Ultimate Step By Step Guide To Soundscan And Why First Week Sales Matter

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What is Soundscan and Why Is It Important?

Nielsen Soundscan is a music sales tracking tool that the music industry pays Nielsen for in order to measure weekly music sales in the United States and Canada. Soundscan provides chart data for many of Billboard’s charts like Heatseeker Albums, Top Current Albums, Digital Albums, Independent Albums, and the Digital Tracks chart. It no longer powers the Billboard 200 or Hot 100, which are now consumption charts that include streaming. In use since 1991, Soundscan is mainly used for tracking charts, researching historical sales data for specific artists, and making predictions on future music consumption. So what is soundscan you ask? It’s the key to validating your band’s sales and potential in the industry.

Who has access, who uses it, and what does it cost?

Soundscan is most frequently used by the sales, A&R, finance, radio, marketing, and executive staff at record labels. It is also used by music publishers, booking and promotion agencies, large management firms, radio promoters, and market research companies. Nielsen doesn’t publish a cost for the service and costs depends on how large the organization is and how many users will have access. From my experience running a record label, I can tell you it was the most expensive utility or overhead other than rent and payroll. The cost is out of reach for most individuals, bands, or small organizations.

Where can my band get access to it?

The information is intellectual property owned by Nielsen and each individual subscriber is not allowed to share with anybody. Nielsen have tight security restrictions on its use, and ways to know if a user is violating the rules or sharing. If it is shared, your account is shut down and you lose access. 

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What specific music metrics does it track?  How about Streams?

The formats tracked are compact disc, vinyl, digital downloads, cassettes, and music video on DVD/Blu-ray. They collect the sales weekly from cash register data at brick & mortar retailers, online mail-order outlets, digital service providers like iTunes & Amazon, drug stores, ticketing companies, and venue sales.

Soundscan DOES NOT TRACK STREAMS. Nielsen has launched a new separate subscription tool called Nielsen Connect. Nielsen Connect is a new application that tracks “music consumption”. Actually, Connect powers the top charts for Billboard these days, such as the Billboard Top 200 (albums with streaming and track equivalents) and the Hot 100 (songs). The reason Sounscan is still relevant is it powers the album and single sales for Connect, and it has the historical records going back all the way to 1991.

What are some charts that developing artists should be aware of?

Billboard Charts

These are charts that are actually printed in Billboard’s weekly magazine or on their website. Billboard changes up the charts that are published in the magazine each week. The magazine always prints the Top 200 and the Hot 100, but they don’t always publish the other charts in the magazine. But for smaller niche charts you can find the weekly Top 10 or up to Top 3 on billboard.com/biz

      • Heatseekers Albums – They have regional versions of this chart as well (i.e. Northeast, Pacific)
      • Heatseekers Songs
      • Billboard Twitter Emerging Artists – measures the most song shares on Twitter (for artists that haven’t cracked the Top 100 of the Billboard Hot 100)
      • Rock & Hard Rock Digital Songs – 2 separate charts
      • Alternative Songs
      • Emerging Artists Chart (combines sales, radio, and social ranks) more here
    • Tastemakers (derived from a panel of independent brick and mortar shops)

Here is a handy Billboard Chart Legend  http://www.billboard.com/biz/billboard-charts-legend

Nielsen Charts

Nielsen charts are found only in Soundscan. The list below do not print in Billboard and they are not called Billboard Charts. Billboard only publishes select charts from Nielsen for their weekly magazine and their website.

      • Top Current Albums (measures only pure album sales with no track and streaming equivalents) This is what the Billboard 200 consumption chart replaced. It’s much easier to make this list than the Billboard 200
      • Hard Music Albums (distinguishes hard rock, metal, and loud rock from mainstream and alternative rock)
      • Current Rock Albums
      • New Artist Chart – The top 50 of this publishes as the Billboard Heatseeker Chart. If you don’t make the top 50, it’s only visible in Nielsen, not in Billboard.
      • Alternative New Artist – Similar to the New Artist Chart above, but you have to have been tagged “alternative” by Nielsen’s chart polishers.
      • Record Label Independent Chart (sometimes called the Independent Chart)
      • Current Digital Albums
      • Current Tracks
      • Digital Rock Songs
      • Internet Albums (measures mail-order, so if you have a big pre-order you can make this chart)
      • Alt Rock Songs
    • Hard Rock Songs

Rolling Stone Music Charts

Rolling Stone Magazine launched their first ever charts on July 2, 2019. What makes the RS Charts unique is that they only measure streaming consumption, the charts update “daily” as opposed to “weekly”, and it’s global rather than country based. The RS Charts are powered by Alpha Data (formerly BuzzAngle) so the idea is that they should look different than Billboard, Official Chart, ARIA, or other national charts.

