By Bridget Campos, 5/17/2015
People always remember the greatest moments of achievement in history, but no one remembers what efforts were made to reach that goal. That’s why it is common to acknowledge and reward talented individuals and/or teams for such accomplishments in their field, whether it is in sports, science, publishing, or entertainment. Unfortunately, we often see professionals readily embrace fame and glory after achieving a level of success only to later on be exposed for intentionally misleading the public by fabricating information or cheating in sporting games. That is why most industries implement a standard of integrity known as an ethical code, so as to make sure their profession isn’t corrupted by cheating practices so that the playing field is, as it were, even and fair.
But on the other hand we see some industries that are the complete opposite and tend to be more lenient with their policies, giving very little if any overview on making sure their high standards are maintained. Lately this has been seen in the world of music, specifically music charts in the US like Billboard Magazine.
Take for example artists, (usually from popular record labels), that are allowed to give their albums away at a discounted price and are then awarded by Billboard for “breaking record sales” upon the first week of release. Such actions give an illusion of grandiose by making an artist seem more accomplished than what they did in terms of actual sales, because they were allowed to cheat by giving their music away at a discounted price or even for free through what is known as “bundling.”
What is Bundling?
The term “bundling” is when artists are allowed to give away their newly released album to fans that attend their upcoming concert. Tour dates are announced prior to the album’s release. Buy a ticket, get a free album. This counts as a sale for the first week and will in turn boosts an album’s place in the Billboard 200 chart to the number one spot. The way you can tell a newly released album is bundled is during the second week of its release, the sales drop drastically by 75% or more.
Now you may be thinking, didn’t Billboard address this issue years ago after the whole fiasco involving the 99 cent Amazon deal with Lady Gaga’s 2011 album, Born This Way? Yes, months after several critics cried foul that Born This Way’s first week of sales were highly inflated due to the album being sold at a giving away price; Billboard had to adjust their policy on newly released albums being discounted. In November 2011, Billboard issued a statement on their website, basically stating that newly released albums priced at $3.49 or less for the first month, and digital tracks priced below 39 cents for the first three months will not be eligible on Billboard’s charts. It seemed like a fair solution to the problem. But it’s a shame that months later, Billboard found a loophole within the very policy they implemented. In April 2012, Madonna’s new album MDNA reached no. 1 on Billboard 200 courtesy of the bundled package. It’s funny how mainstream publications were quick to dismiss Lady Gaga’s 99 cent deal with Amazon as being “not a big deal”, but readily pointed out how Madonna pumped up her album sales of MDNA artificially. Why the apparent double standard?
Some might question that these events happened years ago, what do they have to do with today’s music charts? Well, that’s the point; these discounts are still going on now. As early as this year, artists are still allowed to bundle their new album with concert tickets, and through digital sales give up to half of the tracks away for free to listeners, if they pre-order the new album in advance (which is then counted during the first week of sales). And, as of late last year, Billboard’s new policies have only gotten worse. Just viewing an artist’s music video online either through Vevo or Youtube and/or listening through digital streaming it is counted as an album or single sale, according to the New York Times.
It seems like these new policies are in favor of those who are currently popular on an internet and social media level (as collected by Nielsen Soundscan data on music consumer's likes and dislikes), or which videos are more than likely to go viral, rather than an artist actually selling albums because of having a loyal fan base. Case in point, a lot of music enthusiasts speculated that Billboard implemented this change due to legendary singer, Barbra Streisand’s 2014 album, Partners, reaching no. 1 on Billboard 200 because of actual album sales (like that’s a bad thing). Such a policy change of having streaming music dominate Billboard charts will have a great affect on older artists. “Since these charts are used to gauge the importance and impact an artist has in the marketplace, a diminishing of these artists on the charts could affect their overall sales, or their acknowledgement by the industry,” as stated bySavingCountryMusic.com.
Some, however, are in support of Billboard’s policy change because they must keep up with the way consumers are “purchasing” music in this digital age. There is a much broader spectrum of media consumption and that is due to streaming services rapidly increasing in popularity every year, while CD and digital downloads have been declining since 2013. This has caused some to strongly believe that streaming songs is the future of music consumption.
Is Streaming Really the Future of Music?
Personally, I believe streaming and Youtube will be a great replacement for radio stations and music video channels like MTV, VH1, and Fuse. Why? Because it seems like radio stations treat songs more like commercial time slots, where record labels can just buy up airtime for their artists’ music. This explains why you hear particular songs played in what feels like over a 100 hundred times throughout the week. It has become an overkill playlist that has turned people off from radio. While music video channels rarely even play music videos at all, but instead have been replaced them with reality TV shows. But to say that on-demand streaming will be the main focal point of music consumption, I highly doubt it.
