It’s easy to figure out why Beyoncé’s Renaissance hit No. 1 in its debut week: She’s Beyoncé. But the superstar also took advantage of the Billboard chart rules by packing her new CD with different T-shirts in small boxes and selling them as $40 limited-edition box sets. Those sets helped Renaissance sell 190,000 copies in its first week — with 72% of that sum from websites, including Beyoncé’s own.
In the streaming-focused music business, CDs aren’t nearly as popular as they used to be, but they become more desirable when they happen to come boxed with exclusive T-shirts or other merchandise. Box sets — long reserved for elaborate collector’s editions packed with unreleased recordings and paper goods like photos and lyric sheets — have become one of record labels’ top ways to boost sales and improve chart performance, after a July 2020 Billboard rule change. According to the updated rules: Loose “bundles” of physical or digital albums sold with merchandise, and concert ticket/album sale redemption offers, are no longer permitted; sales of “box sets” still count towards the charts, as long as all the items fit into a “finished goods boxed set/package.”
The rule change created a lucrative new industry for music-manufacturing companies that design, source, assemble, package and ship the boxes. Dayton Hicks, CEO of Gnarlywood, a 10-year-old Carlsbad, Calif., merch company, says he had to navigate a “ton of moving parts” when artists and labels began to request boxes after the rule change, coordinating the contents with managers, labels and merchandisers. “When this got hot, we got a reputation as the guys who could deliver it on time, and we were aware of the requirements,” says Hicks. “Everybody wanted to get in on it.”
In addition to Beyoncé’s four different box-set packages, in the tracking week ending Aug. 4, ENHYPEN and ATEEZ sold 11 and eight different box-set versions of their new EPs, respectively, containing trinkets like stickers, posters and photo cards. The K-pop stars made their debuts on the Billboard 200’s top 10, in part because their box sets — selling for $26 to $29 — contained physical CDs, which count as sales on the charts. And while it has long been common for K-pop releases to release such collectible deluxe packages to merch-hungry fans, that strategy now is mainstream among top acts across all genres.
In the past couple of years, artists including Billie Eilish, Tyler, the Creator, Post Malone, Halsey, Machine Gun Kelly, Camila Cabello and Harry Styles have released box sets that boosted sales in their new albums’ debut weeks. (CDs are easier to package in boxes these days than vinyl, due to better turnaround times and fewer manufacturing issues.) The box sets allow labels another way to sell albums packaged with merchandise, while offering artists a new medium to engage with their fans creatively — and commercially. (They’ve also spawned a new wave of unboxing videos among fans online.) The boxes themselves range anywhere from basic colored cardboard to hologram-adorned objets d’art, but almost always contain exclusive merchandise to drive sales over other à la carte items.
While some artists have found chart advantages from these boxed sets, it’s not always a numbers game. “The chart play is secondary, and primary is to create something collectable and special for the super fan,” says Shanna Reznik, founder at merch company Threefour, Inc. Reznik notes, too, the amount of extra work that goes into creating these box sets. “It’s a highly collaborative process … and in order to execute a campaign well and put a compelling item out that’s going to connect with people, you really need to put all the pieces together — and that takes time and a lot of energy.”
Olivia Rodrigo was one of the first major acts to sell box sets in their debut week with her album Sour in May 2021, then did it again a year later to celebrate the album’s one-year anniversary. Acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Ariana Grande and Silk Sonic have also recently done it later in their album campaigns — be it due to production delays, surprise drops or creative reasons. When The Weeknd released his vinyl, cassette and deluxe box sets on April 29, his nearly three-month-old album returned to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Albums Sales chart for the second non-consecutive week.
“Fans of these artists want to consume whatever it is they put out: music, clothes, concerts, everything in between,” says Brad Scoffern, founder of Ceremony of Roses, a music-merchandising company that manufactures many such box sets and received a strategic investment from Sony Music in January. “As the rules of Billboard have changed, the artists have evolved and adapted.”
