Five Ways the Billboard 200 Has Changed in the Year Since Bundles Were Removed From Chart Calculations

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On Oct. 9, 2020, Billboard officially announced that the controversial act of “bundling” album sales with concert tickets and artist merchandise — selling these items along with a copy of the artist’s album, with the cost of the new album baked into the overall sale price — would no longer be counted towards an album’s chart performance. This change of policy eliminated a practice that had long affected the charts, where bundling became increasingly common practice over the prior decade for artists and labels looking to offset the steep overall decline in both physical and digital music sales, and still produce relatively robust first-week figures.

One year later, the impact of the change in Billboard chart calculations is clearly noticeable and quantifiable, most prominently on the flagship all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart. Here are five ways in which the impact is most obvious:

1. Lower first-week numbers for No. 1 albums on the whole

Unsurprisingly, the average first-week performance of No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 has dropped over the past 12 months on the chart from the previous year. Over the period starting the chart week dated Oct. 26, 2019 and ending on the week dated Oct. 17, 2020, the 52 weeks’ worth of No. 1 albums moved an average of 174,000 equivalent album units. Over the most recent 52-week period, the No. 1 albums moved an average of 151,000 such units, a 23,000-per-week difference. (These and all other figures in this piece are according to MRC Data.)

The biggest difference in overall numbers comes largely via the number of true blockbuster first weeks. In the past year, just one album has posted a single-week performance greater than 400,000 equivalent album units: Drake’s Certified Lover Boy (613,000). However, there were five albums in the prior 52-week period that moved over 400,000 units in one week: Taylor Swift’s Folklore (846,000), Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die (497,000), Harry Styles’ Fine Line (478,000), The Weeknd’s After Hours (444,000) and BTS’ MAP OF THE SOUL: 7 (422,000) — all but the last of which benefited heavily from bundles.

Interestingly, though, the number of No. 1 albums to post mid-level first weeks has not been tremendously affected. There have been 32 No. 1 albums in the past year with equivalent album units over the 100,000 mark, down just three from the 35 No. 1 albums with six-digit first-week performances in the year before that. This can be attributed in large part due to artists and labels getting creative with new varieties of packaging, boxed sets and increased availability of physical format albums — giving these sets additional value as collectors’ items, as their practical utility as playable works of music continues to decline in the streaming age.

2. Albums rebounding to No. 1 due to physical copies shipping

The increased emphasis on physical copies as fan collectibles has also led to more blockbuster albums returning to No. 1 album months later on the chart — thanks to another rule change enacted at the same time as bundle elimination a year ago, which declared that physical media sold in conjunction with digital sales would only be tabulated as proper album sales once the physical copies actually shipped. (This eliminated the practice of “spontaneous” physical media sales impacting first-week chart performance — often for albums with surprise releases and/or short rollouts — when in fact, the physical copies would not be sent out to consumers until long after.)

As a result, four albums in the past year have rebounded to No. 1 more than a month after most recently falling from the position — Taylor Swift’s Evermore and Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour all did so thanks to the long-awaited shipping of their physical copies, months after the LPs’ digital release, while Luke Combs’ What You See Is What You Get returned via a deluxe reissue. (Lil Baby’s My Turn was the lone album to return to the top after a month-plus break in the year prior, due to its consistent streaming presence during some slow release weeks at the pandemic’s height in summer 2020.) The two Swift albums and Sour now lay claim to three of the four biggest weeks for vinyl sales since 1991, topped by the 102,000 records sold by Evermore on the chart dated June 12. (Fearless (Taylor’s Version) was also helped greatly by Swift-signed CDs, available on her website for a limited period, which also shipped the same week.)

While this rule change has likely dampened first-week performance for star artists like Swift and Rodrigo, who still sell a strong number of physical copies, it also has allowed them to extend their runs at No. 1 — with the artists now able to position their shipping weeks strategically to best ensure their returns to the top spot months after the album’s initial release, giving the albums extra relevance later in their promotional cycles.

3. Fewer debuts in the chart’s top 10

Ticket and merchandise bundles rarely had an extended impact on an album’s chart performance, as the impact was traditionally concentrated mostly (if not entirely) towards the set’s debut week. This resulted in a high number of albums with strong first-week debuts on the Billboard 200, which would then plummet immediately after, making room for new albums in the chart’s top tier the following week. As a result, the overall number of albums to debut in the Billboard 200’s top 10 has noticeably shrank over the past year without any short-lasting bundling boost — with 92 albums bowing in the region in the past 52 weeks, compared to 118 in the year-long period prior, a 28% decrease.

4. No legacy pop acts at No. 1

While pop hitmakers remain a fixture atop the Billboard 200 even in the post-bundle age — Swift and Rodrigo, as well as Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, BTS and others have all topped the chart in the past year — there has been less of a presence from older pop acts, whose contemporary relevance is mostly tied to their continued live prowess. In the two years prior to this past 52-week period, pop veterans Backstreet Boys, Madonna, P!nk and Celine Dion all had No. 1 albums, despite none of those albums launching a single top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. No such pop albums hit No. 1 in the past year.

In fact, only two albums total in the past year have hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 without sending at least one song from the set to the Hot 100’s top 40: AC/DC’s Power Up and Playboi Carti’s Whole Lotta Red. It’s indicative of how without ticket and merch bundles, the Billboard 200 is more closely tied to contemporary hit songs (and the streaming prowess that most often drives such success) than ever before.

5. Not many rock artists at No. 1 — but plenty in the top 10

While top rock acts remain a top live draw in the music industry, their relevance as contemporary hitmakers has also largely dulled in recent years, and few of them perform as well as top pop or hip-hop acts on streaming services. Ticket bundles were a great way for legacy artists like Bon Jovi and Dave Matthews Band (both of whom scored No. 1 albums in 2018) to regularly compete for the chart’s top spot, since their ticket sales remained robust even as they (along with the majority of the industry) saw their traditional LP sales decline significantly.

With the elimination of bundles from chart calculations, only one album classified primarily as “Rock” on the Billboard charts — AC/DC’s previously mentioned Power Up — has topped the chart in the past year. While that’s the same number as the year prior (Machine Gun Kelly’s Tickets to My Downfall was the lone rock No. 1 over that period, and was boosted by bundling), it’s significantly down from the late ’10s, when as recently as 2019, albums by artists like the Raconteurs, Slipknot, Hozier and Vampire Weekend were still topping the Billboard 200 with help from bundles.

The No. 1 start for Power Up is illustrative, however, of how legacy rock acts have adjusted their strategy to remain competitive on the charts even in the post-bundle age, with elaborate limited-edition deluxe CD packages and multiple different types of vinyl releases enticing direct purchasers who might not otherwise often spend money on physical albums just to listen to them. While AC/DC are the only rock act to debut at No. 1 the past year, other such veteran acts have been propelled to top 10 debuts using similar practices — including Paul McCartney (McCartney III, No. 2), Rob Zombie (The Lunar Injection Kool Aid Eclipse Conspiracy, No. 9), John Mayer (Sob Rock, No. 2), The Killers (Pressure Machine, No. 9) and Iron Maiden (Senjutsu, No. 3), the last of which also marked their highest-ever debut on the chart.

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