A brief breakdown of the controversial yet common practice of bundling — and the artists whose sales either soared or remained stagnant as a result.
It’s been almost a year since Nicki Minaj’s infamous rant on Apple Music’s Queen Radio. During the iconic moment, she calls out fellow chart competitor, Travis Scott, his partner, Kylie Jenner, and their newborn, “Baby Stormi” for assisting in his album, ASTROWORLD, topping the Billboard 200 album charts in its second week. ASTROWORLD ended up besting Minaj’s fourth studio album, Queen, in the latter’s debuting week, making it peak at No. 2. But Minaj’s issue had less to do with Scott, and more-so with Billboard’s charting rules, which counted bundling of merchandise with album purchases, for its final rankings.
A larger lens has since been placed onthe controversial yet common practice of bundling and its effects on sales and charts. It goes without saying that Billboard rankings are considered the de facto source of commercial success by the industry, artists, and stans alike. It was declared, “the merch bundle wars,” analyzing the valid points Minaj made in her criticism. It was concluded that album-merch bundles don’t make much money, yet hip-hop artists went beyond streaming numbers to not only capture chart-topping positions but also make pure sales figures match those accolades through exclusive merchandising.
Recent footage of DJ Khaled in an uproar that his latest studio album, Father of Asahd, lost out to Tyler The Creator’s IGOR in the battle for No. 1 album in the US surfaced online. In this case, both artists and their respective marketing teams and labels used bundles. Except, Billboard decided to count Tyler The Creator’s clothing bundles rather than DJ Khaled’s energy drink combo in their final tally. This decision prompted a reported lawsuit from Khaled, with Roc Nation’s (his record label’s) COO, Desiree Perez, calling for the elimination of album bundling. In an interview with Hits Daily Double, she motioned, “Music consumption is the only true metric that should matter. Bundling devalues the art and is demeaning to the artists. It needs to go, and we are urging Billboard to take that step as soon as possible.”
The New York Times reported that “about half the 39 titles that topped the charts last year were sold as part of ticket or merchandise ‘bundles’” highlighting how album sales (without streaming equivalents) have been on the decline for the past decade, and how bundling has kept those numbers alive in the release weeks.
Okayplayer reviewed a few artists who have benefited from this ongoing industry trend in the past few years. Here’s a brief breakdown of the controversial yet common practice of bundling and the artists whose sales either soared or remained stagnant as a result.
At press time, Madonna has reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 for her ninth time, with her 14th studio album, Madame X. To place this in perspective, her first album to reach the summit position was her sophomore effort, Like A Virgin, in 1984. With a career spanning 40 years, the original Queen of Pop, has fallen out of favor with the contemporary fan base — her music most appealing to her dedicated stans, who’d rather see her in concert than give the consistent streams to compete in today’s music economy. Billboard reports that her 90,000 album equivalents in its debuting week were the result of concert ticket bundles, as well as exclusive merchandise on her website. This is not the first time, Madge has reached No. 1 due to bundles: 2012’s MDNA followed suit, as 2015’s Rebel Heart experienced the Minaj-effect, falling short to the TV soundtrack of Empire.
Prince, another icon who broke ground in the ‘80s, caused disruption in 2004 with his 28th studio album, Musicology. As MTV News reported, “Billboard Sours On Prince’s Musicology Sales Experiment.” In the rise of internet consumption taking over the music industry and controlling digital sales in the age of iTunes, The Purple One decided to bundle his album with ticket sales for his concert. As the article reported, of the 632,000 copies sold in five weeks, 158,000 were sold through tickets that ranged from $75 to $85. To say the least, a move from a very respected OG of music — that spoke out against the industry’s slavery — was the straw that broke the camel’s back, setting a trend in motion.
Jumping back to 2019, this Disney Channel starting trio also benefited from concert ticket bundles. Although they had the fuel of a No. 1comeback single, “Sucker,” the Jonas Brothers made sure to
secure the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 with “Happiness Begins,” their first to reach the position in a decade. According to The New York Times, many of their 414,000 copies sold came from fans “who bought tickets to the Jonas Brothers’ tour, rather than buying the album by itself.”
Remember, Taylor Swift has benefited from album bundles to keep her charting legacy intact. For her reputation era, she sold her album alongside exclusive merchandise including hoodies priced at $65, t-shirts at $40, and a smartphone stand for $20. All of this worked — in addition to pre-sales — as the album sold 1.2 million album equivalents in its debuting week of the Billboard 200. Swift became the only artist to have four of her albums debut with more than 1 million albums sold in its opening week.
Continuing with 2017 album sales trends, Billboard made sure to highlight how artists were gaming their album charts with bundles. Of that list, which included P!nk, Kenny Chesney, Katy Perry, and Arcade Fire, The Chainsmokers made the list. The following year, Genius also highlighted how albums were topping the charts through bundles in 2017. For their debut studio album released that year, Memories… Do Not Open reached the top of the chart selling 166,000 copies — an untold number coming with free copies accompanying concert ticket sales.
This instance isn’t the standard merch bundling of clothes with an album, or concert tickets with an album code. When releasing 4:44 in 2017, Hov made his album exclusively available to only Sprint and TIDAL customers for streaming and downloading. This (like many other exclusive TIDAL only albums) prompted most to download a free subscription for TIDAL in order to stream the album. Sprint customers received a free six month subscription, also boosting the stats for the streaming service. Some loyal fans may have even switched to Sprint as their phone provider. However, Billboard chose not to count the Sprint album downloads. While the album instantly went platinum in its first week — similar to a strategy employed by JAY-Z in 2013 with Magna Carta Holy Grail, and Rihanna’s ANTi in 2016 — it debuted at number one on the charts the following week.
We’ve already mentioned the fiasco between DJ Khaled and Tyler The Creator, but let’s circle back to the artists who had “the balls” to let this information out “to freedom”: Nicki Minaj. While Minaj was in an uproar about Travis Scott’s marketing strategy, many noted that she even fell into the pressure of garnering a No. 1 album. In the midst of the heated chart battle, Minaj also had a bundle running for Queen. The rapper sold a $5 bundle which included a poster, a TIDAL subscription, and the album. On top of that, she added “FEFE” as a bonus track for Queen’s streaming stats, in order to beat Scott. Still, she ended up at No. 2, although she may have very well offered one of her best and most iconic albums in the grand scheme of it all!
Da’Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him @nightshawn101