Billboard tweaks, but doesn’t repeal, a chart rule over album ‘Bundles

By Joe Coscarelli

This spring, country singer Kenny Chesney narrowly beat typically chart-dominating rapper Drake to a Billboard No. 1 debut using a marketing tactic that has been increasingly common in recent years — the ticket bundle, which includes an artist’s new album as a redeemable bonus when fans pony up to see them in concert.

Seen by some skeptics as an effort to pad first-week sales numbers — especially in genres, like rock and country, that lag behind hip-hop and pop in online streaming — the ticket bundle was especially fraught in Chesney’s case, given that no major concerts were likely to happen during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A few days after Chesney won the top Billboard spot, largely on the strength of his ticket-and-album sales, his Chillaxification Tour was canceled for the year and moved to 2021.

This was the latest mini-tempest in the chart-obsessed music business as Billboard, still the main arbiter of commercial popularity, has attempted to adapt its methods to reflect the way listeners consume music today without alienating major artists and labels. Now, for the second time this year, Billboard says it is changing the rules on how these bundles — which, in rap and pop, more often pair albums with merchandise like T-shirts, or even condoms — can be presented to customers in order to still count toward chart placement.

An announcement from Billboard in a news story on its website Monday night said that the company would “eliminate” bundles from its charts altogether, but the fine print was far less definitive: Albums can still be sold with merchandise and concert tickets, the article said, but the music must be promoted as an explicit add-on, with the cost disclosed to the consumer, rather than “as part of a baked-in, single-price option.”

As before, the added-on album needs to cost at least $3.49 to count on the chart. The story did not provide a date for the rule change but said the policy would go into effect this fall.

“We are eliminating the one-click, one-price bundle,” said Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard’s senior vice president of charts and data development, in a phone interview. “We had hoped that the changes we made at the beginning of the year would lessen the influence of bundles on the charts, but that hasn’t been the case.”

In January, Billboard adjusted its merchandise bundle rules by requiring that any item for sale with an album also be available for purchase at a lower price without the album. Bundles were also mandated to be sold by an artist directly to the consumer, not via a third party.

For ticket bundles, which were not affected by the January rule change, Billboard had previously allowed the cost of the album to be baked into the ticket price as long as it was “promoted to the customer at the beginning of their purchase experience,” and the customer went on to actively redeem the album, either via mail (for physical copies) or download. Now, fans must opt in to paying more for the ticket-and-album combos.

Although online streaming now accounts for a great majority of music consumption, and album sales have dropped by more than 10% over each of the past four years, many acts and labels have leaned heavily on these bundling options because sales continue to be worth more than streams on the Billboard charts. Artists who reached No. 1 last year with the help of such packages included Ariana Grade, Kanye West, Celine Dion, Madonna, Thomas Rhett and more. (This week’s No. 1 album, by Brooklyn, New York, rapper Pop Smoke, was aided by T-shirt bundles.)

The Hot 100 singles chart will also be affected by the new tweaks. Whereas previously an artist could sell a physical album or single on vinyl or CD, bundle it with an immediate download and have that download count as a “digital sale” in first-week tallies, now the sale will only count when the physical item is actually shipped.

In the past few months alone, rapper 6ix9ine, along with duet partners Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, used this tactic to help debut new singles at No. 1, only to have those songs tumble down the chart in subsequent weeks.

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