Fred and his readers discuss Britney Spears V. The Eagles, The Billboard 200 Chart, Double CDs and more!
EAGLES SOAR TO NO. 1; BRITNEY DEBUTS AT NO. 2; CHART BEAT READERS REACT
I LOVE the Eagles and am glad to see them on top of [The Billboard 200], but this new chart policy seems oddly timed. It seems that it was only revised in order to keep Britney from the No. 1 spot. This policy could have been changed many times in the past, so it seems odd that it would happen now.
What are your thoughts on the revision?
For readers who aren't aware of what happened on this week's Billboard album chart, let me explain before attempting to answer your question.
The Eagles new album, "Long Road Out of Eden," is being sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. Until this week, albums that were only available through one retailer were not eligible for The Billboard 200, but were allowed to chart on Top Comprehensive Albums. There were many reasons for this policy, which we'll discuss later in this column. When a chart policy is changed, it is never done to help or harm any specific artist. In this specific case, the policy was not changed to help the Eagles or harm Britney Spears.
Since I received so many letters on this topic (though not as many as our chart department received!), let me post a good sample of these e-mails below. And then I will post what Billboard's director of charts and senior analyst, Geoff Mayfield, wrote in his column this week explaining the change in chart policy and the exact reasons the change was made at the "last minute."
You asked for my thoughts on the revision. I like the Eagles and Britney Spears, and my answer has nothing to do with how I feel about either act. My answer is, when you read what Geoff wrote, I think you'll understand why a decision about the policy change was made on Tuesday, Nov. 6. And here's a hint about my feelings - how would you feel about Britney Spears being No. 1 on The Billboard 200 when you knew that she sold less than 300,000 albums when the Eagles sold more than 700,000 during the same time frame? But there's more to it than that, and I'm getting ahead of myself (and Geoff).
First, your e-mails on this issue:
Just wanted to give everyone at Billboard a big thumbs up for changing the policy and allowing the Eagles CD to chart. When it sells 711,000 copies compared to Britney's 294,000, it IS the No. 1 album, period. It should be more handicapped being only sold at one retailer, other than Britney everywhere, and it still blew away the competition.
How many copies an album sold is more important than where it was purchased. Kudos for the change in policy. Make way for Garth Brooks next week!
Des Moines, Iowa
I am neither a Britney Spears nor an Eagles fan, but it seems to me that Billboard has displayed a lack of judgment by changing its own rules at the 11th hour. I am a seasoned follower of the charts and associated rules for at least the last couple of decades and I have to say that this decision announced at the very last minute late Tuesday made me question for the very first time Billboard's (and the Billboard staff's, obviously) objectivity and impartiality.
Will Billboard provide a decent explanation as to why after years of careful, consensual and gradual approach to chart changes, the management suddenly had a change of heart that inevitably and predictably seems as biased and preferential treatment? Did the Billboard management anticipate the possibility that it will make many, many people question the publication's credibility?
I just wanted to congratulate and thank both Billboard and Wal-Mart for the last minute policy changes that allowed the Eagles to debut at No. 1 on the big chart. I think it's safe to say that [selling] 711,000 copies of any album is a remarkable achievement that can't be ignored and that the Eagles rightly deserved to be the group that prompted this change.
What's even more astonishing is that a group 35+ years old is not only still vital but relevant and that their iconic sound so often imitated in the '70s quite literally sounds like nothing else around today. Sometimes you can go home again.
Take care and major kudos.
Britney Spears has been cheated out of a No. 1 chart position on The Billboard 200. Not only has Wal-Mart controlled the charts but it has cheated them as well. I am not taking any credit away from the Eagles as they have a great number in an industry that has been declining as of late. Here is why I am disappointed by the way the chart policy was changed this week.
I went into a Wal-Mart mid week to purchase Britney's album. When I got there, there was not one to be found. Not on any shelf. Not only was Britney's album not on the shelves, but the Backstreet Boys' new album was on a bottom shelf and only a couple copies were out. On their endcap there were no openings to possibly identify that "Blackout" had sold out, it was just missing. On the other endcap was a whole display of the Eagles album, which they have the right to do. When I asked an employee for the [Britney] CD, they went behind the counter, where there was a box. In that box was about 50 Britney CDs, a handful of Backstreet Boys CDs and a few others. I was shocked to see how blatant they were being about not putting out the albums that would be competition. They controlled the market when they didn't display the "Blackout" album, the only album that had a remote chance of being competitive.
In the end, it really didn't matter as the Eagles surprised everyone with one of the biggest sales weeks of the year. I just wanted to let you know about my disappointment in your decision to change the chart policy in the middle of a week. Had you announced it at the end of this week and start with the following Billboard 200 chart, I would have understood. This decision was totally unfair.
(Billboard chart fan and reader!)
I appreciate your thoughts, but I must point out that others had different experiences at Wal-Mart. My assistant, Brian Carroll, went to a Wal-Mart here in Southern California to purchase the Eagles album, and he found ample copies of the Britney Spears album on display. Now he was in one store and you were in another, but I don't think we can draw a conclusion either way based on a visit to one Wal-Mart.
And now, as promised, here is what Geoff Mayfield wrote about the change in chart policy in his column appearing in the Nov. 17 issue of Billboard:
"Long-time chart fans know that when Billboard implements a significant change in chart policy, like the one that allowed the Eagles' Wal-Mart exclusive to appear on The Billboard 200, we usually do so in a carefully-orchestrated manner, so as not to catch the music industry by surprise.
