Released today in 1989: It’s Alright

Parlophone R6220

Parlophone R6220

The ‘official’ chart for singles and albums sales in the UK began in 1969. Prior to (and post) that there were other charts – New Musical Express had run weekly charts continuously since the end of 1952, and continued to do so – but the ones first appearing in February that year were regarded as authoritative because the surveys, compiled by the British Market Research Bureau (BRMB), were funded by the BPI, the BBC, and the trade journal Record Retailer (soon to be renamed Music Week). This meant that they reached a larger audience than any other music charts, being published in Record Retailer and broadcast on the BBC’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ and Radio 1 chart run-downs: in short, if the BRMB said a single was #1, that would be the general public’s understanding of which title was the best-seller.

Hype1The credibility of the BRMB charts was called into question several times, with investigative journalists exposing their vulnerability to bribery and corruption. The shops contributing data to the BRMB surveys kept paper diaries and recorded each sale with a tick in a box – a system open to abuse. In 1978, The Daily Mirror revealed that record companies were paying housewives to visit chart return stores to buy up copies of singles they wanted to see in the charts. The BPI warned its members (the record companies themselves) Hype2that this was a breach of the Trades Descriptions and Theft acts, and required them to sign up to a code of conduct outlawing such practices. Then, in 1980, two television programmes summarized new ways the record companies were finding to influence sales. On 8 August the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ broadcast an allegation that all record companies had lists of the shops providing sales data to BRMB, and were offering gifts to retailers who would falsify their sales dairies. A typical incentive was free stock: if a shop recorded false sales of a title that wasn’t popular, they would be given in exchange copies of titles that were that they could then sell on for pure profit.

But it was an edition of ITV’s ‘World In Action’ programme called The Chart Busters that led to a full BPI inquiry. The programme obtained copies of one record company’s “competitors’ activity” memos to its sales reps, which stated that, during October 1979, one company was “pushing Charlie Daniels and The Nolan Sisters singles and giving away free Earth, Wind and Fire albums…”, another was “giving away scotch… and satin jackets for favours on Dusty Springfield, Judie Tzuke and Van Morrison singles…”, a third was “giving to dealers a typed list of product they would like helped into the charts”, and a fourth was “Giving away white wine… for help on The Police album”. One memo revealed that “with the co-operation of certain ‘open-minded’ dealers, ticks are being given on the new Elkie Brooks single every time a Police single is being sold!” One dealer interviewed on the programme said it wasn’t unusual to receive gifts of the value of over £100 every week for ticks in the sales diary.

The BPI found that the artists themselves had no knowledge of what was happening and the BRMB had taken precautions to avoid or at least identify this type of manipulation. The record companies themselves subsequently cleaned up their acts, but hyping, as it was known, continued. Instead of offering incentives to the retailers, the record companies employed ‘creative marketing techniques’ to make records – singles in particular – more attractive to the buying public. There were two main methods: multiple versions of the song, or a gift with every purchase. The former was thought to be instrumental in the extraordinary chart run for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax. During its 50 consecutive weeks on the chart, it was #1 throughout February 1984 before returning to the Top 10 for a further nine weeks later that summer. Various mixes of the track were made available at intervals during this period (many called “The Sex Mix”) and it was thought that fans were collecting them all, and therefore buying the same title multiple times and keeping it in the charts. Several different editions of the 12” version of Relax were released and all counted towards chart positions legitimately. It was the latter marketing method – gifts – that caused more concern for chart compilers.

In 1983, Gallup took over compilation of the charts, improving the collection of information by introducing data terminals in stores with which to records sales, and at the same time setting about introducing the concept of ‘chart rules’. The rise of the offering of gifts with singles hadn’t gone exactly unchecked: singles that were sold with a gift worth more than the retail price of the record itself were already ineligible for inclusion in chart statistics. (This meant that the giving away of clothing – t-shirts in particular, which had been a popular marketing tool – came to an end.) Then rules about double-packs (overstocks of previous singles given away free with a new title currently being promoted) were introduced in June 1987. These weren’t in breach of the rules about the value of the gift – the free single was of course exactly the same value as the promoted title it was shrink-wrapped with – but Gallup considered this to be a different product and so counted sales separately, treating double-packs as an EP and the standard 7” as a single. Both editions were eligible for the singles chart, but the title would appear on the chart twice if both versions sold in sufficient quantities to do so. Rules were also introduced on the playing time of releases eligible for the singles chart: no more than 20 minutes of music could feature, or the release would be treated as an album. (At this time, singles were starting to be issued on compact disc and as they could hold nearly 80 minutes of music, early CD singles frequently ran to more than 20 minutes. Gallup decided to exclude the format from the singles chart altogether, although this ban was lifted six months later, subject to compliance with the playing time restriction.) Later, rules about the dealer price of a release were also set, with a minimum wholesale unit price for each format required before it was eligible to be included in the charts. This created a problem for a time for singles issued on one format: Gallup’s rules made no allowance for a difference in unit price between an album or a single issued on cassette, meaning cassingles, as the latter were called, became ineligible for the charts. In 1989, a special price point for cassingles was added to the rules to allow sales of the format to be included on the singles chart.

By that year, the vast majority of singles were available on multiple formats, all of which, provided that they complied with the rules outlined above, were eligible to contribute to a chart position. This required the introduction of the concept of the ‘featured track’, the song that had to appear on all versions of the release in order for sales of the various formats to be added together. (Different mixes of the featured track were allowed.) Some record companies, and some artists, exploited this opportunity ruthlessly. Here, for example, is the release schedule for Pet Shop BoysIt’s Alright:

✪ Monday 26 June 1989
R6220 7” picture sleeve. Mix of featured track: unspecified, credited as Seven Inch Version on CD-single.
RS6220 7” picture sleeve with bellyband [limited edition]. Mix of featured track: as R6220.
12R6220 12” picture sleeve. Mix of featured track: Extended Version.
12RS6220 12” picture sleeve with bellyband [limited edition]. Mix of featured track: Extended Version.
CDR6220 CD-single in card sleeve. Mix of featured track: Seven Inch Version.
TCR6220 Cassingle in slipcase. Mix of featured track: unspecified.

✪ Monday 3 July 1989
10R6220 10” single with poster [limited edition] Mix of featured track: “The Alternatives”, unnamed mix on A-side and Extended Dance Mix on B-side.

✪ Monday 10 July 1989
12RX6220 12” with special bag [limited edition]. Mix of featured track: “The DJ international mixes”: The Tyree Mix and The Sterling Void Mix.

Note the staggering of the issue dates: this potentially enabled the song to remain in the upper reaches of the chart for longer, as collectors bought the title multiple times over a period of weeks. It’s Alright was one of the last releases to benefit from so many different versions being available, as by the end of the decade the BPI’s patience ran out: they decided that the number of formats eligible to contribute to a chart placing were to be restricted, initially to five and then to fewer during the 1990s.

NEW SINGLES on sale from Jun. 26
1989
The CULT (Ian Astbury) Edie (Beggars Banquet BEG230)
Julian LENNON You’re The One (Virgin VS1182)
PET SHOP BOYS It’s Alright (Parlophone R6220)
SIMPLY RED (Mick Hucknall) A New Flame (WEA YZ404)

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