Hit machine on the road

AT AROUND 6.55pm tonight Britain's adolescents will have the answer to one of the burning questions of the week: Is Mariah Carey still top of the pop music charts?

Bob Barnes is long past adolescence, but he will have found out several hours before then. He has just taken over the task of compiling the masterlist of the country's biggest-selling singles and albums. Radio stations and recording companies will be waiting anxiously for his findings at around 2.30pm today and every Sunday.

Gallup did the job for 11 years but lost it when the Chart Information Network recently put the pounds 1m contract out to tender. The winner was Millward Brown, the fourth biggest market research company in the land, with a pounds 30m turnover, ultra-modern offices on the outskirts of Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, and a computer system known as Eric and Tracey.

Eric digests the sales information from more than 2,500 record shops throughout the UK. Tracey, an Essex computer, provides back-up from the company's Chelmsford office in the event of a breakdown.

Mr Barnes, 38, is not one to leave anything to chance. Millward Brown's 'charts director' is well acquainted with the tricks of the trade, having spent nearly 15 years running a small chain of record shops called Music Junction. He knows the lengths to which recording companies will go to hype an artist. Each has a sales team, known as the 'strike force', whose job it is to identify the shops that contribute to the charts' survey and target them with marketing campaigns.

It is now possible to have a Number One with just 50,000 sales. So, are singles still important?

'Yes they are. They provide air-play and exposure on Top of the Pops. An album will sell better after two or three hit singles.'

The recording companies are only too well aware of it. Back in the mid-1980s, for instance, CBS was desperate for a second hit for Jennifer Rush as a launch pad for her album. It ensured that anyone going into a record shop to buy The Power of Love was given it free, as long as they bought the follow-up single. And CBS was hardly alone. Sales of any number of recording artists were boosted by offers of free albums, videos and other merchandise.

Such stunts are now outlawed, according to Mr Barnes. He has a strike force of his own, made up of 20 'field liaison detectives' (or chart-checkers) who also target record shops with eyes peeled for malpractice.

Each shop in the survey is linked to the central computer by an Epson terminal with a modem. Every time a sale is made the bar code should be transferred on to it by a scanner. But there are times - a busy Saturday afternoon, for example - when sales go unrecorded. 'That's the weakness in the system,' said Mr Barnes. 'They should really be connected to the cash register.'

Most of the multiples and the specialist chains are now switching to the EPOS (electronic point of sale) system, and Mr Barnes's field detectives are putting pressure on the independents to do likewise.

Before the electronic era, every shop recorded its sales in a written ledger. Gaining access to it and amending the figures was not above the wit of the more unscrupulous strike forces. All they had to do was offer the retailer some free stock.

'Going in and offering incentives to falsify the till has disappeared,' says Mr Barnes. 'Now it's down to marketing strategies, and the dividing line between what is in the rules and what is outside can be a thin one.'

Campaigns considered excessive can lead to the sales figures for certain shops being given less weight by the computer. Eric is doing his bit to improve the accuracy of the charts. And if it proves too much for him, there's always Tracey down in Chelmsford.

(Photograph omitted)