the dark arts of the pop charts: how music superstars sell millions when no one buys albums

As Taylor Swift’s "Reputation" sells 1.2m copies in a week — making it the biggest selling album of 2017 so far — we explore the rise of artists’ partnerships with brands, streaming deals, ticket bundles, and other magic sales tricks.

by Alim Kheraj
22 November 2017, 10:14am

Images via Creative Commons

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

Taylor Swift’s new album Reputation has become the biggest selling album of 2017 in the United States, shifting 1.2 million copies in its first week. While her label, Big Machine, had predicted that she could sell 2 million copies, the more modest final count has still made it her fourth record in a row to debut with over a million sales in one week. She previously held the record of three million selling weeks jointly with Adele, but has become the first artist ever to claim four.

These impressive figures come at a time when physical sales and downloads of albums are steadily declining and streaming is becoming more important. Taylor, however, is a known antagonist of music streaming and decided to withhold Reputation from Spotify, Apple Music, and other services — a move that, in 2015, Adele used to shift 3.38 million copies of her third album 25 in one week. It’s just one of the ways that the singer has ensured her sales reign.

Following the release of lead single " Look What You Made Me Do," Taylor and her team announced a new “verified fan” initiative with Ticketmaster, to allow genuine fans first access to tickets and to beat out computer robots used by ticket touts (Ticketmaster, it’s worth noting, has its own secondary ticket market). Part of this process involves hopeful concert-goers registering their details prior to the on sale date to — in theory — cut out the middleman. The success of this, as a recent string of Bruce Springsteen concerts has shown, is debatable.

Taylor’s system was different: fans would have to work to get points that would give them a better chance at bagging those highly-prized concert tickets. Gathering these points would involve a multitude of typical fan activities from posting about the singer on social media, watching her music videos multiple times and, most divisively, pre-ordering her album. The argument made by Ticketmaster and Taylor’s team was that this was just rewarding fans for “everyday behaviors that are a core part of their experience with Taylor.”

Still, the incentive was met with derision, with Rou Reynolds from band Enter Shikari accusing Taylor and her team of “replacing” the ticket touts. “Bots/touts fleece fans by reselling tickets for a higher price. She's not stopping them… She is fleecing her own fans,” he wrote on Twitter. This opinion was echoed on social media and throughout news outlets, with Forbes suggesting that the whole thing was about “the bottom line.”

"In this way, it appears that Taylor’s approach to album and ticket sales differs from the industry standard. It’s now become the norm for artists to bundle concert tickets with albums, a trick that has its own sketchy history."

According to Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan, an academic at Durham University who has published on Swift's music, this backlash is a gendered one. “It's more accepted and normalized that the male artists will be business savvy, that they will make lucrative deals and be very successful in those,” she argues. “I think the media and social media users are very quick to criticize when a female artist takes charge or control of her public image and for taking a step into what is traditionally seen as a very male and aggressive business move.”

i-D reached out to representatives for Taylor who agreed to speak about the fan incentive off the record to provide some background. In a press release, however, they did reiterate that it was to reward fans for “posting selfies, watching YouTube videos and downloading her albums and to prevent scalpers and bots from selling tickets at inflated prices on secondary markets.

In this way, it appears that Taylor’s approach to album and ticket sales differs from the industry standard. It’s now become the norm for artists to bundle concert tickets with albums, a trick that has its own sketchy history. In 2004, Prince gave away free copies of his Musicology album to those who bought tickets to his concerts, helping the album “sell” 633,000 units. It was a move that caused Billboard to change its policy around ticket and album bundles, with the chart company stating that artist had to offer fans different ticket prices — those that included the album and those that didn’t. Since then, most large-scale artists have been bundling albums with ticket sales. Fans can purchase tickets and, for a small addition (usually around $3.99), albums are tacked on to the overall price. According to Billboard’s chart rules, an album has to be priced at $3.75 for the first four weeks it’s on sale for it to be chart eligible.

