On Billboard's 117th Birthday, a Look Back at the Magazine's Beginnings

Billboard first issue

Today in 1894, "Billboard Advertising" launched as "a monthly resume of all that is new, bright and interesting on the boards." It began listing the "best selling retail records" in 1940.

On this date in 1894, Billboard published its first issue. Before it became a weekly magazine, and a 24-7 presence online, Billboard Advertising launched as "a monthly resume of all that is new, bright and interesting on the boards."

Upon its premiere, the magazine (priced at 10 cents, or, 99 cents per year), was "devoted to the interests of advertisers, poster printers, bill posters, advertising agents & secretaries of fairs." (In other words, long before Britney Spears' Circus, Billboard chronicled the real thing).

The magazine's first cover subject? R.C. Campbell, then-president of the Associated Bill Posters' Association.

"No more fitting tribute can be paid to Mr. Campbell than to state that he is a man of infinite resource, progressive ideas, and tireless industry," Billboard noted in the inaugural issue. "In selecting his photograph for the first number of this magazine, the Editor was actuated by the fact that he is the acknowledged leader, the first and foremost and most eminent man in the field which we aim to cover."

As 117 years have passed (a buttoned-up Campbell ceding the jean jacket look to current cover boy Justin Bieber), Billboard's mission to report on and analyze the entertainment business remains on point, although with, for the past seven-plus decades, a more specific focus on the music segment of the industry.

The magazine's first national music chart, the 10-position "National List of Best Selling Retail Records," appeared in the July 27, 1940, issue. Previously, Billboard had highlighted the national "Sheet Music Best Sellers"; "Records Most Popular on Music Machines" (compiled from national reports from phonograph operators); and, "Songs With the Most Radio Plugs" on a handful of New York radio stations. The "National List of Best Selling Retail Records," however, was the first to poll retailers nationwide on record sales.

Tommy Dorsey crowned the first retail list with "I'll Never Smile Again." The eventual standard, featuring vocals by Frank Sinatra, would total 12 weeks at the survey's summit. The scorecard paved the way for the industry-standard Billboard 200 albums chart (which became a weekly chart March 24, 1956) and Billboard's present-day menu of Nielsen SoundScan-based niche-format digital song and album rankings. Measuring sales and radio airplay, the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart premiered Aug. 4, 1958 (with Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool" the first of the tally's 1,008 No. 1s and counting).

"Although only in its swaddling clothes, [Billboard's] success is already absolutely assured," Billboard proclaimed on page four of the maiden eight-page issue. "The publishers aim to have it always newsy and to maintain a high and exacting standard of excellence in all articles appertaining to the interest of its readers."

As a "What They Think of Us" feature reflected, "responses to the very modest prospectus demonstrated that beyond all doubt or peradventure ... surely a journalistic youngster was never started under such auspicious circumstances."

"It should have been started long ago," wrote Al. Bryan of Cleveland.

"Start the new paper in a small and inexpensive manner, and let its growth be natural. Do not force it. You will not need to. There is a field for it," added Col. Burr Robbins.

And, as C. Frank Trott of Junction City, Kansas, said simply of the multi-media entity that today celebrates its 117th birthday, "I think it is a good thing."