From Zombies to Ri-Ri: Bonus Hits are Album-Buyer’s Ripoff and Chart Bonanza

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Ed. note: Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy, our resident chart guru, looks at the upward, downward, and lack of movement on this week’s Billboard charts. This week he takes a look at the long, fan-aggravating history of belated “bonus track” re-releases, and how the music industry turned these anomalies into a premeditated punishment for making an album popular:

In 1988, I was a high-school junior and dweeby pop fan (only half of that has changed) madly in love with Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Brenda Lee/Elvis Presley chestnut “Always on My Mind,” which was flying up Billboard‘s Hot 100. The single was a happy accident for EMI, the result of the Boys agreeing to perform on a U.K. telly special commemorating the 10th anniversary of the King’s death. PSB’s sophomore album Actually had been out for months and already spun off two massive transatlantic hits, “It’s a Sin” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”; “Always on My Mind” appeared too late to make the album.

Lucky me, I hadn’t purchased the Actually CD yet, and that spring EMI gave me a great deal: they re-released the CD with the “Always” single bundled with it. In either a touching sign of fidelity to album integrity or total laziness, they didn’t re-press Actually; instead they bundled an “Always” CD-single into the other side of the longbox. I pitied the fools who’d bought Actually in the first six months it was on shelves.

Exactly 20 years later, this haphazard approach to garnering hit singles late in an album’s life cycle has become a viable strategy for an industry desperate to win the pop fan’s dollar by any means necessary. And this week, it produces an eye-popping chart move by Rihanna, whose “Take a Bow” takes over the Hot 100’s top slot.

First, let’s talk about Ri-Ri’s achievement. “Take a Bow”–which I like to think of as either a musical version of Eddie Murphy’s Raw routine about men cheating, or a cleaner version of “Smell Yo Dick”–hurtles from No. 53 to No. 1. (It’s also the second song to top the Hot 100 with that title, including Madonna’s 1994 snoozy-ballad smash.)

This 52-place move is the second-largest leap to No. 1 ever, after Maroon 5’s 63-space jump with “Makes Me Wonder” last May, and it’s thanks entirely to “Bow’s” release on iTunes last week. In its first week on Apple’s virtual shelf, the song sells a phenomenal 267,000 buck-a-song downloads: one of the three biggest totals ever for a digital single in its debut week, after Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” just six weeks ago (286,000 copies) and her own “Umbrella” last May (277,000 copies).

Depending on how big a stickler you are, “Take a Bow” is either the fifth Top 20 hit from Rihanna’s year-old Good Girl Gone Bad album or a standalone hit in its own right. Island Def Jam would rather you think of it the former way, because they plan to rerelease the album in June as Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded with “Bow” tacked onto it.

As we’ve discussed here at Idolator many, many times before, this trend toward “special edition” re-releases of year-old albums is an insult to the hardcore fan and a shameless grab for more revenue on already-established hit albums. But it’s really just a more overt manifestation of something the industry’s been wrestling with the entire Rock Era: how best to profit from a hit single.

In the ’60s, when singles were actually moneymakers in their own right and albums were an afterthought, the labels treated albums far more shabbily than they do today, reshuffling song lineups without artists’ permission based on whatever was on the radio that month. After all, what is the U.S. album Meet the Beatles! but a revised version of the U.K. With the Beatles album with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” tacked onto it? Often, Motown would even retitle an album after a hit when it emerged late in the album’s life. Originally released as In the Groove, Marvin Gaye’s 1968 LP was reissued as I Heard It Through the Grapevine!, complete with new cover art and superfluous exclamation point, once that immortal song became a smash; the track listing was the same, however.

Indeed, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the ’60s is now known largely in its hit-fortified reissued edition. The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle was first released in the spring of 1968, flopped, then re-released a year later with the hit single “Time of the Season” tacked onto it–a great but incongruous song appended to what had been a coherent suite of baroque pop tunes. [Redacted, as per comments below. Apologies–my memory and flimsy online research led me astray on this point.]

My Pet Shop Boys example from ’88 arguably comes at the end of a two-decade period when the album was dominant and, by and large, untouchable–no label would dream of reissuing a big rock album from the ’70s or early ’80s with a single stripped onto it. Hell, even pop acts’ albums in this period were largely untouched: if Madonna’s Like a Virgin had been released in 2004 instead of 1984, Sire surely would have re-released it six months later with the non-album hits “Crazy for You” and “Into the Groove” tacked onto it. When XTC’s classic 1987 album Skylarking was reissued with the fluke alternative-radio hit “Dear God” added to it, it was considered extraordinarily rare.

