Will we ever see an album sell 1 million copies in its debut week again?

11.22.13 5 years ago

What do albums that sell more than 1 million in their first week and the Western Black Rhino have in common?

Both are most likely extinct.

For the first time since 2009, no album in the U.S. will surpass the million mark in its opening frame. To be sure, Justin Timberlake”s “The 20/20 Experience” missed by only a whisper at 968,000 copies, but what is the likelihood that the watermark will ever happen again?  (We”re not counting Jay Z”s “Magna Carta, Holy Grail since it was given away to Samsung users). Eminem, who used to reliably sell more than a million in his first week, came in second this year with “The Marshall Mathers LP2,” which sold 792,000 copies.

From 1998-2002, selling a million copies in first week of release was seen as a realistically achievable goal for superstars. Garth Brooks” “Double Live” was the first to do so in 1998 (the first album to sell a million copies in one week was “The Bodyguard” soundtrack, but that wasn”t in its debut week- that was in the week after Christmas, which used to be the biggest sales week of the year for albums).

In 2000, five albums surpassed the million milestone in their first week, including ‘N Sync”s “No Strings Attached,” which sold a staggering 2.4 million copies in its debut week. Guess how many albums released in 2013 have sold more than 2 million copies TOTAL?  Just one. And that would be by former ‘N Syncer Justin Timberlake with the aforementioned “The 20/20 Experience.”

After iTunes launched in 2003, we still saw million sellers, but in fewer numbers. In fact, Taylor Swift has been keeping the tradition alive almost single-handedly lately. In 2010, “Speak Now” sold 1.047 million in its opening week. Last year, “Red” moved 1.2 million units in its debut week, the most since 2002, when “The Eminem Show” sold 1.32 million. In 2011, Lady Gaga”s “Born This Way” sold 1.1 million, but many of those sales came through a 99-cent album download promotion with Amazon. Such antics led to Billboard revising its policy and now an album must sell for at least $3.49 for its first six weeks of release to be on the Billboard 200. Follow-up “Artpop,” which came out last week, sold only 258,000 copies in its opening week, far less than the 450,000 predicted.

So is iTunes to blame for the decline? In a word, yes. By offerings songs a la carte, iTunes has likely forever changed how people consume music and made them singles buyers instead of album buyers.. And as digital consumption continue to rise and physical consumption decline (2012 was the first year that digital sales surpassed physical ones) , we”ll see fewer albums with huge first week numbers, although some album artists still inspire loyalty.. Yes, when someone purchases 10 individual songs from a given album, that counts as an album sale (it”s called TEA- track equivalent album), but unless they buy the album outright the first week, the eventually TEA sale won”t count toward first-week numbers.

There”s another theory at work here and one that leads me to conclude that there may, just maybe, be another potential million seller this year.

In April, Chris Molanphy wrote a piece for NPR and coined what he calls The AC/DC Rule. That rule is that an artist”s first week sales are predicated not so much on the current work, but by how much fans liked the previous album and by how much they missed the artist. That explains why Timberlake sold 968,000 in his opening week after a six-year absence that left fans frothing for new material, even though first single “Suit & Tie” was far from a barn burner.

His uses AC/DC”s 1981 album, “For Those About To Rock We Salute You,” as proof of his theory. That album reached No. 1 in its third week on the chart (remember, this is pre-SoundScan’s 1991 launch), after the far superior “Back In Black” peaked at No. 4. The success of “Back in Black,” with such songs as the title track and “You Shook Me All Night Long,” has fans salivating for new AC/DC. Part of “For Those About To Rock’s” sales came from a promise delivered by “Back in Black” and people wanted more.

So that leads to is there anyone who could top 1 million again in his or her first week? The obvious contender is Adele, whenever her follow-up to “21” arrives, because that album has surpassed the 10 million mark, it appealed to both older and younger consumers, and we will all be craving new Adele by the time it shows up…whenever it may be.

As for the rest of 2013? The only superstar names with albums still coming are One Direction, whose “Midnight Memories” comes out Tuesday (25), Britney Spears with “Britney Jean” on Dec. 5, and Garth Brooks with “Blame It All On My Roots,” an 8-CD/DVD box set on Thanksgiving.. I”m betting on Brooks.

One Direction will likely sell around 500,000, a very healthy number. But despite their rabid fan base and ticket-selling prowess, 1D aren”t mainstays at radio here and they need more radio play to reach beyond that base to sell more.

Spears is probably good for no more than 250,000-300,000.

Brooks, however, is the wild card. He”s the top selling solo artist in U.S. history and these are his  first new albums since 2001. The set consists of four CDs of newly-recorded cover songs, many of which he”s been singing in his Las Vegas show; the other 2 CDs are his greatest hits– which will appeal to all the new fans he made since his Las Vegas show started in 2009. The two DVDs are of the Las Vegas show.  There is pent-up demand for new material from Brooks and he is also selling the full box set for $24.96, which is about as good a deal for the consumer as you will ever get.

On the downside: The set is available only through Walmart and none of it will be made available digitally as Brooks is the one remaining superstar who does not sell his material  via iTunes or any other online store. Secondly, the album isn”t available until Thanksgiving Day, so he loses half the sales week since Nielsen SoundScan”s survey runs Monday-Sunday. Third, there”s no single from the box set yet, so radio listeners aren”t necessarily aware that there is new material to buy, although his two-hour CBS Special on Nov. 29 should help solve that.

Regardless, if Brooks doesn”t make it, our last best hope to add to the list of the 20 or so albums that have achieved the Million Mark in their first week will be new Adele and new Taylor Swift. After that, such feats will only live in the record books. 

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