100 & Single: Lady Gaga Gets Ready To Join The Million-Weeker Club

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The phrase "the calm before the storm" appears in virtually every chart-related story this week. That's because the latest edition of the Billboard 200, which covers sales from the week ending May 22, is topped by Adele's 21. That album is No. 1 for the ninth and (presumably) final week before Lady Gaga's monster Born This Way makes its foregone chart-crushing debut.

But, come on now... "calm"? For chart-watchers, industryites and Gaga fans, I'd say the storm is already happening.

A meta-discussion has been raging all week around just how many copies Gaga's album will sell in week one, and whether all of the downloads she's racking up should count. Amazon's jaw-dropping decision to sell Born This Way for the unprecedented full-album price of 99 cents has not only engendered controversy—so much that Billboard's editor felt compelled to respond to some angry Britney Spears fans—it's rocket-fueled Gaga's sales.

The whispers began way back in February, after "Born This Way," the song, made a massive debut, blasting in at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 with blockbuster sales and airplay. Could the Born album become the first disc since Taylor Swift's Speak Now (November 2010) to move a million in a week?

When subsequent Gaga singles like "Judas" and "The Edge of Glory" made less impressive debuts, forecasts were lowered correspondingly. This week's Hot 100, for example, doesn't inspire much more confidence: "Hair," the fourth prerelease single from Born This Way, arrives at No. 12; if it goes no higher, it'll be her first promoted single to fall short of the big chart's Top 10.

According to Billboard, as recently as last month execs at Interscope, Gaga's own label, were managing expectations down, calling for a first week of as little as 400,000 (great if you're, say, Katy Perry; underwhelming for an act of Gaga's cultural dominance). But after the album dropped this week, in the wake of the Amazon promotion and reports of massive sales at other retailers, that changed rapidly. "By Monday," Billboard reports, "they were talking 650,000-700,000 units, and then moved it up to 800,000-900,000 units. It wasn't until Wednesday that they began conceding the possibility of a million-unit week."

Reviews for Born This Way have been almost uniformly strong. But first-week sales and early reviews aren't necessarily a great yardstick for how an album will ultimately be regarded—or how it'll sellῗover time. It will be months, perhaps years before we can properly assess the cultural imprint of Born This Way, as is true of the other albums that did blockbuster numbers out of the box.

Assuming, as Billboard itself now predicts, Born This Way moves more than a million copies by Sunday, Gaga will join a baker's dozen of other artists who, during the 20-year SoundScan era, have shifted seven figures in seven days. This list of "million-weekers" ranges from the Beatles and Garth Brooks to Limp Bizkit.

Prior to 1991, it was virtually impossible to know whether albums sold a million copies in a week. Twenty years ago this month, Billboard introduced SoundScan data to its album chart, a B.C.-A.D. event so epochal music historians now refer to chart history in terms of "pre-SoundScan" and "post-SoundScan." Acts that peaked in the pre-SoundScan era arguably got robbed—in 1990, Public Enemy were widely rumored to have sold a million copies of Fear of a Black Planet in its first week. But with no precise chart system (and record-store owners reluctant in the early days of hip-hop to report its sales fully), PE's album only scraped the Billboard Top 10.

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16 comments
rdluvstowrite
rdluvstowrite

Despite being so popular, I don't believe I have ever listened to one of her songs before. I don't know how I should feel about that. I guess she's just not for me, I'm a technical individual, so I tend to like music that is relaxing or has lyrics that took the singer more than five minutes to write.

Al
Al

Just found out about your column and it's fascinating!  Chris you mention it was rumored "Fear of a Black Planet" sold a million.  Where did you hear this from?  And do you know of any other albums that are widely considered to have sold a million the first week pre Soundscan?

Moses
Moses

Lady gaga selling so much to people that want to hear hear bible reading today is do you really want to hear it?

Jonathon Hansen
Jonathon Hansen

It's not just Britney Spears fans who are deeply upset with Billboard's decision to count Gaga's 99 cent albums...Rather, it's all music fans in general who care about the credibility of the Billboard charts. Gaga has no right to be in the select company of artists who have sold over 1 million albums in a week when those artists achieved that milestone without practically giving their albums away. The preliminary numbers are now in, and Gaga would not have been close to reaching 1 million sales without the Amazon promotion. It's also unfair to other music artists who are not lucky enough to have their album sales padded by having a mega-retailer like Amazon agree to buy unlimited copies of their album at the full market price minus 99 cents. In response to Joseph's comment, I know numerous people who are not Lady Gaga fans, and would never buy her album at full price--nor would they even purchase it if it was being sold at Amazon's daily deal rate of $3.99. But at 99 cents, they decided to pull the trigger because they realized that as long as there was at least one good song on the album, that one good song would single-handedly pay for the whole rest of the album. The solution is to have a minimum price threshold that an album must be sold for in order to for that album to count towards Billboard 200's sales tally--I would personally recommend $3.99 for that minimum threshold.