Some artists merely pack a CD and a T-shirt into a plain box branded with their logo or other artwork, but others are more inventive: One of Rodrigo’s three different debut-week Sour boxes included a “journal” with photos of the superstar, as well as empty pages for fans to write in. Tyler, the Creator — whose merchandise is especially popular — packaged his four limited-edition Call Me If You Get Lost boxes with shirts and posters that he designed himself; the album sold 40,000 CDs and 10,000 cassettes in its first week in June 2021, many of which were part of box sets.
“When they’re designing these box sets, it’s not as cut and dry as just an album cover with album art,” says Scoffern, who has worked with Tyler, the Creator for years and is general manager of his Golf Wang brand, although the rapper is not a Ceremony of Roses client. “Artists are making their own clothes. They’re creating their own brands.”
In addition to creative expression, though, Scoffern acknowledges artists put out these kinds of box sets with an eye towards improving their chart position: “The current marketplace is because of Billboard. It’s not always about getting the No. 1. You could be No. 20 without box sets, and you execute a proper box-set campaign, and you could go to No. 8. The difference sometimes between 20 and 8 can be a couple thousand units.”
For BIA, whose “Whole Lotta Money” remix with Nicki Minaj hit No. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last year, 10% of her physical album sales for her album For Certain came from box set sales, according to Tyler Pittman, vp of sales and marketing for Sony’s Epic Records and Legacy Recordings. The $35 box set included a cassette of the album and a rolling tray — “a lifestyle thing that spoke to her,” says Pittman. “It wasn’t something that pushed her over the edge, but in this day and age 500 to 600 album units can make the difference in chart position.”
Previously, Billboard counted the sales of albums bundled with merchandise once the album was shipped, and for CD or downloads bundled with concert tickets when and if the customer chose to redeem the album offer (many did not). This practice was widely considered to give established touring acts a significant chart advantage and Billboard implemented the rule change in order to more accurately measure consumer interest in the music. (One prominent example: In 2020, Kenny Chesney scored a Billboard 200 No.1 over Drake with Here and Now, largely powered by sales generated from a concert ticket/album sale redemption offer with Chesney’s upcoming tour.) The new rules disallow such concert ticket/album redemption schemes, but t-shirts and other trinkets are okay, as long as they are pre-packaged within a physical box that comes with its own bar code and contains a physical album. But some executives think the proliferation of box sets since the July 2020 rules eliminating album and merch or concert ticket bundles only offer another method of chart manipulation.
Hannah Carlen, marketing director for the Americas for indie Secretly Group, calls these box sets a “loophole” that allows artists and labels to package an album into a box with what the fans really want, which is a t-shirt or other merch. “Nobody’s buying this thing for the box it comes in,” she says. “The first people losing here are the fans who are being pushed around in service of juking a chart.”
But manager Rory McElroy, who represents rapper OhGeesy of Shoreline Mafia, says he sees the rule disqualifying bundles and the growing popularity of box sets as “more fair than what it used to be.” He adds, “It puts everyone on the same playing field.” Still, there’s a learning curve to understand how it works.
More than a year ago, when presented with the idea of CD box sets, OhGeesy had no idea what his manager was talking about. Didn’t they go out with land lines? “I’ve never even heard of this,” he said. Then, McElroy explained Billboard’s change in bundling rules, and soon OhGeesy — signed to Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records — was collaborating with Ceremony of Roses to put out a box set including his latest CD Geezyworld with a “’90s-inspired rap t-shirt [depicting] cars and diamonds and all that jazz,” McElroy says. Fans liked it enough to buy 5,000 copies the week the album came out last September — a third of its overall sales, boosting the album to No. 1 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart, which measures new and developing artists, and No. 102 on the Billboard 200.
“Those 5,000 really helped bump us up over the edge,” McElroy says. “To add on 5,000 extra units off of some merch was huge for us.”