Over the past decade, two new significant forces have redefined the Billboard charts. One of those forces is streaming, which fundamentally altered the way people consume music and our ability to track that consumption. Billboard, whose charts have long been the industry standard, has worked to account for streaming, factoring it into their various chart formulas and tweaking those formulas when necessary. And now they’ve announced a policy change to address the other transformative factor: bundling.
The bundling phenomenon is directly related to streaming. As streaming became more common in recent years, album sales continued to plummet to historic lows. Artists attempted to counter this process by selling their albums in combination with other products, usually concert tickets, clothing, or other types of branded merch. The strategy is extra common among legacy acts with an established fan base; simply include a download or CD copy of your album with every ticket to your arena tour, and boom! You’ve created thousands upon thousands of extra first-week album sales. This doesn’t necessarily lead to bigger profits, but it has boosted many artists to a #1 LP. Just this week, Céline Dion scored her first #1 album in 17 years, largely due to copies of Courage bundled with concert tickets.
As musician-branded merch has moved into the realm of high fashion and hypebeast culture, artists have also leveraged their fans’ hunger for new crewnecks or whatever into album sales. Travis Scott’s Astroworld famously climbed back to the top of the Billboard 200 almost four months after its release mostly because Scott bundled downloads of the album with new merch he dropped on Cyber Monday — this after he went to #1 the first time partially by having his then-girlfriend Kylie Jenner promote album-tour bundles on her Instagram, denying the top spot to an outraged Nicki Minaj. K-pop supergroup SuperM recently used an arsenal of merch bundles to land their debut EP at #1 over ascendant R&B star Summer Walker, whose own Over It had been the week’s streaming champion.
But some of the more, um, creative bundling attempts have not panned out for artists. Earlier this year, DJ Khaled bundled copies of Father Of Asahd with energy drinks, but Billboard disqualified those sales because it suspected Khaled’s corporate partners had encouraged bulk sales. Can you imagine if every can of Diet Coke you purchased counted as a Taylor Swift album sale? Can you see how modern stan culture would run with that, in essence completely distorting any accurate measure of the music’s popularity? Thus, much to Khaled’s chagrin, #1 went to Tyler, The Creator, who had bundled his own IGOR with merch items including mock political yard signs.
This all leads up to today’s announcement of new bundling rules from Billboard — which, full disclosure, belongs to the same parent company as Stereogum. Billboard’s new policies read as follows:
Moving forward, in order for an album sale to be counted as part of a merchandise/album bundle, all the items in the bundle must also be available for purchase concurrently and individually on the same website. In addition, the merchandise item sold on its own will have to be priced lower than the bundle which includes both the merchandise and the album. Further, merchandise bundles can only be sold in an artist’s official direct-to-consumer web store and not via third-party sites.
The new policies do not affect albums that are part of a concert ticket/album sale redemption offer bundle, where the price of an album is part of the cost of a ticket and the album’s inclusion is promoted to the customer at the beginning of their purchase experience. Then, after purchasing the ticket, the customer will receive an offer to redeem the album and have it mailed to them or to download it. Only the albums that are redeemed count toward Billboard’s charts, indicating a desire by a consumer to receive the album.
And one more thing:
Under current rules and moving forward, any approved piece of merchandise that is clearly artist- or album-branded can be bundled with a copy of the album, with those sales counting for the charts when the physical album is shipped to the customer or when the digital album is fulfilled to the customer. However, the merchandise/album bundle must be priced at least $3.49 more than the merchandise item alone. ($3.49 is the minimum price of an album to qualify for the charts.)
These changes will go into effect Jan. 3, 2020. According to Billboard, all albums released from that date forward must adhere to the new rules, even if the bundles went on sale before then. Should be interesting to see how the music industry figures out how to game the new system!