"And, people who truly study our lists certainly realized that the 2003 launch of Billboard's Comprehensive Albums and Comprehensive Music Videos charts set the stage for a transition that one day would see proprietary albums appear on The Billboard 200.
"But, why now, when as recently as last issue this column offered no hint such a bold revision was in view? Hard as it might be to imagine in a business that seems small as the music industry, neither Billboard nor Nielsen SoundScan had any clue until the day after the tracking week closed that Wal-Mart would ever be willing to report its exclusive offerings.
"Like many label sales execs, we had assumed the exclusion of its proprietary titles from our comprehensive charts simply signaled a desire to keep that data tightly held, an attitude shared by other music merchants. Turns out the giant retail chain, and the artists who had done Wal-Mart exclusives, were not as fond of the Comprehensive Albums chart as I was. Oh, yeah, there was also the prospect of wide consumer and business press coverage of this publicly traded, multi-million dollar retailer announcing that its best selling album outsold the No. 1 title on The Billboard 200 by better than a two-to-one margin.
"Never in Billboard's history had the credibility of our charts faced such a threat. It might have been that Garth Brooks' Wal-Mart box outsold System of a Down's chart-topping "Hypnotize" during Thanksgiving week of 2005, but the press paid much less attention to that possibility than it did to the notion of the Eagles being excluded from The Billboard 200. Suddenly, a policy that made a lot of sense in 1992 (that an album must be generally available at retail to qualify for Billboard's charts) seemed antiquated.
"We were also in an awkward corner. Keep the Eagles numbers on the sideline, and it would appear that Billboard was not only ignoring the week's best-selling album but an obvious trend that finds artists looking at options outside the traditional label model. Change to include the band's "Long Road Out of Eden" at the 11th hour, and Britney Spears fans would assume we conspired to add yet another tale of woe to her seemingly endless trail of unfortunate headlines. Stuck in a no-win situation, the only logical option was to make the decision on journalistic merits. If the writing was already on the wall that proprietary titles would find their way on The Billboard 200 in the foreseeable future, then make the move now for the sake of a more accurate chart.
"We've read and heard passionate complaints from Spears fans, and members of her camp, that it wasn't fair to change rules in the middle of the game. I understand that complaint, but the simple truth here is we're not talking baseball or football or tennis, so that analogy only goes so far. Had we waited until January to make the change, as one label president opined we should, this issue's chart would forever stand under a cloud with Spears' "Blackout" owning No. 1 with a respectable 290,000 sold in a week when everyone knew the Eagles moved 711,000 copies.
"I heard juicy speculation that Eagles' manager Irving Azoff or Wal-Mart exerted enormous pressure on Billboard to chart "Eden," but in fact, the quest for the album's data was a charge we led with Nielsen SoundScan. So far as we could tell, the chain and the band seemed content for a press release to tout the album's success.
"Even if we held status quo and parked Spears' "Blackout" at No. 1, the consumer press would still find a way to belittle her feat, noting this album started at less than half the first-week sales of her last studio album in 2003. Certainly there is no shame in an artist selling less now than in earlier years. More than half of the 26 artists who have bowed at No. 1 in 2007, 15, scored smaller sales weeks than they saw in prior years. Against that background, given her adverse publicity and limited availability to promote the new album, I am actually impressed with her first-week number, but I don't expect the media at large to see it that way."
COUNTED ONCE OR COUNTED TWICE?
I am by no means a Britney Spears apologist, because I am sure there are many fans who are probably miffed that Britney was "robbed" of her No. 1 album this week by the Eagles. However, that is not why I am writing.
As Billboard continues to refine its chart policies, I am wondering how long the fact that a double-CD counts as two sales will stay in effect. Out of curiosity, I logged online to the major chain site that is selling the Eagles' album, and they are listing a price of $11.88. I regularly see single-disc albums listed at that price or higher.
According to Billboard's website, the Eagles' reported sales total this week is 711,000, but doesn't that actually mean that 355,500 two-CD sets were purchased? This is of course still more than Britney's 290,000. I know that this column does not deal with sales numbers, but I am wondering if you might be able to tell us more about the complexities of this issue. People are going around lauding the Eagles for selling almost 3/4 of a million copies of an album in a week, but really to me it seems they sold just over 1/3 of a million.
Thank you and have a great day!
As a long time reader of Billboard (30+ years---since tracking Abba's successes back in the day), I was quite disappointed with the last-minute policy change regarding retailer-exclusive titles (but that's another story).
Reading a post at a music forum, someone stated that (paraphrasing) "double CD titles get counted as two units sold, so the gap between the sales figures between the Eagles and Britney Spears was actually a lot smaller than reported." I checked the chart methodology link online and your FAQs and think that a) he was referring to the RIAA shipping rules, or b) the multi-disc sales policy may have been used a long time ago (like during the LP era). While not really a chart-specific question, I KNOW you will be able to clear this one up!
Dear Greg and Eric,
This is an issue that has come up many times over the years, but obviously there is still some confusion about how multi-set albums are counted for the Billboard charts.
One album sold counts as one album sold, whether the CD is a single set, a double-CD, a triple-CD, or whatever. So yes, the Eagles sold over 700,000 albums, not over 350,000 albums.
Eric is right when he suggests that the double-CD counting as two CDs is the policy of the RIAA, the industry trade association that issues gold and platinum certifications. The RIAA issues certifications based on the number of units shipped to stores, not units sold to consumers. So if a label ships one million copies of a double-CD, the RIAA counts this as two million albums.
Just to say it again for the sake of clarity, Nielsen SoundScan counts one CD sold as one CD sold, even if that CD is a double or triple set.