Gone are the days where most people walk into a record store to buy an album. In today's streaming landscape figuring out how many albums an artist sold feels like complicated arithmetic. Physical copies, streaming numbers, and those damn bundle deals that no one seems to understand all count toward the total number that counts as an album sale. This year has proven that the industry doesn't really understand this calculation either, with arguments over sales igniting feuds between artists vying for the top of the charts, like Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott or DJ Khaled and Tyler the Creator. But Billboard is finally offering some clarity on the matter, with new rules surrounding how merch bundles will contribute to album sales, effective Jan. 3.
How are the rules changing?
As streaming became popular, so did bundle deals, with artists using merch to supplement the loss of profit from the decline in sales of physical albums. The current rules hold that the revenue from the sales of the packaging of merch with music count toward an album's position on the Billboard charts.
The tie dye t-shirt you've been ogling is more than likely a part of an album bundle deal. You might enjoy the "Miss Americana" aesthetic of Taylor Swift's merch for her Lover album, but a purchase from her Lover Collection means you get a digital copy of the album whether you want it or not. And while there are a slew of hoodies and beanies to choose from that don't include a digital download, the merch sold under her Lover Collection isn't for individual sale on its own. So, what happens if you want the tee but not the music?
Starting in January, any merch included in a bundle deal must also be available to be purchased separately. Bundles must also be priced $3.49 higher than the individual product. $3.49 is the minimum an album must be priced to count on the charts. So if a hat costs $20, bundles must be priced starting at $23.49. Billboard's new rules also put an end to the loopholes artists found in their all-revenue in strategy. In June, energy drink packages sold on a third-party site for DJ Khaled's Father of Asahd were disqualified from boosting the album to the top of the charts. Going forward, an artist's official page is the only place where purchases count toward album sales. All albums and bundle deals, old and new, will be held to the standards of the new chart regulations starting Jan. 3.
Some rules, like concert packages where the sale of an album for the price of a ticket is revealed upfront, will remain the same. The goal of the new rules are to show who actually intended to buy an album and who didn't, and Billboard is putting a little more power back in the hands of the consumer.
Why are the rules changing?
A lot of the skepticism surrounding album bundling leans on a central question: does the sale of merch equate to the sale of an album? "Customers usually never had the option to get an attractive piece of merch without the album, so the purity of an album sale became distorted," said Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard's head of charts, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. The allure of a trendy shirt or concert is not always synonymous with fandom—sometimes it's just the fear of missing out kicking in. Billboard's attempt to do a better job at quantifying who is actively seeking music from the industry's biggest artists speaks to how popular streaming has become, with total album sales (physical and digital) down 18 percent from last year according to Nielsen Music.
What does this mean for normal people?
Billboard's changes are trying to make the rules more fair and less confusing for us all. As fans, we shell out money to support our favorite artists without hesitation. But as writer Robert Shrimsley asked in his ode to the iPod he still uses: "How many times am I meant to pay for the same song?" Bundle deals don't consider your monthly subscription to Spotify or Apple Music before you purchase your favorite rapper's take on a long sleeve tee that comes with an album that you probably already have downloaded to your phone.
Billboard's change starts a conversation about how outdated systems are trying to adapt to the times. But will it help? Bundle deals are the first step, but certainly not the last. Lil Nas X gamed outdated chart rules to make "Old Town Road" the longest-running No. 1 song of all time. Though it's easy to root for Lil Nas, that's certainly another example of an artist using loopholes to their advantage.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.