The Billboard Chart Rules Are Changing (how to get cheaper merch in the age of bundling + Taylor Swift Is A Marketing Genius)



If you're like me and you have a hard time resisting every new merch drop from your favorite artist, you're probably familiar with the bundling phenomenon. You'll go to buy your steeply priced hoodie in a panic to grab it before it sells out, and you'll get an email a few minutes later detailing how to download your brand new digital album. Now, depending on what kind of fan you are, you'll either eagerly download it in an attempt to help your favorite artist skyrocket up the charts, or you'll roll your eyes at paying for something you already have on your phone from a million and one different streaming services.
You might have also noticed the disclaimer at the bottom of the item page that says something along the lines of "item available separately for purchase". That sounds great. Why spend $4 on something you can get for free? The problem is that it can sometimes take a serious time investment to actually find the pages of the clothes without the bundle. In a rush, it can be easy to forget to dig around. Also, every merch store hides these options in a different place.
To use examples from the last two purchases I made, on Taylor Swift's website, you have to make sure you're not just shopping from merchandise but that you scroll to the footer and click "all merchandise" and then click to the side about 30 times. On Halsey's Badlands merch site (which is down now), you have to click "products" at the top of the page instead of shopping the merch on the home page.
If you look at other artist's merch stores, you'll already notice a shift. Visit Harry Style's newly revamped page, and you'll find that the unbundled, cheaper option is actually on the home page. You have to visit the "Music" tab specifically if you want to buy the bundle option. On Conan Gray's store, the bundle option has been removed entirely. These changes (because they both used to push bundling to a certain extent a few months ago) reflect a major shift that is going to rock the current marketing systems of the music industry- from a chart perspective that is. 
This long illustration of merch bundling, whether the practice personally bothers you or not, is to put into context why Billboard is suddenly changing their policies on what album sales count towards the chart. I was inspired to write about this by the NYT Popcast episode "How The Merch Bundle Undid the Album Charts". Definitely give it a listen for a more complete history of the practice, starting with Prince giving away CDs at his shows in 2004. To fast track through that, the issue is that the Billboard 200 album chart has basically become a popularity contest driven by concert ticket sales or merch instead of reflecting the demand for the music itself. As John points out in the podcast, the idea of measuring the excitement around an artist or massive sales in some other venue would be super interesting, but it's not the mission of the Billboard Chart. There have been many attempts to fix that and tightened rules over the years. Recently, the rules have shifted to require an alternate listing that allows you to buy the item without the album and that artists have to charge about $4 extra to cover the price of the digital album in any bundle. There was also a stipulation that 3rd party sites could not offer merch bundling, and those had to come directly from artists websites. All of these rules were decently easy to innovate around to keep the sales coming after they took effect in January. 
I just want to note that I'm not harping on album sales that come from concert ticket sales as much (though they can majorly disrupt the chart like Madame X charting for one week after Madonna's concert tickets went on sale and then crashing off the charts) because you have to take a fair amount of action for the sale to count. When you get the link in your email after buying the tickets, you need to fill in your name and address before clicking a button that certifies you really want the album. While it's an extra boost to sales because who doesn't want (basically) a free CD (or four), it still requires the purchaser to care enough to send in their information to the company separately and not just delete the email. It's a well known practice in fandoms to redeem them, but those fans are also likely to purchase the album additionally on their own and intentionally buy bundled merch because they're aware of chart implications. Again, that choice says a lot about an artist's influence and the devotion of their fans. I feel like that's still an important phenomenon to capture in a way that's as meaningful as the Billboard 200.
Anyways, the bundle is coming to an end (at an unspecified date I think in October? You have to have Billboard Pro to access that). Along with losing the merch and ticket bundles, artists are also no longer allowed to bundle a digital sale (counting immediately) with a vinyl or physical album sale (that might ship eight months later). Billboard tried to work around and with the bundle to keep the essential meaning of the chart alive, but they've realized that's impossible. So it's completely over. 
Billboard has a whole new set around rules for people buying merch (or concert tickets) and music that aims to break the bundle. They can still try to sell you a CD or digital download while you get your hoodie or concert ticket, but they can't do it for one sale price. You, the consumer, must add these additions to your cart separately, and they have to show up as two different items in that cart. Billboard believes that this will better reflect the consumer intent behind acquiring the music itself. Technically, your favorite artist can still sell you a bundle (there are tons of advantages to boosting album sales outside of charting), it just won't move the needle on chart placement like it did before. 
So, now that we know what's going on with Billboard, what do these rule changes mean for artists and the music industry as a whole? There are going to have to be major marketing shifts, but even with a new strategy, some of these losses can't be remedied. To illustrate how some of these changes might take shape and what bundling can do for chart success now, let's specifically zoom in on probably the most successful recent release, fueled by bundling: Taylor Swift's Folklore release. 
Taylor is a force in the industry and looked at as not only the songwriter of a generation but a true genius when it comes to the business side as well. She's been the master of bundling for years. I have like 6 Reputation CDs because there was one in each edition of the special magazines and a CD in every VIP Reputation box. For Folklore, she's taken it to another level. She's rolled out 8 different CDs with new art and behind the scenes material for each (available for week 1) and a slew of different vinyls along with a special "cardigan" CD with the voice memo released when "cardigan" needed a boost up the single chart. (It's common practice now to release special edition items when a fandom starts pushing a song up the charts. A new merch dropped and discounted single from Harry Style's team when they noticed the fan effort played a massive role in getting "Watermelon Sugar" to #1 briefly). Taylor has come out with a new, limited time merch drops every couple days for a month. Of course, all of these are bundles, and Swifties are devout at redeeming their digital copies. 
