Top 40 Music and the Hot 100 in the 1990s

In the early 1990s, both the face of top 40 music and the chart that tracked it underwent major changes, and the top 40 format’s popularity sharply declined. These changes resulted in the change of charts by American Top 40. By the end of the decade, after AT40’s rebirth, top 40 staged a comeback, and the original chart of AT40 was changed again. However, AT40 was using a chart by a competitor publication by then.

Top 40's decline

In the late 1980s, Top 40, a.k.a. "pop" music was riding high. Acts such as Phil Collins, Billy Joel, New Kids on the Block, and even Donny Osmond rode high on the charts. Alternative rock was beginning to impact the top 40, and rap was an ever growing format. By the early 1990s, pop’s core audience, teens and young adults, became tired of hearing the same type of song over and over. The listeners began to leave the format. Acts such as the New Kids were mocked and shunned. Teens and young adults left the format for country, alternative rock, and rap.

Country music artists were becoming younger and more "hip", and this helped attract the younger audience. The number of country radio stations continued to grow explosively in the early ‘90s. On the alternative rock scene, new bands from Seattle made grunge very popular. Acts such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana attracted young adults with their angst driven songs. This type of rock made the "hair bands" look like fluff to the audience, and the hair bands’ popularity declined. Finally, rap continued to grow and attract a large part of the top 40 audience.

The Hot 100 is changed

As all of this was occurring, new technologies became available to those who compiled the weekly charts. Billboard magazine had been producing the Hot 100 Singles chart since the 1950s. Radio stations would send in their lists of most played songs, while record stores would send in lists of sales for the singles. These values would be combined for a point total to be used when compiling the most popular singles across the USA. Technology would soon change this method.

By 1991, actual sales of singles could be tracked by their bar code. (Soundscan is the name of the company which provides this data to Billboard.) Also, computers could listen to a radio station and tell exactly how many times a song was played in a week at many radio stations. These methods were much more accurate than the old method. On November 30, 1991, the first week of the 1992 chart year, Billboard switched the Hot 100 Singles Chart to this new method. The results were instantly seen. Rap and R&B songs landed much higher on the chart than previously, mainly due to their sales points. Also, songs lasted much longer on the chart than previously.

The staff of American Top 40 knew that Top 40 radio stations would not want to play all of the rap and R&B songs that did not fit their format. Thus, they decided to change the chart used on the show to an airplay only chart.

Top 40 Splinters

As top 40 continued to decline in the early ‘90s, the format began to splinter. Top 40 is known for playing popular songs, generally no matter if the song is rock, soft, R&B, etc. However, with the rise of rap and grunge, many top 40 stations quit playing those songs. They began to use slogans such as "Your favorite songs without all of the hard rock and rap." This subformat became Adult Top 40. Other top 40 stations embraced rap, R&B, and dance records. This subformat became Top 40 / Rhythm-Crossover. The remaining top 40 stations were called Top 40 / Mainstream. In 1992, Billboard started publishing charts on these subformats. These charts were based upon the actual number of times a song was played in a week across the country. In 1993, American Top 40 switched to the Top 40 / Mainstream chart.

The Hot 100 is changed again

The format situation remained pretty much the same through the mid 1990s, though grunge lost its edge and became more "mainstream". However, the record labels’ policy on issuing singles for songs changed. Up through the mid ‘90s, most popular songs were available to buy as a single. Things changed when record companies decided to stop issuing singles so that consumers would go out and by the whole CD instead of a single. Many very popular songs, such as "Don’t Speak" by No Doubt and "I’ll Be There for You" by the Rembrandts never made the Hot 100 singles chart because they were not available as singles.

In order to chart the most popular songs in the USA, Billboard changed the Hot 100 again. Any song could now make the chart, even if it was not available as a single. Also, any song from any format could chart as well, as country radio stations were added to the chart. On December 5, 1998, the new Hot 100 was published. Recall that AT40 stopped using the Hot 100 on November 30, 1991. Also, by December 1998, American Top 40 had been reincarnated and was using Radio and Records’ Top 40 chart.

By the late 1990s, Top 40 was making a comeback. Teen acts such as the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears brought pop music a new life. Country had leveled off, R&B/hip-hop was still popular, and grunge had faded. Radio formats were pretty much the same, except that Top 40/Rhythm-Crossover had split into Rhythmic Top 40 and Crossover.

This is a non-profit site, designed to educate those who have an interest in the radio show "American Top 40". This site has no affiliation with Premiere Networks, Billboard Magazine, or the former Radio and Records Magazine. All copyrights and trademarks remain property of their respective owners. Original artwork at the very top of this page is copyright 2016 by Meowycats. Comments? Send them using the feedback page.

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