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Letter From The Editor: What Jay-Z’s ‘Magna Carta’ Means For The Billboard 200 Chart

A discussion of why the Jay-Z's Samsung promotion for his "Magna Carta Holy Grail" album isn't counting on the Billboard 200 chart -- and what it means for the music business.

“I don’t follow any guidelines,” Jay-Z says in “22 Twos,” one of the standout tracks on his 1996 debut, “Reasonable Doubt.” And there’s no reasonable doubt that Jay’s instincts to blaze trails have served him well. In particular, Jay has been one of the leaders of the revolution that has been unfolding for years between music and brands. Jay’s deals — from his hands and distinct voice telling the world about HP computers to his getting Budweiser to pay for a party in Philadelphia for 80,000 of his closest (and paying) friends — haven’t just put a lot of coin in Jay’s Roc-a-Wear jeans pockets. They’ve helped build Jay’s brand and paved a path for the business and brands to think even bigger about partnerships.

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But occasionally, guidelines do come into play. “99 Problems” is a more apt reference point for my feelings some weeks when we get pitched by a label or a manager on a new, creative scheme to sell music to fans. “What if we bundled an album with a handset?” “What if every time a fan buys a T-shirt, they get a code to redeem a song?” “What if it’s a bottle of artist-branded perfume? A flashlight? A puppy?”

Requests come in and are considered carefully by Silvio Pietroluongo, our director of charts, and, if complications or implications rise to a certain level, by me, as Billboard’s editorial director. We strive to always fall on the side of moving the music business forward. A combination of constant crystal ball-gazing and this endless stream of requests from market innovators has led to pretty dynamic changes to our charts of late. We launched a Social 50 artists chart measuring Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. We included YouTube and Vevo streams into our historic Hot 100 songs chart, vaulting Baauer to the No. 1 position as “Harlem Shake” reached its viral peak. We created an On-Demand Songs chart to monitor services like Spotify, and include those streams into our songs charts as well. It’s a hustle out there in today’s music business, and Billboard wants to encourage innovation.

But our role as the chart of record is to set the rules, and hopefully even raise the level of play. It is in this spirit that I say it wasn’t as simple as you might think to turn down Jay-Z when he requested that we count the million albums that Samsung “bought” as part of a much larger brand partnership, to give away to Samsung customers. True, nothing was actually for sale — Samsung users will download a Jay-branded app for free and get the album for free a few days later after engaging with some Jay-Z content. The passionate and articulate argument by Jay’s team that something was for sale and Samsung bought it also doesn’t mesh with precedent.

Retailers doing one-way deals is a fact of life in the music business. When Best Buy committed to and paid upfront for 600,000 copies of Guns N’ Roses’ “Chinese Democracy” in 2008, those albums didn’t count as sales — not until music fans actually bought them. Had Jay-Z and Samsung charged $3.49 — our minimum pricing threshold for a new release to count on our charts — for either the app or the album, the U.S. sales would have registered. And ultimately, that’s the rub: The ever-visionary Jay-Z pulled the nifty coup of getting paid as if he had a platinum album before one fan bought a single copy. (He may have done even better than that — artists generally get paid a royalty percentage of wholesale. If Jay keeps every penny of Samsung’s $5 purchase price, he’d be more than doubling the typical superstar rate.) But in the context of this promotion, nothing is actually for sale.

Once something is — i.e., when Jay’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” hits retailers and fans have the chance to express their support and interest by buying it, we’ll obviously count those sales. I’ve been told that label sources expect first-week sales of the album to be in line with the 400,000-450,000 his recent albums have shifted. That will almost certainly give Jay his lucky 13th No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

This isn’t the end of the story, however. Just because the Billboard 200 has been based purely on sales of an album for the entirety of the life of the chart doesn’t mean it must always remain so. Today I pay to listen to most of my albums on a subscription streaming service. Should those count in some way on our albums chart? And what about a world that Jay would argue is already here — one in which not enough fans are willing to pay for music that they want to listen to. Should artists be forced to choose between landing a big brand deal or landing a higher placement on the Billboard charts? The answer to that cannot and should not be “yes.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll talk through highly nuanced questions about our album charts with top managers, retailers, brands, publishers, label executives and others, just as we have with recent chart changes. These discussions may well lead to some changes to our charting rules — or they may not. It’s a process that plays out here at Billboard all the time — the very same one that led to the tweaks allowing streaming on the Hot 100.

Should we decide changes are in order, we’ll give the business advance warning so the game stays fair, and certainly run test charts with our data partner Nielsen SoundScan to ensure the charts are up to our historic standards of integrity and accuracy. Learning about Jay-Z’s enormous and admirable ambition two weeks ago simply didn’t leave time for this. But rest assured, Billboard will find the right balance and metric to chart brand-driven album distribution just as we’ve found the right metrics for everything from the 78s that played on your grandparents’ Victrola to your mom and dad’s 8-track to your kid’s fascination with the new Miley Cyrus video on Vevo.

After all, we’re a business, man. And as the next part goes: we’ll handle our business. Damn.

Want to ask Bill Werde about this topic directly? Tweet him at @bwerde, where he’ll be answering questions regarding Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” and the Billboard 200 chart.