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Billboard updates album bundle rules (again), and cuts off CD single chart boost ruse

By | Published on Tuesday 14 July 2020


Chart rule changes! Chart rule changes! In the ongoing effort to make music charts more accurately reflect whatever it is they’re supposed to be measuring these days, a new update is coming into force. On this occasion, it’s Billboard making changes in relation to its US music charts.

Having made drastic changes to how it counts the sales of albums bundled with merch and tickets at the beginning of the year, it’s now decided it would probably be better if it didn’t count them at all. Sort of. It has also attempted to halt a ruse to boost first week single sales by selling limited edition CD singles that don’t actually exist.

Under the new bundling rules, which affect all of Billboard’s song and album charts, records bundled with another product as a single priced sale will not be counted. Noting that it’s not actually very long since it last updated the rules in this area, the company says it’s making these new changes “in an acknowledgement that those measures have fallen short of the intended goal of accurately reflecting consumer intent”.

Announced in November last year, the changes put in place in January were implemented to combat the practice of artists simply chucking in a digital album with a ticket purchase and submitting it as a chart eligible sale. There were complaints – notably from Nicki Minaj – that such bundles didn’t reflect a fan’s desire to own an album.

In an effort to ensure some certainty that fans who purchased these bundles actually wanted the album download that was part of the deal, Billboard stated that such bundles must cost at least $3.49 more than the piece of merch or ticket on offer when bought on its own.

It said then that it would also only count bundles sold via an artist’s direct-to-fan channels, not via third party sites. The piece of merch or ticket, and the album itself, would also have to be on sale separately too, thank you very much. What’s more, the music would only become chart eligible when the download was actually redeemed, not just when the purchase was completed.

Billboard clearly thought that this slightly complicated updating of its rules would get on top of issues surrounding bundles and the various accusations that artists were gaming the system – ie knowing that sales count for more than streams, they artificially boost sales in release week through bundling.

Apparently not though, because Billboard has now thrown up its arms and just said it’s not counting bundles at all anymore. Kind of. Well, nearly. But not quite. Because somehow Billboard has managed to make this seemingly simple change slightly complicated again.

Bundles are still allowed, see, but only if presented in a specific way. Basically, to be counted, the bundled album has to be promoted as an add-on to the ticket or merch purchase.

If both items are advertised and sold as single bundle with a single price, that’s not going to have any impact on the chart. But if an artist says to a fan who is buying a ticket or some merch “hey, would you like to add a discounted album download to that”, then it’s chart boost party time. By which I mean, that sale will count towards the chart. Billboard says it believes “that the resulting charts will more accurately reflect consumer choice”. Yeah, maybe.

On why bundling has become such a controversial subject, it adds: “Though the sales strategy of bundling albums goes back decades, more recently it has been employed by artists and labels to try and boost album sales, which have been continually falling over the last several years but are worth considerably more than streams on the charts. In 2019, overall album sales dropped 18.7%, making it the fourth year in a row where album sales dropped by at least 10%”.

Billboard there is simply confirming a trend that was already pretty apparent. Basically that the extra chart weight of sales versus streams combined with album sales being in free fall has led to many artists simply giving away albums with other sales in order to bump up their chart position. And that doesn’t seem like a very accurate reflection of a record’s popularity.

You could argue that, if an artist is selling lots of tickets and t-shirts, that does actually mean they are popular, and so an artist’s popularity is actually being accurately reflected. But the main Billboard charts are about recordings not artists. Plus it has a separate chart that tallies the popularity of individual artists including merch and ticket sales – and that is not affected by the new rules.

As for why Billboard is making these tweaks now, don’t worry, you’ve not missed a recent bundling bust up between competing artists. It’s been quite a while since Nicki Minaj went on the radio and threatened to start a fight with a baby over such things. Basically, this seems to be Billboard tweaking things to close up some loopholes that the previous update uncovered.

Because, of course, it’s another tactic used by artists to manipulate the charts that has been in the news more recently, and Billboard is closing that one right up too. Again taking advantage of the added weight of sales over streams in Billboard’s chart calculations – and with download sales having slumped to nearly nothing in the US – some artists have begun selling direct-to-fan limited edition CD singles during the first week of a track’s release in order to push its debut chart position higher.

This was recently highlighted by 6ix9ine, who was angry that his comeback track ‘Gooba’ had been denied the US number one by a charity single released by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. He actually came up with a convoluted conspiracy theory about why that had happened. Possibly because both he and Grande/Bieber had been running limited edition CD single ruses to try to top the charts. But it just turned out Grande and Bieber had run a better ruse.

In that instance, Bieber and Grande had put on sale a signed CD single that was only available in the final 24 hours before that week’s chart cut off. Promoted by both artists through their social media channels, sales were limited to – and arguably fans were encouraged to buy – four copies each. That being the maximum number of sales to an individual that Billboard will allow to be counted towards the chart.

You could argue that was a clear manipulation of chart rules, even though Bieber – hitting back at 6ix9ine’s conspiracy theories – dubbed it “strategy”. And it seems Billboard reckons it’s all a bit sneaky too. Although it’s not making such sales chart ineligible, it is now changing the rules so that such “spontaneous” items will only count towards the chart in the week they ship, rather than the week when the sale is made.

This is because, Billboard says, although these items are put on sale to boost first-week chart position, they are usually not shipped until weeks, and sometimes months, later.

Of course, that change might mean that tracks suddenly get a weird late-in-the-day chart boost when the CD singles are sent out. But more likely it’s an extra complication that will see the limited edition CD single chart ruse fall out of favour. Which is good for the charts. And also for the environment, if it means that tens of thousands of mostly unwanted CDs are no longer being mailed out to a relatively small number of fans.

“Billboard is implementing these changes to address widespread concerns that an accurate measure of consumer intent – which has been the basis of the Billboard charts since their inception – is being undermined by increasingly-common bundling practices”, says the company. “The new guidelines will better ensure that Billboard chart rankings more accurately reflect the conscious purchasing decisions of consumers and level the playing field for all artists”.

So that’s nice. Although, with such regular charges to Billboard’s chart rules, it does get harder and harder to know what a legitimate number one on the charts actually looks like.