One of the more interesting shifts in the music industry over the past few years has been its increasing reliance on sales data from a company called SoundScan. Based in Hartsdale, New York, the operation collects its info from computerized scanners that count an estimated 85 percent of the albums sold in America. Extrapolating from this data, the organization comes up with what it claims is a fairly accurate accounting of the more than half-billion albums sold annually in the U.S. SoundScan’s figures have replaced Billboard’s traditional system of polling record stores for sales data.

The service, four years old this week, has upended a lot of myths about record sales. It’s unlikely that consumer interest in both country and alternative music, which has boomed over the last few years, can solely account for the huge chart presence of those two genres: plainly, artists from subcultures were undercounted in the pre-SoundScan days (the company’s impending inclusion of sales from more than 1,000 religious bookstores threatens to do the same for Christian music). The service also shows that sales are much more volatile than the old charts indicated: most notably, fans can now be seen to flood stores for new releases. The top ten of Billboard’s 200 album listing, for decades the province of mainstream artists who “climbed the chart” over a period of weeks or months, is now a rough-and-tumble vortex where a profusion of new releases by heavy metal, alternative, rap, and even easy-listening acts fight it out each week to debut in the highest slots, frequently at number one.

Still, alternative industry types love to deride SoundScan’s tally of alternative music. They contend that the service concentrates on chain operations and doesn’t adequately monitor independent record stores–where a disproportionate amount of indie and alternative product is sold. “Rule of thumb–take SoundScan’s count and double it,” comments one alternative bizzer. Record company publicists routinely respond to sales inquiries with comments like, “SoundScan is about 250,000, so it’s probably more like 350,000.” Are alternative acts getting undercounted by the service?

Truth be told, it’s hard to see how. SoundScan’s chief operating officer, Mike Shalett, and Billboard’s chart chief, Geoff Mayfield, respond with impatience and derision when asked about such charges. “When we hear people talk like that, we say, ‘Don’t double the sales: we already did,'” says Shalett sharply. He points out that sales in independent record stores are heavily weighted to compensate for the 15 percent of sales the company doesn’t have direct evidence of. “When that record shows up in Waterloo [Austin’s celebrated independent record store] we weight it.” Shalett says that could mean multiplying sales five to eight times, depending on where the store’s located.

Says Mayfield: “I hear a lot of whining. The Nielsen, Arbitron, Gallup, all are based on 1 percent or less of the universe. SoundScan starts with 85 percent of the sales in the retail marketplace. I don’t think it’s going to undercount much.”

Shalett makes one important concession: certain very small indie releases, albums that sell in the 15,000 to 20,000 range, might not get fairly counted in the system. “Something very, very street–like a rap record sold out of barbershops–we’re not going to count fully, and we never will be able to.” This may be why an album like Operation Ivy, from the Berkeley indie label Lookout (the original home of Green Day), has sold, according to Lookout’s Molly Neuman, 100,000 copies over the last four years, while SoundScan has it down for only 5,000. Tiny labels that sell a disproportionate number of vinyl records, that don’t use bar codes, or that do business by mail order escape SoundScan’s radar as well. On the other hand, Neuman notes happily that the label’s two original Green Day releases have been ensconced in Billboard’s top catalog album chart for months.

That said, there’s a big difference between an act on a label like Lookout and alternative acts on a major label. One of the great advantages of SoundScan

is that it makes record company inflation of sales figures, a venerable tradition, a bit more difficult. It also exposes how impure some of the industry’s precious metals are. To take one local example, Veruca Salt’s debut, American Thighs, was certified gold (500,000 copies) months ago. SoundScan has the album at 370,000 and currently selling 3,000 a week. The discrepancy exists because gold and platinum certifications are based on albums shipped, not sold. At any given time, Shalett says, there are thousands of albums in the pipeline–on trucks, in distributorships, on the shelves of the nation’s nearly 15,000 retail record outlets. Shalett notes that his company counts records that consumers pay money for. “Let me put it this way,” he said. “No one’s ever been paid royalties on certifications.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo manipulation/Victor Thompson.