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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Neil Pavier: Management Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you looking for your next opportunity for ...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ACA/ACCA/ACMA qua...

Laura Norton: Project Accountant

£50,000 - £60,000: Laura Norton: Are you looking for an opportunity within a w...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?