100 & Single: What Billboard's Rule Changes Mean For The Britney, Michael And Gaga Albums You Bought

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When you go see a movie at a Saturday half-price matinee, should it count toward that weekend's box office? You paid less than the guy who saw the movie Friday night. Does that mean your viewing shouldn't count?

What about if you see an old movie at a revival house: Should that count toward the box office? I don't just mean a big, nationwide rerelease like this year's The Lion King in 3D. If enough people pay to see a restored print of Blade Runner, should it make the lower rungs of the box-office chart? What if that showing of Blade Runner was only playing at one theater, like the Ziegfeld in New York or Graumann's Chinese in Hollywood? Should that count?

These questions probably seem like no-brainers. Sure, count it all, you're saying. What's the big deal? Maybe the matinee-priced movie should count half as much as the full-price, but otherwise no one would object to all movies at all theaters competing for the weekend title. In fact, that's exactly how box-office tallying works. If it screens somewhere open to the public, it's counted and charted.

Switch the medium from movies to music, however, and answering these questions becomes a matter of hot debate.

Another salvo in that debate landed in the pages of Billboard last week. On the Billboard 200 album chart, the big arrival is by indie rapper Mac Miller. His Blue Slide Park is the first chart-topping debut by a non-major-label act in 16 years, since Tha Dogg Pound's Dogg Food in 1995.

But for industryites and chart-watchers, the more notable news is a rule change that's got nothing to do with Miller and everything to do with a six-month-old Lady Gaga album. The magazine picked this week to announce the change, as its "chart year"—which runs from December 1 to November 30—draws to a close. (I hate the chart-year quirk, but that's a debate for another day.)

Starting with the 2012 chart year, any album sold below $3.49 in its first month of release will not be tallied by Nielsen Soundscan for Billboard's charts. The same goes for a song sold below 39 cents. Such cheapo purchases won't even get partial credit, like a movie matinee does—if you paid rock-bottom price for the recording, it won't count for the charts at all.

This rule is a direct response to Gaga's last album, Born This Way, which topped the Billboard 200 in May under a cloud. For two days during the tracking week, digital retailer Amazon—unilaterally, and independently of Gaga or her label Interscope—priced MP3 downloads of the album at 99 cents. That's cheaper than the normal price for a single, let alone a 14-track album. Smelling a bargain, some 440,000 folks bought Born during those two days at Amazon, which was promoting its new Cloud Drive music service.

If those fire-sale purchases distorted chart history at all, the damage was minor. The Gaga disc sold another 660,000 copies at higher-priced retailers that week; even if the new rule had been in effect then, Born would have been No. 1 handily, with a total more than four times higher than any other album.

But Born's splashy debut set a couple of other chart records, which are now regarded as dubious. Its official debut-week tally, 1.108 million copies, is 2011's biggest; and it made Born one of only 17 "million-weekers" in chart history. Take away the cheapo Amazon sales, and those accolades disappear.

On various online forums, I've spent much of the last six months defending both Billboard for counting the Amazon sales and Gaga for earning a 2011 chart record. There's been some Internet chatter that Gaga somehow gamed the system—ridiculous, given that Amazon, on its own, priced the album as a loss-leader, and paid Interscope full wholesale price (around $7) for each 99-cent sale. Some of the craziest accusations, that Billboard and Gaga were in cahoots to inflate her total, were tweeted by hardcore Britney Spears fans, for reasons that I'll explain in a moment.


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4 comments
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Ed Kollin
Ed Kollin

One chart for copies another for bucks raked in. Both are important. Everything should except possibly giveaways at concerts (got to think about that one).  Jackson was the most popular musician the summer he died, the charts should reflect this.

Eugene
Eugene

The main thing I draw from this article is that Britney fans should grow up and get a life.

Mary_Hall_1990
Mary_Hall_1990

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Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Before anyone brings it up, let me preemptively poke a hole in my leadoff metaphor between the movie box office and the music charts, because I'm being a bit glib and slightly unfair to Billboard. The key difference is that Hollywood actually tracks dollars spent instead of number of tickets sold, whereas the music industry has always tracked numbers of copies of records sold, regardless of what those recordings cost the consumer.

This distinction gives the movie business more flexibility in charting its successes than the music business. As implied above, a matinee-priced or discounted movie ticket is reported at the lower price paid for it. Kid flicks, for which millions of tickets are sold at under-12 prices, are subject to this box-office disadvantage all the time. Conversely, 3D movies' grosses are inflated by the extra $3–$5 that moviegoers pay for them.

I actually prefer the music business's system—I'd rather know how many bodies consumed the art in question than how much they spent—but it does make it tough for Billboard sometimes. If the album chart were reported on a dollars-spent basis, they wouldn't have to come up with anything as detailed as a minimum-price rule. All those Gaga albums sold for 99¢ would have been reported to the magazine at that lower rate. She still would have been No. 1 for the week, almost certainly, but it might have been a closer horse race with the No. 2 album (that week it was Brad Paisley's latest, This Is Country Music, which rolled a very respectable 153,000 copies), if more folks paid closer to full price for the runner-up disc.

Mostly, I was just looking for an easy metaphor to open the column. The truth is, there's very little overlap between how any of the major content industries tracks its products. Nielsen ratings for television are weighted in all sorts of ways based on demographics of the viewers, area of the country and time of year. Book sales tracked by The New York Times reportedly factor in price paid for the tomes, somehow, but it's opaque. Compared to these and the movie business, the music business's tracking system is one of the simplest and (never thought I'd say this) almost the most pure: one copy sold, one vote for the charts.

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