Just how many records do you have to sell to go No. 1 in Billboard magazine?
Ask Tone Loc. The local rapper's raucous hit, "Wild Thing," sold 2.5 million copies, making it the best-selling single since "We Are the World." (It's also the cheapest mega-platinum single in years--it cost $500 to make.)
But despite easily outselling its chart rivals--some weeks by nearly 3-to-1--"Wild Thing" never made it past No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
This odd milestone has caused a mini-uproar in the record industry. The loudest complaints have come from the Loc people, who are now publicly criticizing the respected industry trade publication's formula for determining its singles chart rankings.
"When you sell 2.5 million singles--more records, times two, than any single in years--how can you not call that a No. 1 record?" said Marty Schwartz, Loc's manager and an Island Pictures consultant who helped bring Loc's label, Delicious Vinyl, to Island Records. "We were beating our heads against the wall--I've gotten calls from people everywhere who can't believe we didn't make it."
Schwartz's complaint focuses on Billboard's chart methodology. Unlike the magazine's album charts, which are based solely on sales figures, the Hot 100 rankings are determined by a combination of record-store sales rankings and airplay reports from 240 pop stations.
According to Billboard chart director Michael Ellis, 40 to 50 stations--nearly 1/6 of all reporting radio outlets--never played "Wild Thing," either because the program directors dislike rap music or found the song sexually suggestive. The song also suffered because Billboard's reporting record stores only tally sales rankings, not actual sales figures. So while "Wild Thing" may have clearly outsold its rivals, its sales ranking didn't necessarily reflect the width of the margin.
Schwartz says Billboard needs to update its system. "I have nothing against the chart guys, who've been very understanding," he said. "But 'Wild Thing' was a genuine pop phenomenon--and the system just didn't reflect the buying choices of a new generation of pop fans. If Billboard's reporting stations won't play such an enormous hit, then maybe Billboard shouldn't be using them as indicators of what makes a No. 1 single."
Ellis responded: "I don't feel we're off base. Our charts simply showed we had an outstanding selling record that wasn't as widespread a radio hit as other songs it competed against. Call it a matter of regional differences in musical tastes or whatever, but the single simply didn't get played in a lot of Midwest and Bible Belt areas. Maybe some radio programmers are being stubborn or prejudiced. But our job isn't to tell them what to play. We just report on the tastes of the marketplace."
Ellis did acknowledge that it was "unusual" for a song with such phenomenal sales to stop short of No. 1. "I would call it an aberration--an odd occurrence. But it isn't unprecedented. George Michael's 'I Want Your Sex' was a huge seller--and never went No. 1 either. A lot of stations in the South never played it. Listen, we have stations that won't play Barbra Streisand records. That doesn't mean they're bad reporting outlets."
Still, Ellis says Billboard is undergoing a "major re-evaluation" of its charts. By next January, the publication will adopt a computerized system that will allow it to monitor radio play in major markets and collect actual sales figures from local stores.
"We do take these occurrences into account when we plan for the future," he said. "It's still just a possibility, but with our new precise computer information we could someday divide things up into a Hot 100 airplay chart and a Hot 100 sales chart. We're always looking for ways to make our system more responsive--and more accurate."