Limited combinations of merchandise and physical albums will be counted on Billboard’s album charts starting this summer, but with new rules to prevent the issues that led to the elimination of such “bundles” three years ago.
The new combinations of merch and albums, dubbed “fan packs,” will allow fans to support their favorite artists on the charts in a way that research suggests that many would like to. However, the packs will be restricted to just two options per album release — a sweatshirt with an LP and a t-shirt with a CD, for example — with the requirement that each individual item must also be sold separately in the same web store. Fan packs will include only merch — not tickets, meet-and-greet opportunities, virtual items or non-tangible benefits — and they must also contain a physical copy of an album: Combinations of digital downloads and merch will not count towards the charts. In addition, fan pack offerings must be approved in advance of their on-sale date by Luminate and Billboard.
“Fan Pack offerings are a way to recognize the dynamic artist-fan relationship,” said Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard executive vp of charts and data partnerships. Forty-eight percent of Gen Z listeners wish artists provided more merch items so that fans could show their support for their favorite acts, as do 47% of all physical music-purchasing listeners, according to Luminate’s Music 360 report from spring 2023. In addition, Pietroluongo noted that fan packs “provide an efficient one-click step for consumers to purchase merchandise and music.”
Selling albums together with merchandise or concert tickets is a long-running industry practice known as “bundling.” In 2004, Prince famously bundled in-demand tickets to his live shows with his Musicology album, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, making it his highest charting release in 13 years. Policy was subsequently changed so that customers ”must be given an option to either add the CD to the ticket purchase or forgo the CD for a reduced ticket-only price,” with the CD price ”comparable to reasonable and customary retail pricing.” This was later changed to a redemption-based model where customers had to show intent — that they actually wanted the album that came bundled with their ticket. Only a percentage of albums that were offered with each ticket offer were redeemed.
As streaming rose and album sales declined in the second half of the 2010s, bundles proliferated, with artists often linking numerous pieces of merch — in some cases, more like knickknacks — to a digital download of their album. In 2019, artists who landed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 thanks in part to a ticket bundle, merch bundle, or both included Celine Dion, Luke Combs, Kanye West, SuperM, Post Malone, Taylor Swift, Madonna, NF, Tyler, the Creator, Billie Eilish, Khalid, Jonas Brothers, Vampire Weekend, Ariana Grande, Thomas Rhett and Backstreet Boys.
While album bundling became a standard industry move, it also became controversial. Some executives argued that bundles distorted the charts, making them more about overall fandom than album popularity or music consumption. In addition, the bundles sometimes lacked the clarity that ensured that purchases were intentional — it wasn’t always apparent to fans that albums and merch were available separately, so fans might buy merch without knowing about, or even wanting, the accompanying album download that counted toward the chart.
Supporters of bundles, in contrast, contended that these packages allowed the charts to reflect the strength of an artist’s entire business as well as super-serve the super-fans who help drive conversation in the social media era. In addition, some argued that bundling promoted a more dynamic environment, allowing a wider variety of artists to scale the charts, especially the Billboard 200, during their debut week, since such packages often rewarded acts with a strong touring operation or branding and merchandise imprint that hadn’t necessarily translated to streaming.
At the end of 2019, Billboard changed the bundling rules to ensure that each component of a merchandise-album bundle was available for purchase individually on the same website and that the merch from the bundle was priced lower than the bundle with the album included. But concerns about chart distortion persisted, and merch and ticket bundles were subsequently removed from the charts in October 2020.
However, box sets still counted (as they had for decades), and these collections could be similar to merchandise/album bundles — except that all the merch items included had to fit inside a “finished goods box/package.” Once “loose bundles” were ruled ineligible for the charts, “everybody wanted to get in on” releasing boxed bundle collections, Dayton Hicks, CEO of the merch company Gnarlywood, told Billboard last year.
“It’s not always about getting the No. 1,” added Brad Scoffern, founder of Ceremony of Roses, another music-merch company. “You could be No. 20 without box sets, and you execute a proper box-set campaign, and you could go to No. 8.”
Last fall, Luminate and Billboard hosted a day-long meeting with record labels to discuss a range of forward-looking data and chart-related topics. The topic of bundles was also discussed, according to one label executive who was present. “Everyone across the spectrum, majors and indies, was like, ‘please just let us sell bundles again,’” the executive says.
The new rules allowing fan packs will take effect during the tracking week that runs from June 30 to July 6, 2023, for charts dated July 15.