Billboard Sours On Prince’s Musicology Sales Experiment

Magazine changes policy on tallying albums sold with tickets.

Prince’s recent Musicology has quickly become his best-selling album in years, moving more than 632,000 copies in five weeks thanks to a combination of traditional record sales and copies whose purchase price is included with every ticket to his mostly sold-out arena shows.

Other artists looking to follow in the Purple One’s footsteps toward inflated album sales had better think twice, however. Both SoundScan, the company that tracks record sales, and music industry trade Billboard are putting their foot down and revising their policy of allowing album sales to be piggybacked with concert tickets.

Discussions about the novel approach to selling records began when Musicology was released April 20. Tickets sold for concerts taking place prior to the release of the album didn’t count toward the album’s total, since a pre-existing policy dictates that Billboard doesn’t recognize albums sold in an “exclusive window,” such as Internet presales, but after April 20, all tickets sold for the handful of shows Prince had scheduled in a given week, each with attendance around 10,000, counted toward his album-sales total.

And with around three or four shows scheduled per week through September 9, Musicology doesn’t look like it’ll be disappearing from the chart anytime soon.

Billboard chart editor Geoff Mayfield claims that 25 percent, or 158,000 copies, of Musicology‘s total sales were through concert tickets, priced at $75-$85.

While Prince’s initiative may seem like a good way to introduce fans of “Purple Rain,” “1999″ or “Diamonds and Pearls” to his new material, it may put unwanted multiple copies in the hands of his followers. For instance, if a married couple attended a show, they’d come home with two copies in hand. Should they attend multiple shows, even more copies would clutter their CD collection.

And should these Prince fans be completists, they may prefer having the CD packaged in a jewel case with the complete artwork, instead of the cardboard sleeves the concert copies come in — warranting yet another copy brought home.

Protected by a grandfather clause, Musicology will be allowed to continue counting albums sold through concert tickets toward its total, since Mayfield said it would be unfair to “change horses in the middle of the stream,” but other artists who may have been eyeing Prince’s strategy might be impeded.

The Cure, who were reportedly considering a similar practice for their first album in four years, a self-titled effort due June 29, might have to rethink their tactics, though the British quintet Gomez may be fine to proceed as planned — the difference being that purchasing a copy of Gomez’s Split the Difference won’t be mandatory. Concertgoers would be given a choice.

“The new policy states 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,’ ” wrote Billboard‘s Mayfied, announcing the revised rule in the magazine’s June 5 edition.

“We’re not going to let them sell the album for two bucks,” Mayfield clarified. “If someone was trying to pass off an album that sells for $18.98 in stores for a two-buck premium … No, I don’t think so.

“If it’s a new artist, and their album sells for five bucks,” he added, considering the lower price tags some labels give to emerging artists, often under $10, “then I could see that.”

It’s not likely that new artists would make such a move, however. Prince was able to do it because he recorded Musicology with his own money before he struck a major-label distribution deal, and he owns the copyright. “This is his puppy,” Mayfield said. “It was already produced clean on his credit before he signed with Sony.”

So if anyone were to follow in Prince’s footsteps, it would be older “heritage artists,” such as the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and Phish. With a massive and loyal fanbase, these artists theoretically do not need the marketing benefits a major label affords, and their shows are routinely well-attended.

While Buffett, for example, moved only 21,000 copies of the recently re-released soundtrack to the 1975 cult flick “Rancho Deluxe,” his annual summer treks are among the best attended of the season.

And should Phish, who could easily pack in up to 70,000 fans at a festival show, decide to take a Prince-like approach, they may actually score their first #1 album with the upcoming swan song Undermind (see “Phish To Split — For Good This Time” ).