She's already managed to innovate around the loss of sales that would come with a CD + tour ticket bundles given COVID through the unrelenting merch drops, and Taylor Nation hyping them up on Twitter along with endless streaming parties. 
While plenty of Swifties bought the album on iTunes when it dropped and have been streaming constantly to earn Folklore's place at #1 on Billboard's 200 albums chart and "cardigan"'s the Hot 100, the constant release of new merch plays a major role. Instead of releasing everything at once, she slowly drops it over time (and for a limited time), leading not insignificant number of devoted Swifties picking up at least one item from each drop. That means that one fan (who probably bought a couple CDs on their own and maybe the digital on iTunes) could come to possess maybe 12 or more copies of Folklore. With the different drops spreading out these purchases into different chart weeks, we end up with Folklore holding a record 5 weeks at #1 so far. While I'm confident Taylor will continue to have #1 albums for many years to come, tying it to progressive merch drops allows a giant fandom to multiply itself by possibly eightfold or more when even the most devoted fan would probably only buy the album once in every format if they had to do it separately. 
I'm sure Taylor will find a new, innovative way to maximize her potential chart success in the future (the number of Taylor Nation streaming parties already point to that), but it will be much harder. The obvious move would be to continue Folklore's system of selling a million editions of the CDs and vinyls, but the wrinkle here is that without the digital sale to count towards week 1, the impact of those physical sales will take potentially months to hit, and by then, its impact will be lessened because the initial buzz that helps take albums up the charts will have worn off. If you're a regular merch shopper, you know that getting your physicals takes months. It took just under a month for my 2 deluxe CDs to arrive and my "cardigan" single CD still isn't here. To expand to other artists, most people still haven't gotten their Manic vinyls from Halsey's store (from January) because of production delays. It's common practice for it to take at least 8 weeks to collect all of your items. Getting your items in 2 weeks to a month always feels like a pleasant surprise. Artists are going to have to figure out a way to manufacture physicals early or rush the shipping (a hard feat given what's going on with USPS) to figure out a way around this, if they want to keep making physical albums at all. Many artists who do major numbers on streaming but less so on merch have stopped producing physical music at all. 
Already, I can point to Swift again on an artist already starting to step up to this challenge. For her latest round of getting a fandom that's probably getting sick of being asked to constantly buy stuff to reengage, she dropped signed CDs at record stores around the country before dropping a limited batch online. Those online orders reached people within the week, probably because she signed everything at once before the record store drop and had an extra month to get all the CDs manufactured. It'll definitely take an increased amount of planning, which can be hard given the spontaneity in the music business. I'm hoping, though, that one side effect of these new rules is that everyone might get their items in a more timely manner. 
While we could debate about the future of how bundling will morph and change to fit these rules (cause I don't think it will ever truly die), the most interesting side effect will be what happens to the charts. While it might stop some of the random albums no one is listening to from charting for a single week due to a tour, will it tank album sales again? They were making a slow comeback with these new practices and the increased interest in vinyl, but if getting a copy of the album with your order doesn't feel "free" anymore, will people still make the choice to purchase it? It's a lot easier to just buy the hoodie on the first page and be happy to support as a bonus than intentionally seek out the download yourself. Your lack of action to go after it now doesn't make your prior choice to download it any less intentional. In trying to better reflect consumer intent, Billboard has opened up new, sticky situations. 
I think it will definitely lead to more hip hop albums and albums that stream crazy numbers on Spotify but don't gain massive mainstream or radio relevance to stay at the top of the chart for longer (something we've already seen start to happen). One example is Roddy Ricch's "The Box" that held the top of the single charts for an extremely long time without making a major impact outside of streaming and sort of puzzled everyone. It will definitely make things like organized streaming parties, either through fandoms or an artist controlled entity like Taylor Nation, are going to become far more important to boosting songs up charts. I guess this delivers on Billboard's mission, because there's a lot of intent and love behind listening to the same song or album on loop for a week. On the other hand, placement on Spotify playlists will become increasingly important, not only as a tool to be discovered by new listeners but to collect the ambient streams. That's the biggest flaw I see. A stream just means the song came on, it didn't mean you liked it or particularly wanted to hear it.
At this point, artists are so much more than the music, and we need a place that reflects the cultural impact or the strength of the fandom/buzz more than we need a data collection that strictly lends itself to streaming numbers or direct album sales. It feels like Billboard was built for an era that is over, and they can't figure out how to wedge themselves into the current digital age of music where physical (and especially digital sales on iTunes) are about the last major indicator of success. 
I want to be able to see who people are willing to physically show up for at a concert. Who people are willing to shell out $50-$70 for a hoodie for so that they can wear the artist's name across their chests. That's devotion, and it requires a lot more from both the fan and the artist than simply streaming a catchy song. 
This article took a bit of a windy turn, but it's a fascinating and nuanced issue that has a lot of possible outcomes. Billboard is effectively crashing a system that has built up album sales again for major artists and will pose new challenges, even for massive and well oiled fandoms looking to get their favorite to number 1. While there will certainly be innovation to get around it, I wonder what unintended consequences will be seen from trying to force a somewhat antiquated chart system into the modern era. There are a growing number of charts available (Rolling Stone just launched one) that all use different metric, and I have to wonder if some of these other places will start gaining increased legitimacy. Also, I would love to see a chart at the forefront of the industry that does account for merch sales, social buzz, ticket sales, music video views, and other metrics to evaluate the success of artists and albums because it's an extremely limiting view to grade the music industry simply on album sales these days. Artists are forced to wear so many hats, we should at least give them proper credit for their effort.

Source Used: Billboard No More Merch Bundles (If you're a pro subscriber, they have an article that seems to give a lot more information, but it's paywalled, so I'm not sure). 

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