Blanking ‘Blackout’: Eagles Declare Victory Over Britney

eagleessss.jpgThose of us who regard following the Billboard charts as our version of sports fandom have a problem, of the Roger Maris-in-1961 variety, to contend with on this week’s album charts: two different, legitimate No. 1 albums.

On the official SoundScan tally, to be released at end-of-day today and published in Billboard later this week, the victor will be Britney Spears’s Blackout, with about 300,000 albums sold.

But in terms of actual, nationwide sales, the winner–announced this afternoon in a press release–is the Eagles’ Long Road Out of Eden, with a staggering 700,000 sold.

That’s the second-largest first-week total of the year, and it was achieved through just one chain: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (including Sam’s Club and the Wal-Mart/Sam’s websites). And therein lies the confusion, and the problem for us score-keepers.

Yes, sports fans: for those of you who have been rooting for the reunion of the Frey-Henley axis to thwart poor little Brit girl’s comeback, your lesser-of-two-evils pick has indeed emerged victorious. (We here at Idolator would’ve preferred Britney to the Eagles, for all sorts of reasons, but we can debate that another time.) What sucks about the Eagles’ win is what this does to chart history–arguably a far worse blow than anything Radiohead did this year.

The Billboard 200 is the main, industry-approved album chart, heir apparent to the former “Top Pop Albums,” which before that was “Top Stereo Albums,” and so on–it’s got decades of history. What you might not know about the album chart is that Billboard, at the behest of the industry folk who rely on its data, scrubs from the chart literally dozens of albums that don’t meet its criteria for either currency or general availability.

The rules were set in place in the early ’90s, when SoundScan made it painfully clear that Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side of the Moon would keep selling well enough to chart in the top 200 week after week, crowding out decent-selling new albums by fledgling acts. So, for the last decade and a half, albums that fall below the top half of the chart and are more than two years old are permanently removed. This even includes Christmas albums that return to the charts year after year.

More recently, around the turn of the millennium, a second rule was added–largely at the behest of the record-retailing community–removing from the chart any new album that is not generally available for sale to all stores. Call it “the Big Box rule”: as more superstar acts decided to sell exclusive product through Wal-Mart, Target and CIrcuit City (and, more recently, Starbucks), Billboard declared that such albums would not be eligible for the big chart. (The rule was also practical, since some of these retailers wouldn’t report sales of their exclusive albums to SoundScan, anyway.)

As a compromise, Billboard introduced a chart a few years ago, Top Comprehensive Albums, that would include literally everything: Starbucks and Wal-Mart exclusives, Mannheim Steamroller, the umpteenth sale of Bat Out of Hell, you name it. It could be argued that this is a more “real” chart than the “official” chart trumpeted by SoundScan every week. (Wouldn’t you love to know that the Beatles’ 1 outsold Buckcherry last week?) But Billboard treats Top Comprehensive Albums as an industry exclusive: it’s unpublished in the magazine and on the public Web site and only available to online subscribers.

None of this has been a problem, historically–most weeks, even perennials like Bob Marley’s Legend don’t sell well enough to place in the upper ranks of the Comprehensive chart, and the exclusive CDs that have been reported to Billboard generally fall short of the Top 10, much less threaten that week’s chart-topper.

Which brings us to the Eagles, and their Wal-Mart-exclusive smash: it will be No. 1 this week, by a two-to-one margin, over Britney’s new CD. And 98% of the known world won’t know that. Whether you get your chart data here, over at Billboard.com, or from the little “bumper” flashed at CNN before they go to commercial, you’ll be seeing Billboard 200 data. This even though the Eagles’ total gives them the second-best sales week of the year; back in September, they would’ve beaten 50 Cent and come within a quarter-million copes of Kanye West’s Graduation.

Eagles manager Irving Azoff may be one of the most historically detested figures in the music industry (if you’re wondering why Fast Times at Ridgemont High has so much incongruous Eagles-related music in it, he’s your fall guy); but you can hardly blame him for braying in HITS about his band’s stellar week. It wasn’t even a squeaker. The real loser isn’t Britney, who posts a perfectly respectable comeback; it’s rank-and-file CD retailers. And, to a far lesser extent, chart geeks like me.