Until early October, pop stars Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Travis Scott and others were free to bundle digital albums with concert tickets, T-shirts, hoodies and even jockstraps as a way to influence the Billboard charts and score first-week No. 1 albums. But Billboard‘s new chart rules, which kicked in Oct. 9, no longer count bundling sales, a move that is changing the way top artists set up new releases and manage their merch campaigns — Ariana Grande‘s recent No. 1 Positions came out as a surprise, in part, due to the chart rules.
Instead of packaging digital downloads with merch, as she did on previous albums, Grande compensated with aggressive Positions marketing — she spent the summer before the Oct. 30 release teasing her fanbase with social-media posts like “I’m gonna go work on things for u” and “be back soooooon.” “We were prepared for lower numbers,” says Allison Kaye, president of SB Projects, Grande’s management company. “We did everything we could to adjust the plan. It was always in our mind. [The new rules] really changed the way we released this.”
Without the merch bundles, Positions sold 42,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, considerably lower than last year’s Thank U, Next, which scored 116,000, in part because Grande bundled digital copies of those albums with Valentine’s Day merch such as a “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” crewneck and heart-shaped pillows. Grande continues to sell T-shirts and hoodies, of course, but the days of what Kaye calls “merch wars” may be over due to the Billboard change.
“I don’t think it’ll change dramatically, it just won’t be the push that it was,” she says. “It probably won’t be as many color Swatches like everyone used to do — a red one on Monday, a yellow one on Tuesday. We won’t do that anymore.”
Billboard‘s rule change, announced in July and meant to more accurately reflect consumers’ buying decisions and level the playing field for artists, have already had an impact on hit fall releases. Carrie Underwood‘s holiday album My Gift arrived conspicuously early, on Sept. 25, just a few weeks before the rule change, hitting No. 1 on Top Country Albums; Alicia Keys dropped her long-awaited Alicia on Sept. 18 and landed at No. 1 on Top R&B Albums. Both releases, as well as others by stars during this unusually heavy release period, included bundles.
“If you’re a manager or artist, you’ll make more off the merch than you’ll see off your sales or streams — but it helps inflate your first-week chart presence,” says Dan Feldstein, co-founder of media consultancy Salt + Vinegar, which has worked on artist merch campaigns. “For artists who may be reliant on these sleight-of-hand tactics, they’re going to find new ways of gaming the charts.”
Some artists with fall releases have responded to the new chart rule by power-boosting their merch — limited-edition copies of AC/DC‘s PWR/UP come in a light-up box for $49, while Shawn Mendes‘ Wonder, due Dec. 4, offers a $45 CD package with a zine and a card pack. Since they include albums as part of the packages, sales of these products count on the Billboard charts.
Meanwhile, Grande’s Positions merchandising remains robust, including an $80 woven blanket, a $12 pencil pack and $15 masks, most of which Grande designs herself. “Merch is still a really important piece for her,” Kaye says. “But the impetus for doing it is different.”
Part of the surprise timing for Grande’s Positions had to do with not just the post-bundling marketing campaign, Kaye says, but “what made sense for the art.” In a statement he insisted Billboard print in full, Jim Roppo, executive vp and general manager of Grande’s label Republic Records, added: “With respect to the timing and release strategy, we take our cues from Ariana. It’s about her art, her vision and her direction on how she wants to share new music with her fans. Charts or metrics do not dictate when her music is released.”
Until the chart rule change, artists, managers and labels had been debating bundling for years. In 2018, Nicki Minaj ripped Scott for overtaking her on the Billboard 200 when he included “season pass” early access passes to his concert venues with his album Astroworld. “He knows he doesn’t have the #1 album this week,” she tweeted. Promoters have had to absorb the costs of album-ticket bundles, often finding them to be an annoyance. Once the coronavirus shutdown finally ends, according to a top AEG Presents executive’s staff memo in April, promoters will no longer be responsible for expenses involving bundles. “Every time you add $1 to a ticket, you’re losing people who come to the show,” Dan Steinberg, co-founder of Emporium Presents, told Billboard before the pandemic. “It just makes it a higher ticket and harder for people to come to the show. It adds a second obstacle.”
Still, Republic’s Roppo suggests artists are dismayed about giving up this lever for sales and chart position. “Separately from Ariana’s release, there is a much larger discussion to be had within the industry about the charts and how fans want to consume music. For over a decade, fans have consistently expressed their desire for integrated merch, tickets and bundled music as part of the artist experience,” his statement said. “This fan choice about how to consume should be acknowledged and embraced by the charts as a reflection of the modern music marketplace.”
Album sales are mostly negligible in the streaming era, dropping 18.7% in 2019 after years of steady decline. But artists and their reps remain focused on sales figures and the prestige of high-charting releases. “I always like a No. 1,” Kaye says. “I love a winner.”