1988 vs. 2018: A Chart/Label/Musical Comparison

College Radio Day took place this past Friday.  Did you know that?  If you are of a certain age, you might remember the impact college radio used to have on a market.  I mean, college radio could break bands.  REM and U2 are a couple that immediately come to mind.  Some readers of this could probably spew off a list as strong as the next ballot for the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.

So it’s #CollegeRadioDay (hashtag theirs) and I’m paying a visit to William Paterson University’s college radio station, WPSC-FM, or, as they call themselves for good reason, Brave New Radio.  After a live broadcast performance by the band Zach Matari & The After Parti, I find myself sitting on a college-clean (meaning not so clean) couch outside Studio B having a conversation with the band’s 21- or 22-year old keyboard player/vocalist, Jon Caplan.  I paraphrase:

Jon – Music sucks today.
Me (in professor mode) – There’s lots of great music today.  We just have easier access to so many niches than we used to.

That said, what is “popular” in 2018 is a far cry from what was popular, say, 30 years ago.  Care to guess what the #1 album was on Rocktober 15, 1988?  Yes, you’re right.  It was New Jersey by Bon Jovi.  You’re so brilliant.  What rounded out the Top 13 (Why 13?  You’ll see in a moment.)?  Here’s the list:

2. Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction
3. Def Leppard Hysteria
4. Cocktail Soundtrack
5. Tracy Chapman Tracy Chapman
6. Metallica …And Justice For All
7. Bobby McFerrin Simple Pleasures
8. Steve Winwood Roll With It
9. INXS Kick
10. George Michael Faith
11. D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince He’s The D.J., I’m The Rapper
12. Bobby Brown Don’t Be Cruel
13. Cinderella Long Cold Winter

Now, this was in the pre-Soundscan/then-ChartScam era when the right labels with the right muscle (meaning: money, indie promoters, cocaine, and possible some organized crime ties – real muscle; read Hit Men to get a sense of that era) could get their singles and subsequent albums to chart higher than other labels.

Hey, this leads us to a…

Quick History Lesson

In 1988, there were more than today’s Big 3 label conglomerates; there was the Big 6.  Sony had just recently bought CBS Records, but there was still MCA, PolyGram, WEA, EMI, and BMG.

In 1989, PolyGram would grow larger still with the $400 million purchase of A&M Records and the $300 million purchase of Island Records.  MCA was renamed the Universal Music Group in 1996 (after Seagrams bought 80% of MCA in 1995) and subsequently bought PolyGram in 2008.

In 2004, Sony and BMG created a 50/50 joint venture that lasted until 2008, when Sony purchased BMG’s half of the company.

In 2012, Universal purchased EMI.

Interestingly, WEA/Warner Music sat on the sidelines, sometimes heavily involved in potential deals but virtually always the bridesmaid.  The were rumored to be in the running for EMI Records multiple times but didn’t win (they did purchase the Parlophone catalog, which Universal was forced to sell in order to absorb the rest of EMI).  They could have owned Interscope Records, but let the label go after public pressure because of gangsta rap of the mid-’90s.  Just this year, Warner was rumored to be hot for EMI Music Publishing, thus Sony purchased 90% of the group.

Our Big 3 today: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group.  As an aside, if the combined muscle (there’s that word again) of all of the independent labels were considered one label group, that indie group would be #2 in market share.  As a double aside, BMG is back as an independent label group and rising quickly.  Concord Music is also a mini-major; as recently as 2017 Billboard called it the “fifth-largest music company on the planet.”

History lesson over.

Now, our topic was comparing the music of 30 years ago to today.  Subjectively, we can’t.  It’s a lose-lose argument.  I’ll tell you that not one of today’s top 10 or top 20 songs are as good as anything off of Hysteria (although UK artist Jonas Blue did release a hit remake of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” in 2015 that was more successful as a charted single than the original.  Oh, it also streamed over 663 million times.  Tracy thanks you, Jonas Blue.)  Some of you will tell me I’m crazy.  Anything by Travis Scott or Drake kicks my old wrinkled music’s buttocks.  There’s no winner here.  Just opinions.  So let us avoid opinions and deal with facts in comparing the two eras.

You see above the top 13 albums of 1988.  Albums still mattered in 2018, but what really, really, really matters in 2018 is the single.  Don’t complain, children of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.  It is what it is.  The single, which is streamed and not bought and not downloaded (or at least not downloaded that much anymore), is what crowns kings and queens.

You can look at the Billboard Singles Chart if you like, but if you want real-time, here’s-what’s-happening-now information, just go to the Spotify United States Top 50 streaming chart.  Here are the top 13 songs of Rocktober 6, 2018:

There are two comparisons we can objectively make:

1)  Genre
2)  Distribution

Looking at the top 13 of 1988, we can break down the genres like this:

Rock (6 – Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Metallica, Steve Winwood, Cinderfella)

Pop (2 – INXS, George Michael)

R&B (1 – Bobby Brown)

Hip-Hop (1 – D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince)

Soundtrack (1 – Cocktail)

Singer/Songwriter (1 – Tracy Chapman)

Uncategorized (1 – Bobby McFerrin)

That’s a heavy skew on Rock, but it also shows diversity, especially with the Tracy Chapman and Bobby McFerrin (don’t tell me that McFerrin record is Jazz; if anything, it’s an a-capella cover record – a hugely successful one.  Anyone remember what section Tower Records put the album in?).

