Chart Watch (NEW)

Chart Watch Extra: Got A Quarter?

Chart Watch

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Remember when Lady Gaga took some flak last May because digital copies of her then-new album, Born This Way, were sold for just 99 cents for two days at Amazon's MP3 store? The album sold more copies in one week than any album had in more than six years, but because some of them were sold for about the price of a candy bar or a newspaper, it diminished the achievement.

That almost seems like a steep price in light of bargain-basement pricing of 25 cents offered in the past week by Google Play (and matched by AmazonMP3) on digital copies of such hit albums as Now 41, Lady Antebellum's Own The Night, Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto, Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV and Drake's Take Care.

You may remember that Billboard altered its chart policy last fall in the wake of the Gaga incident. So you may be thinking that these 25 cent sales won't count toward this week's Billboard 200 chart (which will be released on Wednesday). Actually, unless Billboard rewrites its policy again in midst of this tracking week (which it almost never does), these sales will count.

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Billboard's current policy is that albums have to sell for at least $3.49 for their first four weeks of release. That would have affected the Gaga album, which was in its first week of release, but it doesn't affect the albums I mentioned. Now 41 is entering its fifth week. The other four albums are even older: This will be the 17th week on the chart for Drake's album, the 20th for Coldplay's album, the 26th for Lady A's and the 28th for Lil Wayne's.

Google Play launched on March 6, consolidating Google Music with digital books, games, movies and apps. To attract attention, the site implemented a daily 25-cent album deal called the "25-cent Play of the Day." AmazonMP3 matched the price, in an effort to protect their image as a low price provider.

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Music fans seeking a good deal should keep tabs on both sites. The current "Play of the Day" at Google Play (https.//play.google.com/store) is Drake's Take Care. (The album is currently the #2 best-seller at the site, just behind Adele's 21.) The current 25-cent steal (I mean deal) at Amazon (www.Amazon.com, then select MP3 Downloads) is Guns N' Roses' 2004 album Greatest Hits.

In November, Bill Werde, Billboard's editorial director, explained how the magazine arrived at the $3.49 minimum price point. "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…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 around $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."

Billboard now must consider whether albums sold for just a quarter represent a marketplace.

In an open letter to the industry in May, Werde conceded charting the fast-changing music industry has become much more complicated than it used to be. "Ah, remember the old days? Back when (compiling) the Billboard 200 albums chart was as simple as adding up the receipts for thousands of different record stores?...Every week it seems Billboard has new market realities to consider as they relate to our charting policies."

It is very unlikely that Billboard will exclude the 25-cent sales from this week's chart. In November, Werde explained why he didn't intervene in May and refuse to count the 99-cent sales generated by Amazon's Gaga promotion.

"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."

Werde has also indicated that he is generally opposed to setting pricing thresholds. "I generally regard Billboard's role as being a market archivist and not a market activist," he wrote in May. "If we set an arbitrary pricing threshold, we are affecting business and not simply reporting it…I just don't believe it's Billboard's role to place arbitrary speed bumps in the way of music's falling price."

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