opinion Opinion June 12, 2019

What does a #1 album even mean these days?

What does a #1 album even mean these days?

isn’t happy. Last week, he attempted to package downloads of his album ‘Father of Asahd’ with Awake energy drinks in order to storm to the top of the charts.

Billboard weren’t having it, disqualifying a number of these sales – reportedly in the realm of 100,000. With these sales not valid, his album debuted at #2, behind Tyler, The Creator’s (excellent) ‘Igor’. Khaled and his label Roc Nation are now threatening a lawsuit, claiming these energy drink sales were legitimate, and that ‘bundling’ is a common practice that can give a record wings.

It is, but energy drink sales have very little to do with music. Or, at least, they really should.

Billboard argued that these sales – through a website named shop.com, in case you thought this was a subtle and savvy grassroots campaign – actively encouraged bulk purchases of their product, and therefore crossed a line. They cited a blog post that told Market America (shop.com’s parent company) customers to buy 12-packs of the energy drink in order to “push DJ Khaled and Market America to No. 1!”

“In this particular instance,” Deanna Brown, the Billboard president said, “we saw an organisation encouraging purchases among their members by promising them material and organisational benefits.”

Gaming the charts by selling items other than the actual music has been around for years, but it’s hit a ridiculous level recently. 39 albums went to #1 last year, and 18 of these were sold as part of merch or gig tickets bundles. The trend has continued into 2019. This January, Backstreet Boys’ new album DNA went to number one, based solely on people wanting tickets to their reunion concerts and buying a bundle that contained a download and a ticket. The following week, with the bundle no longer available, the album dropped to #24. Quit playing games with my chart, I say.

Such chart games weren’t always so cynical. During the ’90s, predominantly in the UK, where first-week chart positions are more important, and slow-climbing singles are an anomaly, labels would release two or more versions of a CD single, each with different B-sides, to encourage mega fans to purchase all versions. This happened in the US and Australia to a lesser extent, but it was basically the rule in England, where a top thirty appearance on Top Of The Pops was a key marketing opportunity that could make or break a band overnight.

The more cynical argument is that this is still bleeding fans dry, but when you get four or five decent B-sides with every single – if a band releases three singles from an album, that’s basically a bonus album’s worth of extra music – it’s hard to feel cheated. Bands were releasing music at a clip similar to the mid-60s, and with Britpop at its height, it was a good time for the B-side, and a good time to be a music collector. Plus, it was still the sale of music that was blasting these songs up the charts.

Now, nobody buys (or sells) singles, and album downloads – let alone physical purchases – are at a negligible level. It’s a sign of the times, and complaining about this is like trying to argue the merits of schlepping to Video Ezy to rent a DVD for the pureness of the experience. That ship hasn’t just sailed, it’s crashed into the wharf, the tankers have caught alight, and the cargo has been seized by pirates with parrots and eye-patches.

The problem is that the charts are yet to catch up with the reality of how people imbibe music. One download sale of an album is currently worth 1,400 times that of a single song stream. For the sake of mathematical neatness, let’s assume we are dealing with a ten track album. You would have to stream the entire album 140 times within a week, in order for it to count in the charts as much as a single iTunes download would. And if you download it, you don’t even have to listen to the damn thing. You don’t even have to redeem the download code. This is what these bundle sales are hinged on.

How many Backstreet Boys fans who bought the aforementioned tickets in the first week do you think actually bothered to download the album and listen to it? I’m betting it’s very few, given the tour leaned heavily on nostalgia. I actually don’t think Nick Carter has listened the whole way through yet. Brian Lattrell has: 140 times, on Spotify. The charts matter to Brian.

It’s this disconnect between streaming and downloads that has led to the current bundling craze. Again, this is not a new phenomenon, but while it was once a deluxe option to upsell to overzealous fans, these days such bundling is critical to getting a record to the top of the albums chart.

