By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
On January 21, 500 record company employees were fired, told to gather up their personal belongings, turn in their company credit cards and security keys, shut down their computers, and be out of their offices by 5 p.m. More than 280 staffers were let go at Geffen and A&M Records, another 200 or so at Motown, Island, and Mercury Records on a day already being called Black Thursday by the music industry.
It was the first official byproduct of Seagram's $10.4-billion purchase of PolyGram Music in December, the first part of a restructuring plan that could see thousands more employees looking for work before the year is through. And in the next few months, the labels will severely pare down their respective rosters as well, trimming down to lean, and most definitely mean, operations. As many as 200 bands--including local groups such as Slowpoke and the tomorrowpeople--could be in the unemployment line next to their former A&R guy.
It was a show of power by a label so big it could say it invented the bar chord, and bands would have to agree. Yet even though Seagram's acquisition of PolyGram made it the biggest record label in the world, it's still not the most valuable player in the music industry--not in terms of making hit records, deciding what people listen to.
Broadcast Data Systems, a little-known company based in Kansas City, Missouri, has as much to do with that as anybody else, tracking every song played every day. It knows what station's playing what song, at what time of day they're playing it, and how many times a day. BDS, which gathers information from 16 Dallas-area radio stations alone, can tell you what's the most popular song in Dallas at any given time--at least on the top-rated stations in town. A visit to the company's Web site (www.bdsonline.com) allows anyone to search by region, artist, city, or format: Want to know the most-played song on Los Angeles radio? (Sugar Ray's "Every Morning.") Or on adult-contemporary radio stations across the entire country? (Try "Hands" by Jewel.)
In Dallas, for the week of January 16-23, Brandy's "Have You Ever" topped the local charts, followed by Edwin McCain's "I'll Be," Shawn Mullins' "Lullaby," and songs from R. Kelly, George Strait, Dru Hill, the Dixie Chicks, and Tiranos Del Norte.
And believe it or not, that's with KDGE-FM (94.5) among the 16 stations reporting. But apparently you can't spell homogenous without KVIL.
Partnered with Billboard magazine and SoundScan--which keeps tabs on record sales at major retail outlets--BDS is the engine that drives the music industry, likely responsible for as many firings as Seagram's bloody buyout of PolyGram, at least indirectly.
"BDS has changed the industry," says Thomas Bacote, program director at KRBV-FM (100.3). "Without a doubt. Lately, I've paid very close attention to Billboard because of BDS. Since it has come into play, the Billboard charts have been very reliable. We really get into more of what's happening locally, but the Billboard charts and Broadcast Data Systems gives us a strong idea what's happening consistently across the country. It's a gauge. If we have an interest in an artist or we see a record that's happening, in our music meeting we'll listen to a record as part of our justification process, and we'll definitely take a look at Broadcast Data Systems."
Broadcast Data Systems was formed in 1988 by Kansas City businessman Robert Uhlmann, who had tested the music industry waters in the '70s with his own label, released just one album, and drowned. But he never knew exactly why. So he started Broadcast Data Systems to get to the bottom of why his label didn't work out.
Back then, there was no reliable method to determine how many times a record was getting played, or even if it was getting played at all. The previous arrangement--radio stations submitting weekly playlists to Billboard--was based on the honor system, and honor is a quality the music industry has never been known for. The labels would lean on radio stations to include their bands on the playlists the stations turned in to Billboard, promising gifts such as concert tickets or hard-to-get interviews, anything to ensure their bands charted.
Of course, just because a band made it onto the charts didn't mean it should have: Record labels might as well have made the charts out themselves. The chart system was a zoo filled with paper tigers.
"One of the amusing and unfortunate things that was happening at record companies was they were buying their own hype," says Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's charts editor. "You'd have meetings where the sales department would get beat up because, 'Hey, we're getting heavy airplay in Seattle, and we're not selling much there.' Actually, some of the first fans of BDS were the sales guys, because now they could turn around and say, 'Oh, yeah. Since when is five plays a week heavy airplay?' They were not only influencing how those stations would report, but when it'd actually get back to their home offices, they'd think, 'Oh, wow, we've got this really big thing going on,' when they really, really didn't."