“I think ticket bundles are good for the fans and it's turned out to be really great for the artist in terms of charting,” says Hugh McIntyre, a freelance journalist and writer for Forbes who specializes on the charts and music industry. “The US, however, has had a big problem this year with albums debuting at number one because of this and then immediately disappearing from the charts. There's a list of the fastest drops from number one on the Billboard 200 on Wikipedia and of the top ten, seven of them are this year. It's been a big issue — sure, you got to number one, but if you disappear a week later is that really a big album?”

To ensure this “big album” status, artists also utilize corporate deals. For her 2014 album 1989, Taylor teamed up with Diet Coke and Subway sandwiches to help distribute the record. For Reputation’s roll out it was delivery service UPS. Fans could win prizes by taking selfies with the truck and pre-ordering Reputation through the company.

When the record was released, however, UPS announced that they were also giving away three free digital copies of the album to those who had pre-ordered physical copies. Gossip hound Perez Hilton speculated that Team Taylor could be exploiting a loophole in the system, musing that these three copies digital would count as sales. This accusation was denied to i-D by representatives for Taylor.

"In 2011, Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way was heavily discounted by Amazon and Best Buy, presumably another move that lead to Billboard changing the rules."

You might be questioning where these accusations of hacking the system come from, but it’s a practice that’s becoming very commonplace in the music industry. In 2011, Lady Gaga’s album Born This Way was heavily discounted by Amazon and Best Buy, presumably another move that led to Billboard changing the rules, and who can forget when U2 forced their 2014 record " Songs of Innocence" on every iTunes user?

For her eighth album, ANTI, Rihanna teamed up with Samsung for a $25 million partnership that included tour sponsorship and promotional materials. Part of this included a giveaway of 1 million copies of ANTI via TIDAL, of which the singer is also a part-owner. According to The Atlantic , it was widely assumed that Samsung had paid for these “free” downloads, all of which allowed for ANTI to be certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America within 14 hours of its release.

Billboard, however, decided that only the 400,000 pure sales of ANTI would count towards its chart position, refusing to acknowledge the album’s platinum status. “There were conversations [with Billboard] early on when this promotion and partnership [with Samsung] started, but ultimately it became about giving music directly to the fans,” said Grace Kim, TIDAL’s director of marketing, to Spin in 2016. “While everyone would’ve loved to have it count, the thing that we’re focused on here is that it’s number one.”

These techniques have been used before by another TIDAL co-owner, Jay-Z. The rapper has teamed up with Samsung in the past to give away copies of his 2013 album Magna Carta Holy Grail, and this year worked with mobile carrier Sprint, another co-owner of TIDAL, for the release of 4:44, which went platinum in less than a week. Like the Samsung deals, Sprint had already purchased copies of the album, which was later given away as a “free” download. The Sprint deal took things further by also giving away “free” tickets to Jay-Z’s 4:44 tour to its customers who signed up for a trial membership with TIDAL.

These types of brand deals, Hugh McIntyre suggests, are again beneficial for fans. “I personally think it's great when a brand can come to their customers and say, 'Hey, you want the new Rihanna album? Here it is for free.' I'm up for anything that's good for the fan,” he says. “I'm also really happy that they don't count towards the chart; I think that's the right decision. The only thing that I'm kind of disappointed by is that they count towards being platinum.”

While Grace Kim told Spin in 2016 that she believed that these sorts of brand deals were “the new model,” Hugh disagrees. “Only a number of companies have enough money to throw away on something like that and make it worth their while,” he explains. “Also, people don't really care about owning albums, whether it's CD or digital, so it's quickly becoming less and less exciting for a brand to say that they bought a million copies and give them away, because users already heard it on streaming.”

Taylor Swift’s immense selling power — like Adele’s and Beyoncé’s — is clearly an anomaly in today’s evolving music market. What did become clear during the research for this piece was how reticent the charts companies and the industry were to discuss these mutating sales tactics. Both Billboard and the Official Charts Company declined to comment on all issues mentioned here. All of this says less about the ways that artists are attempting to diversify their sales and give fans the best experiences while still making money, and more about how the charts companies are desperately clinging on to their validity. When the changes come this rapidly and they’re in the best interests of fans, you have to ask: are they ready for it?

We've updated this article to reflect that it's an assumption that Billboard changed their chart rules.

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