Madonna has the no. 1 album on this week's Billboard 200. She sold 359,000 copies of MDNA compared to Lionel Richie's Tuskegee, which opens with a really impressive 199k first week. But many of Madonna's sales came through a bundle option, in which fans who purchased tickets for her upcoming tour received a code that could be redeemed for either a physical CD or a digital download of the album.
Justin Bieber's new single "Boyfriend" debuts at no. 2 on the Hot 100. Fun.'s "We Are Young" continues its incredible run atop the greatest songs chart. No doubt, true Beliebers will be sad to note that "Boyfriend"'s Hot 100 score did not include meaningful points from plays on streaming services, including on-demand subscription companies a la Spotify, as Team Bieber decided to withhold the song from such services for much of its first charting week. The "Boyfriend" download was also exclusive to iTunes, restricting the buying option for those that do not frequent the Apple retail store.
There are plenty of people crying foul on both fronts. Those people should probably calm down. Both examples offer a glimpse into the complicated, largely experimental and ever-changing world of marketing, distributing and monetizing new releases in today's marketplace.
Of Madonna's 359,000 sold, trusted sources tell Billboard that somewhere in the area of 185,000 came from the bundle/redemption code. Sacre bleu, you say, doing math: 359 - 180 = 179. Mr. Richie's 199,000 is the true king-making total this week!
But that's completely ridiculous. With all respect deserved and paid to the beloved songs of Mr. Richie, think about two important points. One: Madonna fans who redeemed that code are not receiving the album for free. The price of Madonna's album was bundled into the ticket purchase. I can understand why there's confusion about this. Even the CEO of Ticketmaster tweeted that fans buying tickets got "a free copy of MDNA." (The March 30 tweet has since been taken down). Such is the less-than-fully-transparent nature of bundling.
But let's take a hypothetical for a second: the cost of MDNA wasn't bundled into the ticket price, or that Billboard doesn't count those sales. All 185,000 fans who used the Madonna redemption code were the first in line to buy tickets to her tour. These are her top fans, each of whom were eager to shell out anywhere from $50 to more than $350 for a seat. If no bundle existed, do you really think a large portion of these fans wouldn't have purchased the album? We'll never know for certain, of course. But I think it's a more than safe bet that Madonna has the no. 1 album in the U.S. under any circumstance - joining her deserved no. 1 debuts in at least 17 other countries, according to manager Guy Oseary's tweets.
For context, here are her recent albums' first-week sales, per Nielsen SoundScan:
2008 - Hard Candy - 280K
2005 - Confessions on a Dance Floor - 350K
2003 - American Life - 240K
2000 - Music - 420K
1998 - Ray of Light - 371K
So you can see, given that MDNA has a nice buzz and single going, it's pretty much beyond reason to think that suddenly this album would sell substantially less than any recent one Madonna has released.
That said, let's wait and see what the drop-off is next week on sales of MDNA. Second weeks tend to follow a fairly predictable curve. And while it's far from a perfect science, it's one of the best bullsh-- detectors out there for an inflated first week. Billboard's head of charts Silvio Pietroluongo says that an iconic pop star's album will generally drop anywhere from 65 to 80 percent second week. If MDNA drops a lot more than that, it'll be an indication of the degree of first week inflation caused by bundling.
The Bieber issue is probably more complex. The Hot 100 chart is driven largely by radio play and digital sales, with lesser slices of streaming and on-demand music rolled in. Would Bieber have had a no. 1 had his team consented to streaming the song on services such as Rhapsody and Spotify?
One way of looking at this is to simply strip away streaming services from the entire Hot 100. In that scenario, yes, "Boyfriend" is the no. 1 song based on radio play and digital sales. But at this point in the evolution of the music fan experience, I'd just as soon strip away radio or digital sales as streaming songs. Spotify et al are a massive and important slice of the music consumption pie.
So then the next question would be, what would have happened if Team Bieber had streamed the song? That's impossible to know, of course. Would fans have streamed for free instead of buying the single? It's the question that every marketing and promotion and product-manager executive at every label turns around in their heads every day.
It's worth noting that key digital executives at most major labels- including Bieber's own Universal Music Group-now have gone on record as saying that Spotify doesn't cannibalize sales. So really, if that's the case, then why wasn't Bieber's "Boyfriend" streaming? I suppose the notion that Spotify doesn't cannibalize sales is not mutually exclusive to the notion that it might cannibalize sales in the short, immediate term. I can't think of another reason why the song wouldn't be streaming on Spotify.
Unless, of course, iTunes "incentivized" Team Bieber and/or UMG to make sure that the song was only available digitally on iTunes.
But of course, that would probably never happen.