Of the top 13 on the streaming chart, here’s the genre breakdown:

Hip-Hop (8 – Lil Baby/Gunna, Lil Baby/Gunna/Drake, Lil Wayne/Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, 6ix9ine/BobbyShmurda, Sheck Wes, Kanye West/Lil Pump)

Pop (5 – Cardi B/DJ Snake/Ozuna/Selena Gomez, Lil Peep/XXXTENTACION, Marshmello/Bastille, Halsey, Juice WRLD – nice sample of Sting’s “Shape of my Heart” off of his 1993 album, Ten Summoner’s Tales.)

Note the absence of diversity.  You have two genres, Hip-Hop and Pop.  And one could also state that even most of the Pop tracks have a heavy Hip-Hop influence.

There’s no Rock.  No Singer/Songwriter.  Nothing you couldn’t really label.  No soundtrack tracks.

Is this bad?  That’s up to you to decide.  However, if we ran an investment portfolio, we’d possibly be concerned having all of our eggs in two baskets.

Let’s add another note here: We’re just talking about recorded music.  The live industry is, interestingly, very different.  The top tours are completely different from the Spotify streaming chart.  The latest tour ranking found HERE looks like this:

1. Chris Stapleton (Country)
2.  Ed Sheeran (Pop)
3.  Arctic Monkeys (Alternative)
4.  Britney Spears (Pop)
5.  Andre Rieu (Classical)
6.  Helene Fischer (German Pop)
7.  Billy Joel (Classic Rock)
8.  Chris Young (Country)
9.  Jennifer Lopez (Pop)
10. U2 (Classic Rock)

At least in this one chart, you can see a mix of Pop, Country, Classic Rock, Alternative, and even Classical and a German Pop star.  There isn’t any R&B or Hip-Hop.  Does that mean anything?  That’s for a much deeper discussion and comparison.  We’re just comparing 1988 recorded music charts to 2018 charts.

Let’s look at the second objective comparison – distribution.  By that, I mean which labels are responsible for the top 13.  For a real comparison, we’ll pretend that 1988 had a Big 3.  Then we can get an apples to apples comparison:


UMG  (6 – Bon Jovi, Guns, Def Leppard, Winwood, Bobby Brown, Cinderella)

Sony (2 – George Michael, D.J. Jeff/Prince)

WMG (5 – Tracy Chapman, INXS, Cocktail, Metallica, Bobby McFerrin)


UMG (7 – Lil Baby/Gunna/Drake, Lil Baby/Gunna, Sheck Wes, Kanye West/Lil Pump, Halsey, Marshmello/Bastille, Cardi B/DJ Snake/Selena Gomez/Ozuna)

Sony (2 – Travis Scott, Lil Peep/XXXTENTACION)

WMG (0)

Indie (4 – Lil Wayne/Kendrick Lamar & Lil Wayne/XXXTENTACION (these two are Cash Money, distributed by UMG’s Republic Records), 6ix9ine/Bubby Shmurda, Juice WRLD)

What do we see? UMG is still killing it, in our sample size of one week.  Sony is still there.  WMG is having a bad day (remember, this Spotify chart is a snapshot of just one Saturday in 2018).  And the INDIES are doing something.  We didn’t have the INDIES at all represented in 1988.  Now they have 4 of the top 13 tracks (although the two Cash Money have a relationship with UMG).

So. what are our conclusions?

1.  The genre getting the most streams on Spotify is Hip-Hop, which, since that’s the most popular genre, is really Pop.  (I had a class get into a very heated, emotional discussion of this subject in the spring.  We won’t jump into that here.)

2.  The people who put together the UMG group of labels were really smart, and are really smart.  They retain a huge market share, which means their A&R is good, their pockets are deep, and their business sense is savvy.

3.  The album doesn’t matter that much anymore.  Unless you’re compiling The Wall or Tommy, what’s the point?  To stay on the tongues of fans, utilize the drip drip method of releasing songs, not the gushing, all-at-once method.  This might even end up being the strategy the Big 3 artists (Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Adele) follow in the near future.

Want one more curious piece of information?  Look below.

Explicit in 1988 vs. 2018 

In 1988’s top 13 albums, the only one with explicit lyrics was Appetite For Destruction.  However, 12 of 13 singles on the 2018 streaming chart are considered explicit.

What conclusions do you have?  What do you think I missed?  Bring it on.

Further Reading For You:

Because you didn’t click on the link above, click HERE to read the full story of how Sony bought CBS Records.  It’s a fascinating true tale of culture, ego, and greed.

Like the paragraph above, you didn’t click when asked.  So here’s this: PolyGram Expected To Buy A&M Records

Inside Concord’s Buying Spree

Looking for a good story about not giving up too soon?  Here’s this (thanks to Jake Udell’s blog for the tip):  Acres of Diamonds

Greg Maffei is the president and CEO of Liberty Media, Chairman of Live Nation Entertainment, and Chairman of SiriusXM, which bought Pandora last week.  Some are considering him the most powerful man in music.  Read HERE.


For full details about the Music & Entertainment Industries Program, including courses, the minor, and our MBA, click HERE.


For full details about the WPU Pop Music Studies Program, including courses and audition requirements, click HERE.


Professor David Philp is Assistant Professor Music & Entertainment Industries and Popular Music Studies at William Paterson University. He is the co-host of the only FREE advice college radio-based music & entertainment industry talk show in America, Music Biz 101 & More, which airs live most Wednesday nights and is available as a podcast HERE every night (days too).  Your favorite professor is also co-author (with Dr. Steve Marcone) of Managing Your Band – 6th Edition.  Reach him at PhilpD@wpunj.edu or find him on LinkedIn HERE.

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