Times Staff Writer

By common assent, Michael Jackson's "Bad" follow-up to the 38.5-million-selling "Thriller" LP was--and is--the No. 1 selling record album in the United States. It virtually has been from the day it hit the record stores, Aug. 31.

So why isn't it anywhere to be seen on the official Billboard magazine Top 100-selling albums chart this week? Pop fans must be wondering: Why the "chart gap"?

It's a long story, according to Billboard's associate publisher and veteran chartmaster Tom Noonan. It's a tale full of detailed data-reporting techniques, timing and marketing strategies.

But, mainly, it's a case study in shrewd maneuvering by Epic Records to ensure that "Bad" will debut as the No. 1 album in the United States when it finally does appear on the charts next week.

"Because they released it the week before Labor Day, there's no way we could get accurate reports because of our system," Noonan said. "It appears to be bad timing for the chart, but good timing for Epic because when it does debut on our charts, it's sure to be real high."

Debuting at the No. 1 spot is not unprecedented, but rare. Elton John has done it twice, Bruce Springsteen did it once and Whitney Houston did it as recently as three months ago. But Jackson's previous albums--including the all-time best-seller "Thriller"--did not debut at No. 1. Like most top-selling albums, it took a few weeks for Jackson's previous albums to reach Billboard's Top 10.

One of the entertainment industry's longstanding maxims is that success breeds success. And what can be more successful than an album starting at the top of the charts?

Jackson has made no secret of his competitiveness, as evidenced, for instance, by a much-publicized obsession with being mentioned as often as possible in the "Guinness Book of World Records." When he announced a $15-million endorsement contract with Pepsi Cola 18 months ago, he invited a Guinness official to the press conference to tell reporters that he had set another record: most money ever paid a celebrity in a product-endorsement contract.

By effectively delaying the official "Bad" Billboard debut a full week beyond the album's release, Jackson has made sure that he becomes among the few to enter the charts at No. 1. That game plan is not unprecedented--indeed, Arista Records released Whitney Houston's second album just before the July Fourth holiday to take advantage of the Billboard chart gap.

Billboard's policy of holding up the charts during holiday weekends took some playful ribbing from an industry competitor, Hits magazine.

"Rumors at press time have Billboard not debuting the Michael Jackson album on their chart," Hits reported in this week's issue. The magazine, which publishes its own record chart, went on to say: "Our reports show ("Bad") moving better than 2-to-1 over the nearest competitor. They (Billboard) must be short on their weekly reports from Bulgaria and Minsk."

"It wasn't even close," said Hits editor-in-chief Lenny Beer. "Our reports showed that 'Bad' sold 295,000 to 105,000 for 'La Bamba.' "

The Los Lobos-dominated sound track for the movie based on the life of 1950s rock star Ritchie Valens remained No. 1 in Billboard this week, but it was displaced on this week's Hits chart.

"It wasn't any decision we made," Beer said. "It was just that the reports (of retail sales) showed clearly that it was No. 1."

Most trade publication record charts are based on weekly reports of sales and/or radio airplay, normally called in to the publication at the beginning of each week. In Billboard's case, 80% of the retail sales reports are made on Mondays.

But when a holiday falls on a Monday, as Labor Day did, the retail sales reports at Billboard are delivered on Friday, according to Noonan. Cashbox magazine, which handles its album sales reports the same way, also failed to show the Jackson album on its charts this week.

"Epic did a real good job of shipping it on a holiday weekend," said Spence Berland, Cashbox vice president.

Because "Bad" was shipped to wholesalers and distributors Monday, Aug. 31, and many retailers didn't get it until Thursday, Sept. 3, Billboard was unable to get complete and accurate sales figures when its chart researchers made their weekly checks Friday, Sept. 4, according to Noonan.

He said that 29 "rack jobbers," who service many of the nation's department and discount stores, and another dozen or more major distributors did not have accurate sales figures to report on Sept. 4. This delay meant that Billboard heard from fewer than 70% of its reporting outlets in time for this week's charts.

Hits, which deals strictly with individual retail outlets, can deliver statistics quicker and, according to Beer, more accurately than either of its two competitors. That, he says, is why the magazine was able to report that "Bad" is No. 1 this week.

While the album is nowhere on the Billboard chart, there is a disclaimer on Page 3 of the Sept. 19 issue which explains Billboard's position. According to Noonan, the article is an attempt to "be honest with our readers" by describing how and why the exhaustive and time-consuming chart methodology that Billboard uses cannot be compromised through guesswork. In order to maintain a high degree of accuracy and integrity, the sale reports on "Bad" were delayed one week, according to the article.

"But you'd have to be an idiot to not know it was out in the stores. That's why we ran the article," Noonan said.

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