Last August, Nicki Minaj chucked a tantrum when she was denied the #1 spot by Travis Scott’s ‘Astroworld’ which was bundled with concert tickets, tees, caps, and other such incentives. According to Minaj, he sold 50,000 tickets to a conceptual future concert “with no requirement of redeeming the album! With no dates for a tour.”

She also claims that Kylie Jenner was instrumental in his sales success, as she posted a photo of the ‘Astroworld’ tour pass to her 13.1 million Instagram following, claiming they should come to the gigs in order to catch a peep of Stormi, their baby.

“I put my blood sweat & tears in writing a dope album only for Travis Scott to have Kylie Jenner post a tour pass telling ppl to come see her & Stormi,” Minaj tweeted, adding that her album hit #1 in 86 countries.

Furthermore, she claims that 200,000 of Travis Scott’s sales were bundled with clothing, and that Billboard claimed they would soon change the rules for charting because of such breaches. So far, they have not.

It goes without saying that this is a troubling sign for the validity of the album charts. I said it before, but it bears repeating: close to half of last year’s #1 Billboard albums were achieved by selling T-shirts, concert tickets, or caps. Anything but the actual music. You don’t even need to redeem the download in order for it to count as a sale.

In 2012, even sold a bundle with a Papa John’s pie and a copy of ‘Red’ for $22. A fucking pie! This was seven years ago, and there has yet to be a crackdown on such (delicious) practices.

So, when a tracksuit can get you to the top of the charts, what does a #1 album mean anymore? Is it just a sign of the artist with the most desirable merch, or who can sell the most concert tickets? If so, how do we fix this?

After this past week, Billboard are under renewed pressure to crack down on such blatant deals, with Brown telling the New York Times that labels tell her “week after week, month after month, that they want us to occasionally throw a flag on the field when necessary.”

But it seems to be the uncertainty of these sales that is cause for concern for a lot of these labels, not the actual bundling itself. Although Khaled is planning to sue Billboard for not including his energy drink sales, his label Roc Nation are claiming to be against the very practice they indulge in, with CEO Desiree Perez writing in a statement: “We’re obviously not fans of bundling, nor should anyone who cares about artists making music. But our hands are being forced by Billboard’s desperate, last-ditch effort to keep streaming from eliminating what’s left of music downloads.”

She refers to the label’s dispute with Billboard as being on behalf of “every artist who is forced to navigate bundling an album download with an inexpensive item that still effectively represents their brand. It’s confusing and demeaning to the art.”

Her argument that Billboard are trying to desperately save the demise of the download is a confusing one. They have no financial stake in the sale of downloads, nor does their business rely on the prevalence of them in order to survive. The charts are the charts are the charts. Their parent company owns stakes in Pizza Hut, meaning they have more financial incentive in the reintroduction of the Land Before Time tumbler than they do in saving music downloads.

The obvious solution is to simply ban all bundle offers from qualifying for the charts. There’s no reason to bundle downloads with concert tickets other than to artificially inflate sales for the charts. Tickets will sell – in fact, most artists rely on such sales for their livelihoods these days. Merchandise is also a big money-maker. Merch and ticket bundles make sense. Downloads, and physical products should be kept separate, at least when the charts are concerned.

Another solution, and one that seems inevitable anyway, is to reduce how much a download is worth in comparison to a stream. Surely, the aim of the album charts is to showcase the most popular albums that week, in order of importance. The majority of people now stream new music. It’s just how it is. Assigning more value to a listener’s participation just because they purchased a download rather than streamed an album is to lessen the value of their own chart, for purely outmoded reasons.

If they are worried about claims that people will simply stream an album endlessly to boost a chart position, limit each Spotify account so it can only count as one album sale. In other words, you can stream the new Taylor Swift album as much as you want, but your Spotify account will only count for one Taylor sale, per week. You can have your pie, and eat it too.

Either way, something needs to change fast. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in Bunnings, buying a bundle of shears, mulch and the new Shannon Noll record. That’s what I’m talking about.

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