Keep in mind that even though these free streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody are ever increasing in popularity, their paid memberships are not. As of last year, Spotify has had over 40 million active users across 56 countries, but has only reached 10 million paid subscribers and has yet to even turn a profit, according to the Huffington Post. Spotify, like the many other streaming services, believes that in giving music away for free, hopefully listeners will want to purchase a $10 monthly subscription for unlimited, commercial free access to music. So how do they make money you ask? Mostly through ads and paid subscribers. Hmm… this seems like a common theme that streaming services are giving music away for free, but yet this is supposed to dominate album sales on Billboard charts. This devaluing of music almost seems intentional. I know I am not the only one that sees things this way. In an interview with RollingStone Magazine, Pink Floyd drummer, Nick Mason, expressed the same sentiment as well. He said, “It’s been the big story of the 21st century, music being de-valued.” But why are mainstream publications so quick to profess that streaming is the future of music? Well, according to Jon Mundy of TrustedReviews.com, he believes that streaming services, like Spotify, are seen by major labels as just another decent revenue stream for their back catalogues of classic material, which would otherwise simply sit there earning modest physical and MP3 sales over the years. Remember Spotify spends a fixed proportion of 70% of its total revenue on royalties (Bloomberg.com). It’s no wonder why they are not turning a profit. But the CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek, has felt the company is doing justice in that by giving music away for free this is preventing piracy and they are also helping new artists make some money while getting exposure for their music.
Now piracy is a whole other topic to discuss for another time, but it is true that through streaming services, emerging artists have a larger platform to develop a fanbase for their music. However, they just don’t make much, but only pennies on the dollar per song stream with Spotify. It makes sense why artists have turned their back on streaming services. They just don’t get that great of a deal. But then Tidal recently emerged getting the full support (at first) by mainstream artists. During the website’s TV promos, artists ranging from Jay-Z, to Beyonce, and Rihanna expressed how artists should get paid their fair share for the music they make. Though paid subscribers have been increasing at a steady pace, it’s a tough sale convincing listeners to pay twice as much of what Spotify charges. Yes, people will pay more for good quality sounding music, but it has to be something they will own, which is why for the past nine years vinyl records are making a strong comeback. That is something Tidal cannot give to their subscribers.
Where Music Is Heading
Though we are entering a digital era, music charts based on who is popular today on the internet or how many views they have on Youtube, rather than on actual album sales is not the way to go. Such methods can easily be altered and manipulated digitally. It’s been reported by The Wall Street Journalhow people in the public eye are buying fake social media accounts to increase followers, create fake activity, and influence trending topics on popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Not too long ago, Youtube had removed over 2 billion channel views from Sony and Universal Music. Some speculated it was because the labels had inflated their views, though this was denied and instead they called it de-spamming (Billboard.com).
Some may feel this article is being extremely unfair, but let’s view this subject in a logical manner. Ask yourself, do you personally measure success based on how big of a discount you put on an album? People will more than likely buy an album if it was at a giving away price, even if it wasn’t that good or they weren’t even a fan of the artist. Yet, some people might feel that it doesn’t matter if artists are losing money in album sales, because there is no real money to be made in music sales, most of the money is made in concerts, merchandise, and endorsements. Why do you think there has been more and more of an increase in festivals with mainstream artists headlining the venues?
That maybe is a valid point, but artists like Adele and Taylor Swift have defied the odds and proven that you don’t need to give music away for free through digital streaming in order for people to appreciate it. If an album is good people will buy even if it’s not on sale. These are the type of artists that deserve accolades for selling albums with a level of integrity. Instead of Billboard trying to find ways to count album sales out of thin air for artists that really never deserved getting such buzzworthy attention to begin with, they should really consider why album sales continue to steadily decline each year and would it even make any sense to have a Billboard 200 chart anymore. All this manipulating of sales in reality just corners the market by giving leverage to major labels over independent labels. Popular artists are more than likely to go along with these cheating practices because it helps increase their value, so in turn they can demand more money on contracts from lucrative deals, and having a few gold or platinum records on the wall doesn’t sound too bad either. Though Billboard may have lost its way in terms of not maintaining high standards in charting music, they still are looked up to and highly regarded in the world of music. If they implemented their policies with more integrity, labels would more willingly comply because Billboard is the most recognized publisher of music charts in the world since the 1930’s and hopefully will continue to do so for generations to come.
Photo Credit by Billboard Magazine