Jonathon Hansen
Jonathon Hansen

Just want to expand on my comment with the preliminary numbers: The preliminary estimates are that Lady Gaga sold about 1.1 million albums…Of that amount, about 450,000 are estimated to have come from the 99 cent Amazon deal. Taking out those 99 cent purchases would put her sales total at 650,000. Of course, some of those 450,000 people would have still purchased the album regardless, but in order for her to reach 1 million sales in the absence of the 99 cent deal, 350,000 of those 450,000 people would need to have been willing to still buy the album at full price…And I doubt that would have happened.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

You make a generally sensible argument, and I agree that a minimum-price rule should probably be the outcome here. But the question -- as implied by Billboard editor Bill Werde in his commentary last week, linked in the story above -- is when such a rule should have taken effect: right away, a la the Eagles-vs-Britney situation in late 2007, or at the end of a chart year?

Werde argues that introducing the rule instantaneously, in response to a totally unforeseen circumstance (Amazon's 99-cent pricing decision) would itself harm chart credibility. I half-agree with him.I say "half" because, like you, I generally feel it's better, for chart credibility, to address a sales discrepancy right away. That's why, unlike both Werde (who regrets the Eagles/Britney insta-decision in 2007, when he wasn't in charge) and the Britney fans, I actually think Billboard made the right call in '07. It would not have been credible for 'Blackout' to be the nation's No. 1 album in a week where everyone knew the Eagles sold twice as many albums.Also, the single-retailer rule (which had previously disqualified Wal-Mart-only albums like the Eagles' from the BB200) was always an artificial, silly rule. I was thrilled to see it go. Similarly, I still think Billboard should have eliminated the no-catalog rule instantly in the summer of 2009, when Michael Jackson was outselling every album on the BB200 but not appearing on it. I'm very much in favor of instantly killing outdated rules for the sake of chart credibility.

Here's where you and I part company: You're not asking for the instant removal of a silly rule. You're asking Billboard to introduce a minimum-pricing rule, based on an unforeseen chart circumstance. That's totally unprecedented in chart history, a new level of insta-decision that even I wouldn't favor and would be massively unfair to Gaga/Interscope (I know, your heart doesn't bleed for her; me neither).

Remember, Gaga/Interscope are getting their full wholesale cost per Amazon album sold; and while you may think me naîve, I actually do believe the press stories that this was entirely Amazon's decision, not the label's. And ok, even if the 99-cent price was the result of a super-secret deal between Interscope and Amazon (surely the level of conspiracy the anti-Gaga faction believes), I don't see how you can, un-Solomon-like, divide the baby: count only some of those 450,000 sales? disqualify all of them -- again, with no prior rule on the books? If, and that's a big if, Interscope gamed the system by slipping something to Amazon to get that 99-cent price, such an admittedly shifty tactic was legal, according to the Billboard rules currently in effect.

I'm responding to your comment because, unlike the Spears fans, your argument is logically consistent and not motivated by blind fandom. I must say the Britney fans' argument is fairly incoherent: They're still angry, 3.5 years later, that Brit was denied a No. 1 album, but taking away every last Gaga sale at Amazon would deny her only a 1m sales week, not a No. 1 album. I don't see the equivalency here at all. They'll argue that it's the Billboard rule inconsistency that angers them, but as I said above, introducing a new rule is not equivalent to taking an outdated one away. Nevermind the large percentage of the pro-Britney tweets that boil down to a perceived pro-Gaga conspiracy on Billboard's part, which is insane.

Jonathon Hansen
Jonathon Hansen

Thank you very much Chris for taking the time to write such a well-reasoned response. You are right that I am not motivated by blind fandom--I am not at all a Britney Spears fan (I have never bought a song or album of hers in my life), and like you, I completely agreed with Billboard's decision in 2007 to allow the Eagles' Wal-Mart sales to count. And although I am not a Lady Gaga fan, I would be making the same arguments even if it was one of my favorite artists who was benefitting from 99 cent pricing.

Before reading your response, I had not thought of the difference between, on the one hand, simply instantaneously repealing a silly, unjust rule (like the single-retailer rule, or the no-catalog rule), and, on the other hand, instantaneously introducing a brand new rule. I appreciate the distinction you make, and your point is well-taken.

