Nicki Minaj’s latest album “Queen” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart behind Travis Scott’s “Astroworld,” which held onto its No. 1 position for the second straight week. Minaj, in an angry tirade, took to Twitter on Aug. 19 to call out everyone — Scott, his girlfriend Kylie Jenner, Billboard, Spotify and even her own record label — for what she perceived was an active effort to dethrone her album’s predestined debut at No. 1.
According to her, Scott cheated by selling merchandise and presale tickets to his “Wish You Were Here” tour bundled with a digital album download, and Jenner cheated by promoting the bundles on her Instagram and hinting that fans had the chance to catch her and their child Stormi on tour. As for Billboard’s role, the rapper felt that it failed to properly calculate the number of sales for which the bundles should count. She also blamed Spotify for not promoting her album on the company’s platform to the extent that it pushed Drake’s “Scorpion,” and she expressed that her label did not retaliate in fear that the platform would bury label-mate Ariana Grande’s “Sweetener.”
I, for one, am of the opinion that Minaj’s rage was misplaced. Both she, Scott and a multitude of other artists have offered their fans album bundles featuring merchandise and tour tickets from it — Scott merely benefited more from it in this instance. Spotify’s coverage of “Scorpion” was unprecedented, so much that the company had to dole out free subscriptions to placate upset users. Both Spotify and her label have no financial incentive to under-promote a project from one of their highest-earning artists. It’s simple: Scott played today’s battle for the charts and won.
Behind all of the Internet drama surrounding “Queen” and “Astroworld” poses some very real, albeit unsettling, questions: What the heck is a record sale in 2018? Do they even matter anymore?
Ever since Napster’s initial launch in 1999, when peer-to-peer file sharing took over the internet in a major way, the music industry has been grappling with the demise of record sales. Music distributors struggled to keep up with the times and started losing money. In the United States, annual revenues for music distribution fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009. Touring, merchandise and endorsements were still profitable, but there was very little financial incentive for records themselves.
Fast forward to 2018, a vastly different time in which the music industry is making more money than it has in years and streaming has become its largest revenue source. Earlier this year, Billboard finalized changes for how streams would be weighted for its Hot 100 songs chart and Hot 200 albums chart since streaming has become the dominant metric in measuring commercial in music. Now, the U.S. charts are based on sales (both physical and digital), radio play and online streaming, with 1,500 streams equating to one album unit sold. These new rules reflect fundamental changes in the ways we have consumed music since the rise of the internet in the late-20th century, a far cry from the stranglehold CDs and cassettes held on music distribution in the ’90s.
Furthermore, the change in record sales standards has produced some puzzling results. In July, Drake’s “Scorpion” broke several landmark records on Billboard on its way to No. 1. Under these new rules, Drake broke his own record of most singles simultaneously charting in the Hot 100 with 27, including “Scorpion’s” entire 25-song tracklist. As well, seven of these songs cracked the top 10, breaking The Beatles’ record of five songs simultaneously in the top 10 that has stood since 1964. This brought his career total of top 10-charting songs to 31, edging out Michael Jackson for the most ever.
Are these records deserved? Maybe. Of course, as any critic or hardcore music fan will tell you, “Scorpion” undoubtedly lacks the cultural significance or lasting power of The Beatles’ or Michael Jackson’s early singles, but his records and accolades will only grow. And according to today’s industry standards for quantifying sales and popularity, both Drake and Travis Scott are playing the system to their advantage.
My advice to Minaj comes from an old adage I learned from Ice-T: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. And the industry today says that T-shirts, tour tickets and bizarre streaming rules are the game, so artists have no choice but to start playing.
Matthew Philips is a junior majoring in journalism. He is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Fill in the Blank,” runs every other Monday.