On Sade and the Virtues of Scarcity

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Sade, hiding. Photo courtesy ThinkTank Marketing.
This week's album charts were topped by Sade's Soldier Of Love, the smoky soul singer's sixth full-length and first since 2000's Lovers Rock. Soldier accomplished the rarer-than-ever feat of going gold in its first week of release, selling 502,000 copies and toppling the snoozy twangers Lady Antebellum from the top spot.

Sade's strong first week isn't much of a surprise. The drums started beating for Soldier pretty early, and online it seemed that all quarters were anticipating the album -- it received pre-release notices from Brooklyn Vegan and SoulBounce, garnered solid reviews from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and was advertised on TV. But it's hard not to wonder if what really helped Soldier during its debut week is one quality that's increasingly rare in these music-saturated times: Scarcity.

Looking back at the albums that have roared to the top spot in recent weeks, two things stick out: first, that the artists making them tend to skew somewhat older than your typical Z100 staple, and second, that the high-selling full-lengths often serve as the first documents from their respective artists in five-plus years. Here are the 12 albums from the past 14 months that have sold more than 300,000 copies in their first week, with debut-week sales totals and release years of the artists' previous albums in parentheses:

Susan Boyle, I Dreamed A Dream (701,000 / debut album)
Eminem, Relapse (608,000 copies sold / previous album released in 2004)
Sade, Soldier Of Love (502,000 / 2000)
U2, No Line On The Horizon (484,000 / 2004)
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now (481,000 / 2008)
Jay-Z, The Blueprint III (476,000 / 2007)
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey And The GrooGrux King (424,000 / 2005)
Michael Jackson, This Is It (373,000 / 2001)
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable (351,000 / 2007)
Carrie Underwood, Play On (318,000/ 2007)
Maxwell, BLACKsummer'snight (316,000 / 2001)
Whitney Houston, I Look To You (305,000 / 2002)

Half of those albums were from artists who had been quiet on the new-material front for five years or more. (Although it probably should be noted that Jackson was riding a wave of compilation-sales love when This Is It's soundtrack was released.) Then you have three country acts (including one, Lady Antebellum, that benefited from a pre-album-release appearance on a highly watched Grammy telecast) and two lifers, the Dave Matthews Band and Jay-Z, who stayed pretty much on par with the first-week totals of their previous releases (DMB's Stand Up sold 465,000 copies when it arrived in 2005, while Jay-Z's American Gangster moved 425,000 copies during its debut week in 2007).

Finally there's the Simon Cowell-assisted songbird Susan Boyle, who shot right out of the gate with the best first-week sales of any album since the relatively rosy days of Tha Carter III's release. One could argue that the six months that elapsed between her debut on Britain's Got Talent (and, subsequently, YouTube) and her first album's eventual arrival in stores seemed like an eternity in Internet time, particularly since she seemingly lived an entire episode of Behind The Music in that span.

Did Sade's sudden reappearance on the horizon after years of dormancy really make her band bigger than U2? It's likely; after all, the sudden reappearance of anyone, particularly an artist who used to sell boatloads of music during the good times, can well be considered "news" by any media outlet. (Dear Bono, how can we miss you if you never go away?) But it's also worth noting that demand for new physical product from Sade was foreshadowed about a month ago, before the media blitz regarding Soldier really kicked in and after the maxi-single for Soldier's title track was released. (In this particular case, the maxi-single was really what we used to call a "CD single," as it only had two songs on it.) In its first week in stores, the "Soldier" maxi-single moved 6,300 copies, handily topping a chart whose previous No. 1 (remixes of Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance") had moved 1,200 units. When you take into account the idea that the number of stores even stocking maxi-singles is probably pretty low, that number becomes even more staggering. For what it's worth, Soldier didn't perform too shabbily online either, topping both the Hot Digital Albums chart (91,000 sales of digital albums) the Internet chart (27,000 physical CDs sold online).

The takeaway from these numbers? Probably another "oh, music business, you're so... small these days" type of statement. Or maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder -- and the wallet open a little wider as well?


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