ARIA’s Ian Wallace Talks Origins, Evolution and Future of Australia’s Charts: ‘We Are Not There Yet’
Sales charts have, for decades, been the barometer of success in the popular music. The success of the artist, and the unseen team in support.
Chart positions can dictate positioning on a festival bill, foreign markets to explore, the rise of a star, or the slow, sad elimination of a former heavyweight.
Over time, those weekly tallies evolved into the digital world, both in the data they capture, and their publication to the industry and those many chart geeks who absorb them.
Today’s “consumption” charts are, arguably, the most reliable snapshot of what’s hot in music.
Ian Wallace has been at the coalface of ARIA’s Charts since day nought.
The ARIA Chart manager recently celebrated his 35th anniversary, a milestone that dates almost as far back as the trade body’s first official tally, published July 10, 1983 as the Countdown Charts.
For the record, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” (featuring a music video shot by Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy) topped the inaugural singles chart, and Michael Jackson’s all-time global best-seller Thriller was the first No. 1 on the albums chart.
Currently, ARIA’s suite of charts include Australian HIP HOP/R&B Singles, Albums, Australian HIP HOP/R&B Albums, Australian Country Albums, Vinyl Albums, Catalogue Albums, Compilation Albums, and year-end single and albums tallies.
The trade body began counting on-demand streams toward its albums survey from May 2017, based on the methodology adopted by the U.K.’s OCC and several European charts, and the following year began applying a new multi-level streaming methodology for all its singles and albums charts which rewarded paid subscription streams over ad-supported plays.
Streams have impacted the ARIA Singles Chart since November 2014.
Wallace has seen it all unfold from the box seat.
In this exclusive interview with TMN, Wallace shares some of those moments, and peers into the future of those ARIA surveys. There’s more change to come.
TMN: Congrats on the anniversary, Ian. 35 years is several lifetimes in this industry. How did you get your start in charts? What skillset did you have at the very beginning?
Ian Wallace: It all started on June day in 1971 when I met my first two charts — one from 4IP and the other 4BC — in a record mart in Brisbane. I was instantly smitten.
Six years of poring over the charts instead of studying later, my chart nerdery landed me a job at 4BK where, among other tasks, I compiled their charts for them.
A few twists and turns later, I found myself in Sydney working for David Kent compiling the charts that were the basis of some of the earliest ARIA Charts.
Budget cuts — ironically a reduction in ARIA funding for the charts — ended that role after just a year and I thought that my charting days were over.
However, a little over two years later I saw an ad from ARIA looking for a chart compiler…
Those early charts were relatively primitive. Tell me just how primitive.
The earliest ARIA charts were rustic by to-day’s standards, but they were still a significant step-up from the radio station charts that preceded them.
Our first charts were limited by the technology available at the time.
Very few record stores — and it was only record stores back then — had computers, so we had to rely on a system that involved us compiling weekly survey forms of current and potential chart candidates and mailing them to the stores.
The stores would then dutifully fill out the forms with their sales quantities for the week and wait for us to call to have them read out their sales to us.
We would key the data into our system and apply a factoring routine to ensure that each state and region was properly represented and sum the totals to get the week’s charts.
There was a seismic shift in 1997 when we moved to collecting the data directly from the POS software of the various retail contributors.
Instead of collecting a subset of data manually from under 200 stores, we quite quickly moved to collecting all music sales data from over 1,200 retail outlets.
Outside of the music industry, who studies the charts? Do those chart anoraks reach out to you and what are some of the regular questions?
Some people are interested in a particular musical act or style of music — like K-pop or boybands — and will reach out for chart histories in those narrow areas, and others are looking for broader information.
Have you any standout moments of glory in those years? Have you heard from artists crying with joy.
Over the years most of our dealings have been with our record company contacts acting on behalf of their artists, but that having been said, there have been occasional “whoop” heard in the background when we’ve relayed a particularly good chart result.
Occasionally meetings with artists have occurred, and two that stand out both happened at ARIA Awards-related events.
At the awards where he won an ARIA for his Sharkmouth album, Russell Morris thanked me and my chart team for the assistance that we gave to his label to ensure that the album was correctly listed in our database to enable it to have the best shot at charting well.
And the other occasion was at an ARIA nominations event when Renee Geyer leaned over from a row or two behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was Ian Wallace!
Surely there’s been a flip side. I’ve heard stories from charts compilers abroad where record label chiefs back in the day would apply pressure to achieve a better chart position. Have there been pressure or threats over your 35 years from inside or outside the biz?
There have been occasions, particularly in the early days when the results were grumbled about. Thankfully I have never felt pressured to behave in any way contrary to producing the most accurate chart that it is in my team’s power to produce.
I would like to shout out to my 40-odd chart team co-workers over the years. They have all been scrupulously honest and ethical in pursuing their roles to the best of their abilities and that has been instrumental in building and maintaining the reputation of the ARIA Charts.
The charts now incorporate data from streams, for a more complete snapshot. Was there a moment when you thought, hey, we’ve finally got there!
No. We are not there yet.
Streams was one more step along the chart path, but there will undoubtedly be other new technologies in the future, and we will need to watch and react to them when they arrive, to make sure the charts continue to reflect consumer sentiment.
A current project that I am working on is to encourage and enable more indie vinyl retailers to contribute to the charts.
The indie sector took a massive hit in the early years of this century with the arrival of iTunes and other digital retailers, but the renaissance of vinyl as a viable and desirable format has seen many enthusiastic new retailers moving back into that space.
We have picked up a number of great new contributors in recent times, but there are still many more that we would love to have among our contributors. Watch this space!
Another area that is of particular interest to me is to have a robust and accurate method of collecting tour sales.
For Australian acts in particular, this can sometimes comprise a significant proportion of their sales.
There’s been much said about the death of the albums chart, not just here but abroad. What are your thoughts?
I’ve been hearing doomsday predictions for albums for almost as long as I’ve been in the industry, but artists keep making them and customers keep buying — or streaming — them, so I can’t see them going away anytime soon.
Any war stories? Let’s have them!
We come in peace… We try to avoid conflict as much as possible by making our chart rules as sensible and clear as possible.
The best way to avoid war story nightmares is for artists and labels to consider the Charts Code of Practice before finalising their marketing campaigns.
To have your best chart impact you need to make sure the promotion you are planning falls within the rules.
If anyone is unsure we strongly recommend they contact one of the friendly ARIA Chart team members, so they can be confident the resulting activity will be eligible.
Also, if an act or label is conducting significant promotional activity of any kind, it is strongly recommended that they advise ARIA in advance via our Special Event notification form which will ensure that we are checking that both the chart provider and sales concerned are reported as expected.
What next for the ARIA Charts. Any changes we should be aware of?
Nothing in the immediate offing, but we are always looking at trends and liaising with colleagues in other markets.
We want to make sure that the charts continue to evolve to provide consumers with useful information, and help the industry promote its amazing products.