Chart Watch (NEW)

Chart Watch Extra: Gaga Album Sparks Policy Change

Chart Watch

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In May, Lady Gaga's Born This Way became the first album in more than six years to sell as many as 1,108,000 copies in one week. But the tally was inflated by hundreds of thousands of copies by AmazonMP3's decision to sell the album for just 99 cents on two separate days. Billboard announced today that beginning the week after next, albums sold at such deep discounts won't be counted.

Even without Amazon's 99 cent sale, Gaga's album would still have debuted at #1 that week (the week's #2 album, Brad Paisley's This Is Country Music sold 153K copies), but it wouldn't have had such an eye-popping total.

Effective with the sales tracking week of Nov. 21 - 27, which coincides with the Billboard charts dated Dec. 10, any album that sells for less than $3.49 during the first four weeks of release won't count on the magazine's album charts. Similarly, any track that sells for less than 39 cents during its first three months of release won't count on its singles charts.

Bill Werde, Billboard's editorial director, had earlier defended the magazine's decision to accept the 99 cent sales on Gaga's album, but said at the time that the magazine would reevaluate the policy going forward.

"Ultimately, what swayed us to make a rule change now - removed from any pressure connected to any particular album - was the fact that we wouldn't want an album that sold for one penny to count on our charts," Werde wrote in an open letter to the industry. "Our charts are meant to indicate consumer intent. And once you accept that you don't want to count penny albums, the only remaining question is simply where a threshold should be.

"We ultimately chose $3.49 for two reasons. One, it's roughly half of wholesale in the digital world, where albums cost retailers about $7.50 on average. And two, this price point wouldn't interfere with any regular or semi-regular pricing currently in effect at any of the five biggest retailers - Walmart, Amazon, iTunes, Best Buy and Target. …Billboard doesn't want to control the marketplace. We just want to count it. But free or almost-free albums don't represent a marketplace."

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This is the third time in four years that Billboard has made a major chart change after a high-profile #1 album exposed a serious flaw in its existing chart policies. Until November 2007, albums that were sold at only one retail chain were barred from The Billboard 200. That would have kept Eagles' Long Road Out Of Eden (a Walmart exclusive) off the chart, even though it sold 711K copies in its first week, more than twice as many as Britney Spears' Blackout (which sold 290K). In a controversial decision, Billboard changed its policy that week to allow Eagles' album (and all future exclusives) to appear on the chart.

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The decision had major implications, as these decisions tend to do. It broke Spears' string of four consecutive studio albums to debut at #1. Spears' two subsequent studio albums, Circus and Femme Fatale, have also debuted in the top spot. So if Billboard hadn't changed its policy that week, Spears would have debuted at #1 with her first seven studio albums, which would constitute an all-time record.

In his letter to the industry, Werde, who wasn't at Billboard in 2007, suggested he is uncomfortable with the idea of changing chart rules during the week a problem is exposed. He indicated that that's a key reason that he allowed Gaga's 99 cent sales to be counted in May. "I believed then - and still believe - that making a chart rule change in response to a development that would affect that week's charts is a mistake. Billboard lays out its chart rules so labels and artists can play by them."

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Until December 2009, older "catalog" albums were also barred from The Billboard 200, and were instead relegated to the lower-profile Catalog Albums chart. The inequity of this was dramatized in the wake of Michael Jackson's death in June 2009. His 2003 compilation Number Ones was the best-selling album in the U.S. for six weeks that summer, yet was kept off The Billboard 200. Instead, the #1 spot was held by six lesser-selling albums, including such minor releases as Demi Lovato's Here We Go Again, Fabolous' Loso's Way and Sugarland's Live On The Inside.

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The rule wasn't changed in time to give Jackson's album its due, but the rule change has allowed three subsequent catalog albums to crack the top 10. Those albums are the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St, Amy Winehouse's Back To Black and the Beatles' 1.

I think Billboard made the right call in all three of these decisions. It shouldn't matter if an album is sold at just one chain or at all chains; or whether it is a catalog album or a current album. But it should matter if an album is being sold for just a penny, or for 99 cents, for that matter.

At least that's my 99 cents worth.

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