DJ Khaled’s latest offering was not No. 1 in America, and energy drinks are to blame.
His new album “Father of Asahd,” which dropped on May 17, had the trappings of a chart-topping record. It featured guests such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Cardi B, Justin Bieber and John Legend, to name a few. While promoting it, Khaled appeared on “Saturday Night Live” with surprise guests Lil Wayne, Big Sean, Jeremih, Meek Mill, Lil Baby, J Balvin, SZA and John Legend.
Yet there it was debuting at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, bested by “Igor,” the idiosyncratic record by eclectic rapper Tyler, the Creator. “Father of Asahd” has since dropped to No. 3.
Complicating matters was the fact that each record received nearly the same number of streams — Khaled received slightly more — a major factor the folks at Billboard take into account when deciding album placement. But they also looked at another factor: merchandise.
To understand why, it’s first necessary to understand “bundling,” one of the many innovative ways artists try to scheme their way to top of the charts. It’s a simple concept: Buy something, such as a concert ticket or a piece of clothing repping the artist, and you get a free album download. Take advantage of it, and the number of records sold grows by one. Everybody wins, right?
Not exactly. In this particular case, Tyler, the Creator bundled his record with clothing and novelty items such as “Vote Igor” lawn signs, while Khaled chose packs of energy shots (similar to 5-Hour Energy) through Shop.com as his chart-tackling Trojan Horse.
That’s where the problem came in. According to the New York Times, Billboard suspected “that some of the marketing by Shop.com and its corporate parent, Market America, had crossed a line by encouraging unauthorized bulk sales.”
“In this particular instance, we saw an organization encouraging purchases among their members by promising them material and organizational benefits,” Deanna Brown, the president of the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group, told the newspaper.
That, apparently, is against the rules. But the rules aren’t spelled out for the general public.
The story blew up when the New York Post reported that Khaled was planning to sue Billboard, though that was unconfirmed. His team did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Washington Post. But clearly they are not happy.
“We dispute their decision on behalf of DJ Khaled and, frankly, every artist who is forced to navigate bundling an album download with an inexpensive item that still effectively represents their brand. It’s confusing and demeaning to the art,” Desiree Perez, Roc Nation’s chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We’re obviously not fans of bundling. . . . But our hands are being forced by Billboard’s desperate, last-ditch effort to keep streaming from eliminating what’s left of music downloads.”
Billboard declined to comment further on the matter.
It’s true that the world of bundling is a confusing one. As the revenue artists make off their actual songs has declined with streaming, the idea of selling other products with music has risen.
It’s not a particularly new phenomenon, according to Larry Miller, the director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School. In 2004, when Prince gave away copies of “Musicology” with concert tickets. Since then, bundling has seen a number of permutations, including the still-bizarre partnership between Papa John’s and Taylor Swift in 2012 to sell her album “Red” along with a large one-topping pizza for $22. Since then it has become fairly standard for things such as T-shirts or concert tickets to come with digital album downloads.
The point of bundles is “to trick people back into buying full albums,” Matt McNeal, a veteran manager and A&R person for J. Cole’s Dreamville Records, told Rolling Stone. “Fans are probably already listening to the album [on a streaming service], but because I sold them this T-shirt, I also get a CD sale within it.”
For some lesser-known artists, it’s all about making extra cash. When someone such as Craig Finn, frontman of indie rock band the Hold Steady, sells his solo record with a T-shirt and pins, he’s probably aware he has slight chance of besting records from acts including Tyler, the Creator and DJ Khaled.
For these artists, it’s “a revenue maximization strategy,” Miller said. “It’s about delivering a limited product” — such as a concert poster or limited-run hoodie — “in a world where access to the music itself has become unlimited,” Miller said. “There is this concept of giving the fans something that is unique and available for a limited time only and that will almost surely sell out and not be available when the window closes, even though the music itself is always available on every device everywhere in the world.”
But when someone such as Swift does this — everything in her digital store, including T-shirts, hoodies, baseball caps and pop-up phone stands, comes with a digital copy of her forthcoming album — earning that top spot is probably part of the strategy.
“The Billboard charts, the Hot 100 chart and the album chart in particular are still the currency that artists and senior managers at record companies use in order to determine effectiveness,” Miller said. “It is still the most effective feedback mechanism that we have about what is happening across all platforms and territories.”
And therein lies the problem: Billboard still matters, but it isn’t transparent about the rules surrounding bundling.
“Billboard needs to be clearer about what is going to count and what is not going to count,” Miller said. But he acknowledged the challenges the company faces: “Streaming has changed the sound of popular music. It has changed the definition of what an album is or can be. It has changed the way music is created and constructed. It is even challenging the way the referees count music that was consumed.”
“[Billboard’s] job for the better part of a century is to rank what’s popular, and that’s still their job,” he added. “It has never been more difficult than it is this week.”