NEW CHART FOR INDIES, from Rolling Stone, 1983
“Let’s face it, the charts are the biggest marketing tool the record industry has. They dictate,” says Martin Jennings, of Sydney independent label Hot Records. Jennings is also the man behind the new Australian Independent Charts.
“There was a hulking great void,” says this 35-year-old Englishman and former WEA executive, known affectionately as Motor Mouth by his colleagues. “I suppose it was due really to the importance of the indie chart in England, the fact that it’s grown and developed to a point where you can look at the Top Three and know that if they’re not big acts today they will be tomorrow — bands like New Order and Aztec Camera.”
So if it’s good enough for England it’s good enough for Australia, and if it’s good enough for the majors it’s good enough for the independents. The new chart is already running in RAM, On the Street and other magazines. Obviously, the credibility and accuracy of any chart is always open to question. In England, chart rigging is a standard practice and chart positions lower than 5, 10 or 20 (depending on whom you talk to) simply cannot be trusted. Whatever the methods of constructing a chart might be, it’s just plain naive to put a great deal of faith in it. The situation is not very different in Australia, where over the years a number of record companies have been convicted of varieties of chart manipulation in cases which never seem to attract a great deal of publicity. The fact that record companies refuse to divulge sales figures —unless they’re claiming gold or platinum awards — means that totally accurate chart must remain a pipe-dream.
An Melbourne record store employee reports that they sometimes become aware of chart-rigging activities. “We carry major-label stuff, Top Forty as well as independents, and you can feel when a record has nothing behind it except a lot of push from the record company. There is just no interest in the public in buying it.”
But while chart rigging in Australia may be difficult to isolate, there is another kind of injustice going on that’s quite clear. Which is that independent records never figure in the charts, no matter how many are sold, simply because they sell mostly in non-chart-return stores. Given the deflated nature of the major marketplace, an independent record will often sell in sufficient quantity to qualify for a chart position. “The Celibate Rifles’ seven-inch, But Jacques the Fish? would be in the Kent Report, if there was any justice,” exclaims Jennings. But when nearly all of its sales are in specialist stores it misses out; thus the Independent Chart.
“It reflects a pattern of music buying which is not reflected anywhere else,’’ says Jennings.
Until now, there was no real record of sales by independents. There were precedents, however: 3RRR-FM in Melbourne compiles a weekly chart, which due to the nature of the station, includes independents on an equal footing with majors; in fact, this chart has held some sway, but it was inevitably inaccurate because it was based on airplay. Other non-commercial radio stations have published their own charts to less effect. Scratches, a small specialist store in Newtown, Sydney, his been putting out its own chart, which in a way was the immediate predecessor to this new one.
The chart coming out of Hot Records’ back room is compiled from actual sales figures for independently distributed records. These figures are obtained over the phone from participating specialist stores around the country. Doubts about accuracy remain, as they must, but as for the potential for corruption, Jennings hotly denies the possibility.
So what does it mean to get onto these charts? How many records do you have to sell? On this question Jennings is evasive: “I mean, we know we sell 500 copies of the seven-inch reissue of But Jacques the Fish? at Hot (who distribute it), so obviously it’s going to go straight in at Number One and its going to stay there while it’s selling out, for a couple of weeks, then it will disappear because there won’t be any left. The total numbers — well, this is where I’d like more shops to come in and be counted.”
The chart is still in its infancy but it is snowballing, according to Jennings.
“I see it as the establishment of a list of records that should be in people’s attention,” he says. “Not only is it supposed to provide a meaningful list of what there is, how it ranks and how long it’s lasted, but it’s meant to create some sort of leverage as well.”
Already, there’s been a significant response to the chart. Agents and promoters have become interested in bands that figure well. Suburban record stores have placed orders with Hot, which of course is one way Hot itself stands to benefit; but penetration of the faraway suburban market has always been a stumbling block to inner-city independents, so the chart should be of benefit to all of them, not just Hot. Penetration of the larger chains is a larger task. Radio, which determines so much, is an even stiffer hurdle. In England, one function the independent charts serve is as a proving ground for major label A&R departments, and given the cautiousness of depressed Australian record companies, here’s no reason that that wouldn’t also happen here.
“I’m hoping, by developing leverage with the chart, we can say, look, you can’t ignore the Scientists,’’ Jennings concludes. “You can say to somebody in a radio station that this particular album has been in the indie charts for fifteen weeks. Now, a radio station, in my language, has got to take notice of that. So maybe they’ll play the Scientists between 10 p.m. and midnight on a Monday night — okay, that’s a foot in the door.
“I mean, maybe the Scientists have got what it takes to become a Top Thirty act, maybe not.” At least now there’s a better chance that we’ll be able to find out.