For the past many years, astute music insiders and fans have been discussing the impact of “bundles” on the charts.
Over the past two years, the conversation entered the mainstream — in part because traditional album sales have otherwise been free-falling and in part because bundles have been overtly impacting chart races.
Billboard recently noted that nearly every album that hit #1 this year — BTS’ “Map Of The Soul: Persona” is a notable exception — benefited from a concert ticket and/or merchandise bundle. Bundles were not necessarily the reason each album hit #1, but they played a part in strengthening the opening week sales numbers.
The reaction, for the most part, has been negative. At best, commentators mock the notion of “hoodies” and “energy drinks” counting toward the Billboard 200 album chart. At worst, they express outrage that a certain act leveraged bundles to beat out a more “organic” star for #1.
Either way, it seemed clear Billboard would take action ahead of 2020.
In announcing rule changes Tuesday, the publication technically did. At first glance, the change unfortunately does not seem sufficient. It, more importantly, seems to overlook the real problem.
The biggest change: the artist must explicitly offer customers the option to purchase the merchandise separately — for at least $3.49 less than a bundle containing the album (the minimum price to count as an official album “sale”). Billboard also emphasized other rules such as only considering merchandise bundles sold via the artist’s direct-to-consumer web store and not counting the “sale” until the album has been issued (digitally or via physical mail) to the buyer.
There are some clear gaps and vulnerabilities. Most notably, Billboard opted not to enforce an identical policy for concert ticket-album bundles; while ticket buyers have to consciously redeem the album, they apparently do not have to explicitly opt-in to paying at least $3.49 more to receive it. Although ticket sales may seem more “music-driven” than sweatshirts and fanny packs, they do not necessarily reflect interest in buying the specific album in question. This is particularly true for legacy acts, who are touring based on their name brands, live reputations and older hits rather than their new music.
But even if we assume that everyone who went to an artist’s concert would buy their new album (a preposterous assumption in today’s landscape), we cannot assume they would all do so during a given “chart week.” Hence, we still have a scenario in which ticket bundles inorganically impact the charts.
Case-in-point: there have been multiple occasions in which older albums returned to the upper reaches of the Billboard 200 the week new tickets went on sale (and/or new bundle redemptions took place). Which seems more likely – that tens of thousands of fans randomly decided to buy a year-old album or that tens of thousands of fans bought tickets during a new on-sale period and opted to redeem their free album?
The merchandise policy, moreover, may be vulnerable to scheming and manipulation. Billboard did not articulate how rigorously it will enforce advertising and store placement policies. Must artists Tweet about the ability to buy a T-shirt separately, or are they allowed to exclusively share links to the bundle on their socials? Do the non-bundle merchandise items have to be available at the top of the storefront, or can they be placed way at the bottom? How aggressively will Billboard and its data partners monitor “in-stock” policies to make sure the merchandise items are truly available independently? Will Billboard prevent artists from using pricing promotions – free shipping thresholds, coupon codes, etc – that would make bundles disproportionately attractive?
Although the new rule requires artists to sell the merchandise for at least $3.49 less than the merchandise-album bundle, it is unclear whether the album would then have to be available independently for exactly $3.49. If not, the rule change opens the door to another psychological promotion scheme: an act could make the bundle (with a special, limited edition of the album) available for cheaper than buying the regular edition of the album on iTunes. While the sale, in that case, would be about the album in addition to the T-shirt (and thus not as bad as the stereotypical “bundle”), it still moves us further away from an “organic” album sales marketplace.
But even if we assume Billboard will close obvious loopholes, it is impossible to ignore the bigger issue: Billboard is still accepting the concept of bundles. Tour bundles will still exist as-is, and merchandise bundles will still exist in some form. Artists, their teams and their labels, therefore, will still have an incentive — if not a pressure — to employ these kinds of tactics to boost album sales numbers.
Granted, it may seem unfair to complete eliminate all conceivable bundles from the Billboard 200 chart. But why not at least provide public transparency into the percentage of sales albums are generating from bundles? Billboard has a separate chart for ranking Top Album Sales, and it often reports streaming figures for the week’s top albums. If it is willing to be transparent about which albums are charting due to sales and which are charting due to streams, why not also be transparent about which are charting due to bundles?
To Billboard’s credit, the answer may be “industry pressure.” Even as we all talk about the death of album sales, the industry still values the opening week album number as one of the biggest (if not the biggest) sign of success. It is why track sales and streams have made their way onto the Billboard 200 album chart, and it is why so many artists and their teams are leveraging bundles. They care about having a big opening week number.
The real fix, therefore, is not so much about fine-tuning the “bundle rules” but conditioning the music industry to look beyond album sales when judging success. Billboard, ironically, has its own great option in the Artist 100 chart, which accounts for factors like song consumption and social media activity in addition to album sales. A re-weighted, more transparent version of that chart makes far more sense for the 2020 music scene.
Our view of the entertainment industry has never been more real-time and transparent. We have instant access to data about which artists are connecting across a variety of media. Why not embrace that? Why waste time debating over ways to game an antiquated chart?