The most interesting for developing artists is the “Breakthrough 25”. While it’s nice to have new charts, I personally think it’s a missed opportunity to limit developing artists to 25.  Why not give new artists a better chance of talking up their success.

The RS Charts

  • The Rolling Stone Top 100 (Songs)
  • Top 200 (Albums)
  • Breakthrough 25 (artists that have not been on the Artists 500)
  • Aritsts 500 (ranked by total streams p/day)
  • Trending 25 (largest gains week over week)

What Can Good First Week Sales Do For Your Band?

    • The unit numbers and chart positions are a historical record and have authority. The statistics can be cited in media, Wikipedia, Google, and shared across the industry.
    • The first week sales and chart positions are used to size your band up to the competition. From an industry point of view, the more soundscan sales you have, the more attractive and less risky of an investment your band will be. So Soundscan is a big factor in getting signed.
    • A big showing first week provides momentum and buzz in the industry and with consumers. Think about your first week as leaving a “footprint” in the industry. The bigger the footprint, the bigger the audience. The multiplying effect carries on throughout the album cycle and snowballs.
    • Booking Agents look at the charts, especially the new artist charts, so they can uncover who the best support acts for tours might be.
    • If you start off with a big first week (something that makes one of the Nielsen or Billboard charts), it’s easy to go back and get support from anybody that had reservations before. If you have a small first week, it has the opposite effect. It is very difficult to jumpstart the project after it’s already been released. You’ve probably used up most of your content pre-release and on release week. Thus, pre-release campaigns are MORE important that post-release campaigns.
  • Visibility in the industry. It’s similar to box scores in sports and a key tool for scouts. Charts are a way for the industry to keep tabs on who’s who. 

How Do I Register My Music on Soundscan?

  • DIGITAL CONFIGURATIONS: Your digital distributor is the first step. Make sure they register your titles with Nielsen, and registered properly.  CD Baby, Tunecore, Bandcamp, PledgeMusic, KickStarter, Indie-A-Go-Go and most large distribution outlets can do this for you. Before deciding to work with music distributors, merchandise fulfillment, or ticket & VIP services, ask if they report to Nielsen Soundscan.
  • PHYSICAL CONFIGURATIONS: – Be careful with this. Don’t double up and register a physical UPC that your physical distributor already registered – it creates problems with genre tagging. It’s best if you leave this to your physical distributor to handle. But if you don’t have one, and have pressed your CDs or vinyl on your own, make sure to register your physical UPC’s here. Physical Registration takes 3 weeks to process. Your band should be taking venue pre-orders on the road, so setup the UPC with Nielsen 3 weeks before your tour starts. Then follow up with Nielsen Database the week before you leave, so you can make sure the UPC shows in the atVenu app. (more on this below)
  • VENUE SALES – ATVENU – This will be a major source of sales for you in the early days. Read more about this BELOW and watch the video.

What Are Some Tips On Maximizing Your Sales?

Get A Free Download – 10 Steps For A Big First Week on Soundscan & Billboard – CLICK HERE

    • DIGITAL SALES – Make sure you have clean metadata  when you setup your music with distribution. This will ensure that all of the hard work you do to get people to buy and stream your music shows up on Nielsen. IMPORTANT: For stand alone singles, use the same ISRC that you use on the album or EPs. If you don’t, it creates a ton of major problems for you on Spotify and Apple, and also on Soundscan. This is a very common issue I see, and causes a lot of headache for you and your distributor. So I’d like to save you the trouble and emphasize this tip.
    • MAIL ORDER (D2C) – Make sure you use a direct to consumer fulfillment company that reports your CD, Digital, and Vinyl sales to Soundscan. MerchNow, District Lines / AKT, IndieMerch, and BandCamp are all great partners. Once you have your products available on these sites drive pre-orders and traffic there using best online practices. Amazon is the largest seller of physical music online, so get your products on Amazon.
  • PHYSICAL CDs and VINYL – Get your music onto Amazon.com, into independent retailers, and other music retailers. CD Baby has a partnership with AEC – Alliance Entertainment and they have the capability to get your CD anywhere there is demand for it.
Here is a free list of distribution companies you can reach out to.  After going to this pageclick the banner on the right side of the post (or bottom for those on mobile).
  • STREAMS – The industry is moving towards measuring overall music consumption, not just album and downloads. Increase your streams on DSPs and YouTube. The industry follows this on the Billboard consumption charts, on Nielsen Connect, and from another tool called BuzzAngle. Buzzangle was the first tool that measured traditional music sales plus streaming. In 2019 the company changed names to  Alpha Music and they power Rolling Stone Magazine’s “RS Charts“. BuzzAngle still have many charts on their website that are available for everybody.  

