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CDs for Concert Goers Help Rock Bands Boost Weak Billboard Rankings


CDs for Concert Goers Help Rock Bands Boost Weak Billboard Rankings

It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock ’n’ roll in 2019.

Gone are the days when a rock album could achieve the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart on the strength of record sales alone. Instead, rock acts have turned to their tours to get the boost, adding a CD to every ticket sold to help inflate their ranking.

The bundling strategy is particularly effective in rock ’n’ roll, since many rock albums lack viral hit singles whose millions of streams can carry an album to No. 1, like Drake found with “God’s Plan” last year.

Bands such as Vampire Weekend and the Raconteurs have outperformed established rockers like Bruce Springsteen this year thanks in part to the bundle, which can often mean additional fees for concert tickets for consumers and a physical copy of a CD they may never open. But for rockers, handing out CDs with concert tickets can be what they need for a No. 1 album ranking, a distinction that still carries a high premium in the industry. The bragging rights and marketing opportunities that come with the top spot can make a crucial difference.

“The charts are a form of marketing,” said Merck Mercuriadis, a longtime music executive and founder of music investment company Hipgnosis Songs Fund. “If you’re able to say ‘I’m Jack White, and in 2019 I’m still having No. 1 albums,’ that’s a major statement to the industry.”

Rocked Out

Rock albums used to dominate the Billboard 200 chart, but now they struggle to hit No. 1. That has led some artists to bundle albums with concert tickets, in hopes to lift their Billboard rankings.

Note: Genre categories are based on a Wall Street Journal analysis of Spotify genres attached to each artist.
Sources: Billboard (albums); Spotify (genres)

Nearly every top-three album this year has employed a bundle. Unlike rock acts, hip-hop artists Chris Brown and J. Cole had enough streams to earn the top spot without the bundle or even traditional album sales, according to Nielsen Music data, but still bundled their albums with merch or tickets to bolster first-week sales.

Ticket bundles have the potential to heavily drive album sales; a ticket-bundle promotion for Bon Jovi’s 2018 tour almost single-handedly brought the rocker’s 2016 release “This House Is Not for Sale” back to the No. 1 spot two years after the CD’s release. It plummeted to No. 169 the week after tickets went on sale.

The practice has rankled some executives, who argue sales charts should count only albums that fans actively sought out, not ones that came with tickets or T-shirts. The Billboard 200 measures a combination of physical and digital album sales, along with streaming activity on services like Spotify.

Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend performs at a festival in Lisbon in July.


patricia de melo moreira/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Since 2017, nearly every rock album that reached No. 1 on the charts was offered as part of a ticket bundle, including the only two rock albums to top the charts so far this year—the Raconteurs’ “Help Us Stranger” and Vampire Weekend’s “Father of the Bride.” And “Father of the Bride’s” rock designation was a stretch to some; it topped Billboard’s rock chart , but Spotify data designates the band as more of an indie-pop act.

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The Raconteurs’ “Help Us Stranger” was the band’s first record in a decade. It was released through singer-guitarist Jack White’s Third Man Records label, which also operates a record-pressing plant and shot to the No. 1 spot—a first-ever for the band—in June.

The Raconteurs’ ‘Help Us Stranger’ album art.


Patrick Keeler

It sold the equivalent of about 88,000 albums, according to Nielsen, with about 84,000 classified as traditional album sales, including 25,000 vinyl records. The remainder came from song sales and streaming activity.

According to Billboard, ticket bundles on the Raconteurs’ current tour supplemented the album’s sales from there and helped get it to the top spot.

Rock duo the Black Keys publicly denounced the bundling practice when they released their album “Let’s Rock” in June.

“It feels like a gimmick. It exists solely as a way to game the charts and we want no part of that,” Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney said in a statement.

The band’s previous album, which came out in 2014 when traditional album sales more prominently drove rankings, debuted at No. 1. Their most recent album hit No. 4.

Rock ’n’ roll bands “don’t get to No. 1 without the ticket bundle at this point in time,” Mr. Mercuriadis said. But he cited a number of nonrock artists who he said would also need a ticket bundle to compete for a No. 1 spot.

Justin Laynon, 24 years old, saw the Raconteurs’ July 12 concert in Detroit and received a CD of “Help Us Stranger” when he bought his ticket. He’s streamed the album multiple times, but said if it weren’t for the bundle, he wouldn’t have bought a copy.

Not even the genre’s biggest names are shoo-ins for the top of the charts. The most recent album by Mr. Springsteen, without a ticket bundle, made it to the top 3 but fell short of No. 1. Mr. Springsteen didn’t tour after his most recent album release, so bundling wasn’t an option.

Fred Goldring, co-founder and chairman of Music Aficionado, an album-focused streaming service launching this summer, said the hit-oriented streaming era has hurt rock’s chances of competing for top spots.

“If an album doesn’t have a song that will come off as an instantaneous, one-time hit,” Mr. Goldring said, “it’s going to get lost.”

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Share your favorite rock album and your favorite song in it below. Take ideas from fellow members on what to listen to this weekend.

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