The mid-’80s creation of the compact disc and the growth of the cassette–each with longer running times than the LP–encouraged labels to add bonus tracks to CD and tape, but these were never pushed as singles. (Michael Jackson came closest in 1988, when the CD-only “Leave Me Alone” was promoted to MTV but not the radio.) Throughout the ’90s, the labels reissued tons of classic LPs on CD with singles and other ephemera tacked on; but these were not current albums. That only began to change around 2000, starting with the likes of Christina Aguilera, reissued at its height with better radio mixes; and Jennifer Lopez, who fully rerecorded hits like “I’m Real” with rappers and then re-released 2001’s J. Lo to include them.

The current “special edition” strategy came of age in 2004, when the already-hot Usher, already three No. 1 singles deep into Confessions, recorded “My Boo” with Alicia Keys and re-released the album with a fourth No. 1 single locked down. Since then, we’ve seen Mariah Carey, Shakira, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and a score of other hit acts reissue their albums with new, chart-bound singles on them.

What’s unprecedented about the last half-decade of hits isn’t just the addition of hits to still-charting albums but, to put it bluntly, the premeditation. These new hit songs aren’t flukes or accidents, they’re planned. It’s the Hollywood strategy of multiple DVD releases of the same movie (“Special Edition,” “Remastered Edition,” “Too Hot For TV! Edition,” “Double-Gold Elite Edition,” “Just Pay For This Again, Please, Edition” etc.), adapted for the music industry.

Before the creation of iTunes, this would have been an especially offensive, fan-soaking way to score a new hit. But now, the labels can claim innocence to the complaining fan, because the hit-bound bonus tracks are available–often even before the re-released album comes out–for 99 cents. When an act is already hot, the digital sales bump for a new song is inevitably massive, sending it flying up the charts. In four of the last five years, one No. 1 single per year was an add-on to an already extant album: the aforementioned “My Boo,” Carey’s “Don’t Forget About Us,” Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and now “Take a Bow.”

It’s a neat trick, a way to storm the album chart and the singles charts at the same time: diehard fans have to have the new version of the album, if only for the new cover art; and more casual fans can download the new single inexpensively, producing a digital smash. In an era of ever-declining sales, you can expect the industry to keep “refreshing” hit albums–what few they have left–until the CD itself is a total nonentity.

Oh, and finally: We might see the next special-edition hit before the summer even starts. The same week she tops the chart, Rihanna debuts with Maroon 5 on a new version of their song “If I Never See Your Face Again,” from a forthcoming special edition of Maroon 5’s last CD. Expect it to shoot into the Top 40 in a week or two.

Here’s a rundown of the rest of this week’s charts:

• Coldplay have the top two debuts on the chart this week, the result of the band’s odd strategy of releasing two singles simultaneously through different channels. Both songs materialize within the Top 40.

“Violet Hill,” the first single from Coldplay’s new album, was first made available to fans as a free download in late April; those downloads were not formally tracked and, hence, had no effect on the Billboard charts. But a week later, the song was put on sale at iTunes, and the second single, “Viva la Vida,” was released a day later.

The result: “Viva,” which had never been available in any form prior to last week, makes the higher Hot 100 debut, all the way up at No. 15, with sales of more than 100,000 downloads. Meanwhile, “Violet,” which the diehards had already scored for free, debuts at No. 40, with more modest sales of about 44,000.

The real shocker: who are the 44,000 people who paid for “Violet Hill” a week after it was offered for free?!

• The R&B/Hip-Hop Top 10 is juicier than usual this week, with three songs entering and a weird rebound by Mariah Carey. Her “Touch My Body” returns to No. 2, knocking back Ashanti’s “The Way That I Love You,” which seemed poised to hit No. 1. So much for that comeback! A bit lower down, Keyshia Cole replaces herself in the winners’ circle, as her massive chart-topper “I Remember” falls out to make way for the followup, “Heaven Sent,” up 10 big places to No. 8. She’s going to have a hard time playing that wronged-woman card on future hits; Cole has become one of R&B’s most reliable hitmakers.

• Alert Maura: New Kids are back on the charts! Well, not the Hot 100, but rather the Pop 100, a Top 40-centric chart Billboard uses to track a narrower slice of the radio audience. The erstwhile NKOTB debut on this less-heralded chart with “Summertime” at No. 81.

As Fred Bronson points out in his weekly Billboard column, the Kids will have to cross over to the actual Hot 100 to break a 14-year dry spell there; they last appeared on the big chart with 1994’s (I wish I were kidding about this title) “Dirty Dawg.”