ALBUMS http://www.buzzanglemusic.com/charts/albums/

SONGS http://www.buzzanglemusic.com/charts/songs/

For increasing your streams, please read my article How To Get Followers On Spotify My Way (click here)
  • DOWNLOAD CARDS – If you make download cards, make sure you work with a company that reports to Nielsen, and that the UPC is registered with Nielsen. The company you work with will know how to do it, but make sure you see the process through so you don’t have any disappointments on street week. I only have experience with one company, and it was a great one, DropCards.
  • VENUE SALES – I’ve watched artists build a career with venue sales. Before a new artist has proper distribution, this can be the biggest source of soundscan sales. The goal should be tour as much as you possibly can, and make a goal to sell 20, 50, or more CDs at every show. If you multiply that by 150 shows, you can see how 5,000 units is well within reach. Add your digital sales, mail-order, track and streaming equivalents, and you’re on your way to 7,500 or 10,000 as an unsigned artist. I’ve seen DIY bands sell 10,000 to 25,000 of their first EP on their own. Their dedication to building a soundscan history (and fan base) is rewarded with a very good record contract. Anybody can do this, if they understand how it works, and are determined to get there. Soundscan Rule: You may not sell the album or EP for less than 50% of the listed retail price. Soundscan Rule: You cannot bundle the CD with a ticket or other item, and give the CD away. 

Reporting Venue Sales To Soundscan with atVenu

There is only one option for reporting your venue sales to Soundscan. If you haven’t met the great people at atVenu , I’m here to tell you they are awesome and their service & app is excellent. You never want to miss a sale on Soundscan. Never, never, ever, ever miss a sale, because you can’t go back and submit sales after the sales week closes. atVenu is basically a smartphone app that is connected to Nielsen Soundscan. There is a small cost, but it’s very fair and only when you are on tour.

To use this app, your CD and vinyl UPC’s need to be registered with Nielsen Soundscan (not digital download UPC). If you don’t have a company handling physical distribution you can register your physical UPCs here. You can’t report digital downloads at venues. Every night at the show, you enter the quantity of the units sold, and there is a sign-off form built into the app that the venue representative must sign with their finger. The venue must be registered in atVenu’s database in order to qualify. If they are not, there is no chance of getting credit for the sale. There is also a way to collect pre-orders and submit them in the atVenu app, but there is a very specific process to follow. You can’t compile the data privately, outside the app, and then submit it a week before street date. So read carefully on this.

Q & A with atVenu

Question: If the UPC you enter into atVenu is a Digital product (EP or Album) will it count? Or does it have to be a physical CD or Vinyl?

Answer:The sales must be for a physical product sold at the show with the music already on it. You can sell and report a USB stick, because the songs come with it and it’s a purchased product, but you can’t report download cards, those must be reported via the fulfillment partner of those cards.” – atVenu

Question: You have to register your EP or Album as a physical album UPC with Nielsen before trying to use atVenu for venue sales, correct?

Answer: “ Yes. Once a UPC is properly registered with Nielsen, then you’ll see a check mark in atVenu next to the UPC when saving it. This indicates that the UPC is properly registered and saved and sales can be reported. Without the check mark, atVenu can’t report the sales.” – atVenu

Question: Any tips on pre-ordering at venues?

Answer: “Nielsen has very specific rules for pre-sales. The album can’t be bundled with other products or tickets. It must be sold at the approved sale price, not given away. The artist cannot give the customer the album at the event prior to release date. The artist must collect the fan’s shipping information and mail them the album to be delivered no earlier than the release date. In atVenu, the artist must check the “Pre-Sale” box when saving the album, enter in the release date, and save a label contact email. There are just a lot of moving pieces to it and we want to make sure bands understand all that’s required before jumping in so there aren’t any surprises when Nielsen audits the reported pre-sales.” – atVenu

A Complete FAQ for AtVenue – Please read this article on atVenu’s website.
How To Track Pre-Sales – Please read this article on atVenu’s website.

Here is a cool overview video of AtVenu’s complete merchandise app


CONCLUSION

That’s it!  Don’t forget to download the free PDF to get EXTRA BONUS tips. I look forward to your comments, questions, and thoughts.   Please leave your comments below.

