The music business is full of gigantic numbers. Investors are pouring billions of dollars into funds to buy up song copyrights. Licensing clearinghouses like ASCAP and BMI process trillions of plays each year to collect and pay royalties.
But one number increasingly looks lost to time: selling a million albums in a week.
This week, Adele tops the Billboard album chart with the equivalent of 839,000 sales in the United States of her latest release, “30,” according to the tracking service MRC Data. Of those, 692,000 were sold as complete packages — as CDs or vinyl LPs, for example — and its songs racked up 185 million streams.
These days, that counts as an unqualified blockbuster. “30” had by far the biggest opening of any album this year, beating both Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” and Taylor Swift’s “Red (Taylor’s Version)” by more than 200,000.
But it was a far cry from Adele’s last album, “25,” which six years ago caused jaws to drop throughout the industry by selling nearly 3.4 million copies in its first week alone. This time around, the eyes of the music industry have been firmly on Adele’s numbers.
If Adele could not sell more than a million albums in a single week, could any artist? That has always been a special feat, but at the peak of the CD market it happened with some regularity. In 2000, for example, six titles — by ’N Sync, Eminem, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, the Beatles and Limp Bizkit — each had seven-digit opening weeks.
Even as the industry’s traditional sales model was collapsing throughout the 2000s, giant hits still broke through, stoked by fan demand, smart marketing and, sometimes, sales gimmicks. Lil Wayne moved just over one million of “Tha Carter III” in 2008. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” sold 1.1 million in 2011, though many were for heavily discounted downloads from Amazon. (In response, Billboard adjusted its chart rules to prevent a repeat.)
And Swift crossed the million mark four times, from “Speak Now” in 2010 through “Reputation” in 2017, which was the last album by any artist to do so.
Streaming is a major factor in the change. Why would any fan buy an album, the thinking goes, when they can stream it free or as part of an all-you-can-eat monthly subscription? When Adele released “25,” she kept it from services for seven months; now, with streaming dominating the marketplace, “30” was widely available on services like Spotify and Apple Music on the day it was released.
Another tweak to Billboard’s chart rules last year made it harder to score big opening-week numbers. In recent years, it became common for artists to “bundle” their album, often in download form, with the sale of merchandise or concert tickets. Last year, in acknowledgment that these practices distorted the charts’ “intended goal of accurately reflecting consumer intent,” Billboard stopped counting sales from those deals on its chart.
Adele’s “30” has been intensely anticipated by fans since at least early last year, when Adele said at a party that her album could be expected that fall. And the rollout of the album has been as high-profile as any artist could want, with a prime-time television special; special editions of the album sold by Target and Walmart; and a radio single, “Easy on Me,” that was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for four weeks straight.
Of the 692,000 copies of “30” that were sold as complete packages — albums, in other words — 205,000 were digital downloads and 487,000 were on physical formats, including 378,000 CDs, 108,000 vinyl LPs and fewer than 2,000 cassettes. The vinyl sales for “30” were the second-most recorded in a single week since at least 1991, when SoundScan, the predecessor of MRC, began keeping accurate count of record sales. The top seller? Swift’s new “Red (Taylor’s Version),” which sold 114,000 copies on vinyl just a week before, when it opened at No. 1.
This week, that version of “Red” falls to second place on the chart. “Certified Lover Boy” is No. 3, “An Evening With Silk Sonic,” the new project by Silk Sonic — a.k.a. Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak — is No. 4, and Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Double Album” is in fifth place.
Summer Walker’s “Still Over It” is in sixth place, and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s “Raise the Roof” opens at No. 7.