#2. Manipulating the Charts to Make a Song Look Like a Hit
Believe it or not, the Hot 100 part of Billboard charts used to be compiled by calling up record stores and asking them how many of each album they sold. Needless to say, fuckery abounded, and 1991 saw tracks in the Hot 100 (Paula Abdul's "The Promise of a New Day" and Roxette's "Fading Like a Flower") that held much higher places than their Nielsen-monitored sales and airplay figures would justify. To try to clean up such blatant bullshit, a point-of-sale tracking system called SoundScan was implemented. But time and time again, even SoundScan has been thwarted using sometimes shockingly low-tech techniques like having clerks scan sales more than once.
"Can you please tell him to stop? I've been here for 35 minutes."
See, there are actually sleazy consultants that work with labels to figure out ways to alter sales figures and get the free publicity that comes with placing high on the charts -- giving out free and discount copies, focusing on independent stores that weigh more heavily in the system, and even switching bar codes on products. It's been claimed that such techniques can nudge a single as many as 10 spots on the Billboard chart, which could be just the boost a track needs to hit the top 10.
One classic technique that's used to make album sales seem more impressive than they are is to put out a double or sometimes even a triple album and price it like a single disc. Why? Well, for RIAA certification and record sales purposes, double albums count as two sales, no matter the price. This exact ploy was used on country sensation Shania Twain's fourth studio album, Up! It was released as a two-CD set featuring the exact same album presented in a "pop" version and a "country" version -- and every time somebody buys it, it counts as two copies sold. Now it's twice as easy to get the free publicity and accolades that come with going "platinum."
"And I'd also like to thank my criminally dirty record label. Without their moral corruption, none of this would be possible."
No artist has mastered the art of inflating sales numbers quite like Prince, though. For his 2004 Musicology album, the diminutive singer announced that he was going on tour to "play the hits" one last time and then, brilliantly, included a copy of his new album with the ticket price. Fans came out in droves at the promise of hearing Prince play the songs he's famous for (something he's been reluctant to do on several occasions), and every one of them was handed a copy of his album when they arrived at the show. Every one of those albums counted toward his Billboard and SoundScan totals. Of course, new rules were immediately put in place to prevent other artists from exploiting this tactic in the future.
Undeterred, Prince kept the experimental distribution tactics around for his next album, Planet Earth, which he gave away for free in a London newspaper.
Shit, he's wearing his "go fuck yourself" outfit.
Though maybe it's hard to blame the guy for trying, considering the labels' reputation for ...
#1. Inflating Prices, Then Screwing the Artists
If you remember the ancient era when buying CDs was the only way to get your favorite songs, you remember how overpriced they were. This isn't just opinion -- there was a class action lawsuit that charged the music industry with illegal price fixing and ended with a payout to consumers to the tune of $67.4 million in cash and $75.7 million in free CDs, all of which probably sucked. This is why people started desperately downloading tracks that would take an hour over a 56K dial-up connection.
You would suspect that the situation would have just righted itself as downloadable files began to overtake physical discs as the medium of choice, but surprisingly, things only got worse once that change happened. This time, the various record labels conspired to set an artificial price floor for downloads. Fortunately, these were pre-iTunes problems that only happened with dinosaur music services like Pressplay and MusicNet, which would have both been just as useful not existing at all.
"Please note: Each song will be accompanied by a five-minute commercial. Each play constitutes a new purchase."
But that has forced labels to get creative. For instance, in the wake of the untimely death of pop legend Whitney Houston, fans noticed that less than 30 minutes after news of the singer's death broke, her album prices skyrocketed on iTunes and Amazon. The price for her 2007 album The Ultimate Collection, for example, jumped from $4.74 to $12.62 in mere hours.
But isn't this sort of fuckery all so that greedy rock stars can live the rock star lifestyle? These are people who spend their downtime having snowball fights with bikini models, where the snowballs are made out of cocaine.
Nope -- for the most part, the artist doesn't make shit from record sales. Not only can the label wind up keeping all of the profits on even an album that goes platinum, but the band can actually wind up deeply in debt to the label. For instance, after selling over 2 million records and receiving precisely dick, the band 30 Seconds to Mars still owed EMI over $1 million.
And that was just their sunglasses budget.
How is that even possible? Easy -- the label makes the musician cover the cost of everything from recording the album, to promotion, to shooting the videos. It all counts against their cut of the record sales.
Courtney Love, of all people, walks us through how it works: Young artists find out they're getting a million-dollar advance from the label and think they've won the lottery. Then they find out that recording the album, promoting it, shooting the video, and other costs wipe out the advance, and then some.
And then they're contractually obligated to become a terrible heroin-addicted leech on society.
So, their debut album can go double platinum and they'll still be in the red, having to pay back the label with their cut of the record sales ... which is almost impossible, because the artist's cut is tiny. Lyle Lovett, after selling over 4 million albums during the course of his career, says he has not seen one goddamn cent. So if you want to build a cocaine snowman, don't start a band -- go work for the label. There's probably not as many groupies, though.
For more secrets industries want to keep you blind to, check out 5 Ways Hollywood Tricks You Into Seeing Bad Movies and 5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 5 Grimms' Fairy Tales Way Too Dark to Read to Kids.
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn the dark secret of Carly Rae Jepsen's body parts. (Hint: They aren't hers.)
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