Todd McCarty

Over the past two decades, music industry leader Todd McCarty served as GM of rock/punk indie label Fearless Records, and SVP Sales at Sony Music / Century Media. He still consults for record labels, but is actively blogging and working to educate new artists through www.heatonthestreet.com

16 Comments on “Ultimate Step By Step Guide To Soundscan And Why First Week Sales Matter”

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  2. I got a question about what the reporting week is. For nearly all sales channels, the sales week starts Friday and ends the following Thursday. There are a few exceptions below. Since it takes Nielsen a little longer to process and verify internet mailorder sales, those have a different reporting week schedule.
    *Mail order CDs/Vinyl shipped between Tuesday and the following Monday report for the sales week. So you lose Tuesday through Thursday of the 1st week situation.
    **For bands submitting venue sales using the AtVenue app, these report real time daily and follow the Friday to Thursday reporting week.
    ***For labels reporting venue sales, the reporting week will be Wednesday-Tuesday, unless they are utilizing the AtVenue app.
    more detail can be found on the Nielsen website at http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/solutions/measurement/music-sales-measurement/global-release-date.html

  3. How do you get direct to fan download sales reported to Nielsen?

    The majority of my albums are sold from my website – not through any 3rd party.

    1. You have two options. You may not like either of them. You can use a Direct to Fan / Direct to Consumer store or platform that already reports digital download sales to Nielsen. That would require changing your current store to another and giving up a distribution fee. Or, you can pay for and register your store with Nielsen, and report the sales directly, which would not be worth it. The charge to get set up with Nielsen is very expensive and annual. It’s meant more for medium to large retailers.

  4. Ok so all my songs are masterd as .wav files. Do i need to change them to mp3 to soundscan to send them? Then when i get it back and burn the songs on a cd do i convert them back to .wav files? Will the information be lost if i change the dot file for printing on a cd? What is the right file to print onto cd units after o get the songs back from soundscan?

    1. Soundscan is only tracking data (UPCs and ISRCs) and there is no need to send them any audio files. I think you are asking how Soundscan fits in the CD manufacturing process. Make sure you have ISRCs encoded at the time of mastering. The mastering engineer can encode the ISRCs into the data on the master audio files. Always deliver high quality wav files to a CD manufacturer. Provide your CD manufacturer with the proper track names (spelled correctly) and an ISRC for each track. Ask your CD manufacturer to assign a UPC to your album. Many CD manufacturers offer this service (usually for a reasonable fee). Once you have the UPC for your album, EP, or single, then you can submit a title addition form to Nielsen Database. That’s it. No need to send Nielsen Soundscan any audio.

  5. Hey Todd,

    A wealth of great information in this article – thank you for producing it!

    A quick question in regards to mail order album sales. Assuming we are using a direct to consumer facility company, is there a way to bundle say a physical copy of the album with a shirt or other piece of merchandise and have that purchase register as an album sale?

    I read under the AtVenue principles that the album needs to be sold separately from any other piece of merchandise for the sale to count. I did not know if the same principles applied using the mail order route.

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Seth, great question. Yes, you can bundle albums with merchandise on a D2C (Direct To Consumer) online retailer and get credit from Soundscan. If your D2C company bundles it on the store, and is experienced with reporting to Nielsen, they know Nielsen’s policy and procedures, and you will get proper credit for your sale. I’ve never been a D2C reporter myself, so I don’t know the exact method, but I believe most D2C companies break apart their bundles for accounting reasons. So the album is always separate from the bundle in accounting (usually). Furthermore, I only recommend using online (D2C) companies that are experienced with Soundscan, and already have an account open with Nielsen Soundscan. Usually companies operating outside of the USA will not haven an account. If your D2C partner or fulfillment company do not already have an account open, you won’t get credit. There is a considerable cost and many procedures for opening an account with Nielsen. So even if a company wants to report to Soundacan, many D2C retailers will not complete the process of opening an account, and you will be disappointed if they overpromise and underdeliver.

  6. Thanks for the great article! By far the most informative I’ve read with everything compiled in one place.

    I’m still confused about digital vs physical album sales. If I plan on releasing an album on CD, vinyl, and digitally, do I need 3 separate UPCs, or is the UPC for the CD and its digital version the same? Thank you!

    1. Thanks Nikki, glad it helps. The answer to your question is you should have 3 separate UPCs. Each configuration should have it’s own UPC. This helps track the various formats, so you (or label & distribution) can segment them and analyze them on the Soundscan or Nielsen Connect report. What’s key is that you merge all the UPCs, so that they all come up under the same “report” or “record” in the Nielsen Database. To have UPCs merged email [email protected] and [email protected] List the UPCs by format, and request they be merged. It could take 1 to 4 weeks for the merge to be complete.

      1. Really appreciate the info – it was a big help!
        Heads up – I don’t know if it’s a recent adjustment or not but on the title registration page you can actually add the UPCs all in one submission. You can click on ‘Add New UPC/EAN Code’ and continue adding other formats/configurations of the title. Of course I didn’t see this until I did my third separate submission! But thought you might want to know!

  7. Hey Todd,

    I took your advice in this article and used it to the best of my abilities and woke up today to find my new album Zaragoza “Child of The Sun” on Billboards Pacific Heatseekers #5, Heatseekers albums #24 and Independent Albums #47. Thank you for this article and everything you do to inform us artists.

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