in general enhancing the careers of performing artists. Also, in today's world of multi-media, Charts are used as a tool to gain airplay, videoplay, exposure in clubs and similar venues, as well as a multitude of music-oriented print media.
Thirdly, and most importantly to me, record charts are a chronicle - a historical reference to the music of an era. It may be a week, a month, a year, a decade - or, in the case of these books, a span of more than 70 years. Almost everyone has a nostalgic interest in music, but almost no one can remember all the music they would like to. Hence, an annual, monthly or weekly chart can help recall an era, or a specific moment in time. For many, the list of songs (or album titles, or artists' names) on a chart is sufficient to fill their nostalgic needs; for many others (such as myself) the "numbers" - such as current chart positions, previous positions, number of weeks, etc. - share an importance which is perhaps equal to the music itself.
Since publishing AUSTRALIAN CHART BOOK 1970-1992 in 1993, my research has taken me back a further thirty years, to 1940. With a little help from my friends, I was able to locate “Hit Parade” programmes which were played on radio, and published in music-oriented magazines. Also, monthly best sellers lists have been used to compile a set of Charts to cover the eighteen years prior to the beginning of the “Top 40” era in 1958.
The Charts used in compiling AUSTRALIAN CHART BOOK 1940-1969 are monthly from 1940 to 1948, and weekly from 1949 to 1969. They are Top 20s from 1940 to 1955, with a gradual increase in size from 1956 to August 1958, when they reach a Top 100, which continues for the remainder of the book.
One of the big differences between the Hit Parades of the 1940s and the Charts of the 21st century is that of Songs and Records. Today’s Charts are based on sales of individual Records (CD, Vinyl, physical or download sales) and sometimes list more than one track; occasionally, more than one version of a song is charting, and is listed separately. Prior to the Rock ‘n’ Roll era, and in the early days of Top 40, most Hit Parade entries were of Songs, and the lists were compiled from sales of sheet music as well as records, plus other factors such as public requests and (perhaps) the opinions of radio stations’ personnel!
There is not a lot of statistical information available on popularity of music in Australia prior to 1940, so this is probably as far back as I shall be able to go!
There has been a lot of demand for updated chart information following the publication of AUSTRALIAN CHART BOOK 1970-1992. Seventeen years on, I have now published AUSTRALIAN CHART BOOK 1993-2009 which was published in 2010. This replaces the previously published AUSTRALIAN CHART BOOK 1993-2005.
Charts used for this book are from "Australian Music Report", which continued publishing weekly top 100 charts till the end of 1998, when it ceased publication. Since the beginning of 1999, I have continued compiling, but not publishing, weekly charts; singles have continued as a top 100, while albums have been top 50 lists.
At the time of writing (June 2010), I am continuing to compile weekly charts for use in future books. But, there will be changes! With far fewer singles being released in physical formats, there is an increasing emphasis on downloads, and these sales now form an important component of the Australian charts. Meanwhile, enjoy the charts, enjoy the books, and enjoy the music.