Top 10s Last week’s position and total weeks charted in parentheses (Digital Songs chart includes total downloads in parentheses):

Hot 100 1. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (LW No. 53, 5 weeks) 2. Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” (LW No. 1, 13 weeks) 3. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 2, 9 weeks) 4. Jordin Sparks with Chris Brown, “No Air” (LW No. 3, 19 weeks) 5. Usher feat. Young Jeezy, “Love in This Club” (LW No. 4, 13 weeks) 6. Ray J & Yung Berg, “Sexy Can I” (LW No. 5, 15 weeks) 7. Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake, “4 Minutes” (LW No. 6, 8 weeks) 8. Mariah Carey, “Touch My Body” (LW No. 7, 13 weeks) 9. Natasha Bedingfield, “Pocketful of Sunshine” (LW No. 8, 13 weeks) 10. Danity Kane, “Damaged” (LW No. 11, 9 weeks)

Hot Digital Songs 1. Rihanna, “Take a Bow” (CHART DEBUT, 267,000 downloads) 2. Leona Lewis, “Bleeding Love” (LW No. 1, 162,000 downloads) 3. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 2, 150,000 downloads) 4. Natasha Bedingfield, “Pocketful of Sunshine” (LW No. 4, 132,000 downloads) 5. Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake, “4 Minutes” (LW No. 3, 118,000 downloads) 6. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida” (CHART DEBUT, 101,000 downloads) 7. Jordin Sparks with Chris Brown, “No Air” (LW No. 5, 93,000 downloads) 8. Usher feat. Young Jeezy, “Love in This Club” (LW No. 8, 87,000 downloads) 9. Ray J & Yung Berg, “Sexy Can I” (LW No. 6, 86,000 downloads) 10. Jesse McCartney, “Leavin'” (LW No. 7, 83,000 downloads)

Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs 1. Lil Wayne feat. Static Major, “Lollipop” (LW No. 1, 9 weeks) 2. Mariah Carey, “Touch My Body” (LW No. 4, 14 weeks) 3. Ashanti, “The Way That I Love You” (LW No. 2, 13 weeks) 4. Usher feat. Young Jeezy, “Love in This Club” (LW No. 3, 14 weeks) 5. Jordin Sparks with Chris Brown, “No Air” (LW No. 5, 10 weeks) 6. Plies feat. Ne-Yo, “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” (LW No. 7, 11 weeks) 7. Rick Ross feat. T-Pain, “The Boss” (LW No. 6, 18 weeks) 8. Keyshia Cole, “Heaven Sent” (LW No. 18, 7 weeks) 9. Trey Songz, “Last Time” (LW No. 12, 15 weeks) 10. Chris Brown, “Take You Down” (LW No. 16, 7 weeks)

Hot Country Songs 1. James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You” (LW No. 1, 30 weeks) 2. Brad Paisley, “I’m Still a Guy” (LW No. 5, 12 weeks) 3. Phil Vassar, “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” (LW No. 6, 28 weeks) 4. Taylor Swift, “Picture to Burn” (LW No. 3, 18 weeks) 5. George Strait, “I Saw God Today” (LW No. 2, 14 weeks) 6. Rascal Flatts, “Every Day” (LW No. 7, 12 weeks) 7. Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This” (LW No. 4, 23 weeks) 8. Lady Antebellum, “Love Don’t Live Here” (LW No. 8, 32 weeks) 9. Kenny Chesney, “Better as a Memory” (LW No. 9, 8 weeks) 10. Carrie Underwood, “Last Name” (LW No. 10, 9 weeks)

Hot Modern Rock Tracks 1. Weezer, “Pork & Beans” (LW No. 1, 4 weeks) 2. Seether, “Rise Above This” (LW No. 2, 12 weeks) 3. Flobots, “Handlebars” (LW No. 3, 6 weeks) 4. Atreyu, “Falling Down” (LW No. 5, 16 weeks) 5. The Offspring, “Hammerhead” (CHART DEBUT, 1 week) 6. The Raconteurs, “Salute Your Solution” (LW No. 6, 7 weeks) 7. Puddle of Mudd, “Psycho” (LW No. 4, 28 weeks) 8. Linkin Park, “Given Up” (LW No. 7, 10 weeks) 9. Death Cab for Cutie, “I Will Possess Your Heart” (LW No. 8, 8 weeks) 10. Nine Inch Nails, “Discipline” (LW No. 15, 3 weeks)