That being said, despite the legitimate concerns you raise about establishing a new precedent in which Billboard can suddenly and arbitrarily impose a new rule, I would still probably be inclined to stand by my previously expressed opposition to Billboard's decision regarding “Born This Way.” What has persuaded me, however, to back away from my previous position, is the other dilemma which you raise, which is what does one do with the 450,000 people who bought the album for 99 cents? (Going forward, I'll collectively call these music buyers the "99 centers").

Indeed, in my second comment, I concede that some of the “99 centers” would still have bought the album at the full price in the absence of the Amazon promotion. The problem is the people who I'll call the "free riders"--those are the "99 centers" who are not Gaga fans, have no interest in financially supporting her, and who would only pay 99 cents for "BTW," and nothing more. They ended up just hitting the download button because they were practically getting the album for free (these are the people, of course, which a minimum price threshold would separate out).

The unsolvable problem, then, is that it is impossible to know how many of the 450K "99 centers" would still have been willing to buy the album at full price, and how many are the "free riders." If you simply count all of the 450K you are artificially inflating Gaga's sales numbers because you are absurdlycounting the "free riders." That is why I was initially upset with Billboard's decision. But I now also see the opposing argument which you support, which is that if you immediately promulgate a new minimum price threshold and thus disqualify all of the 450K sales at 99 cents, that is unfair to Gaga because some of those 450K “99 centers” would still have purchased “BTW”at regular price, and so throwing out all the 99 cent purchases would artificially deflate Gaga's sale numbers. And, of course, you can't take a middle position and only count a percentage of the 99 cent sales because you can't separate out the "free riders" from those who would've been willing to pay the regular price, so any attempt to do this would inherently be totally subjective and arbitrary.

So, I am faced with the “lose-lose” question: Which is worse, artificially inflating Gaga's numbers, or artificially deflating her numbers? I’ve decided to reverse my previous position because I have to admit that the former is preferable to the latter. Going forward, however, the solution needs to be a minimum price rule. Hopefully this eliminates 99 cent pricing in the future, but even if an album(s) is sold again at 99 cents (or any price under the minimum price threshold), at least the artist's fans would know in advance that if they buy the album at 99 cents (or any price under the minimum price threshold) it will not count towards their favorite artist's Billboard sales tally--thereby encouraging the artist's fans to instead pay the regular price above the minimum price threshold. With “BTW,” however, all of the Gaga fans who purchased “BTW” for 99 cents but who would’ve been happy to pay the full price if they had to, made their decision based upon the understanding that--according to current Billboard rules--their 99 cent purchase would still count as part of Gaga's sales total. As a result, it would be unfair for Billboard to now suddenly declare, after the fact, that these purchases from loyal Gaga fans will no longer be counted in Gaga's first week album sales total--which, if these Gaga fans had known in advance, may have caused them to instead purchase “BTW” at full price.

I'll just conclude, however, by mentioning how unfortunate this whole 99 cent controversy has been because now when you talk about the 14 artists who have reached the milestone of selling 1 million albums in a single week, you have to put an asterisk by Gaga’s name; this is because, as I mentioned yesterday, without the “free riders,” it seems unlikely that Gaga would have reached 1 million…In any event, thank you again for the response, and although it’s never easy to walk away from a previously expressed position, I felt the need to do so after reading your response, and after further consideration. Thanks again, and I apologize for how lengthy this post became.

✔ Joseph Paige Jr.
✔ Joseph Paige Jr.

In the end of the day. If there wasn't a demand for the album those individuals who purchased it for $0.99 wouldn't have in the first place. If there was a Rod Stewart album being sold for $0.99 I would not purchase it, because I never wanted it.

Angie Berman
Angie Berman

This is Epic!!! I love the new sound of music coming. There's room for everyone. All the hot shit is coming out of NYC! Check out this dude I found on twitter really reminds me of Prince but fresh www.sterling8music.com

Angel Salamanca
Angel Salamanca

Ahaha of course Britney Spears fans are pissed ahahahaha!!! Stupid little cunts. She's selling a million get over it Britney did it twice so stfu!!! Get used to it. Gaga is here and she is queer and better than Britney ever will be.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

I didn't have room in my column to opine on the chart-geekcontroversy of the week, briefly alluded in my second paragraph: Billboard'sdecision to count 99-cent Amazon sales of Gaga's album toward the chart, infull. As I noted above, Britney Spears fans are up in arms. Before I opine, Ishould probably explain to chart laypeople what exactly they're angry about.

 

First, briefly: Billboard definitely made the right call,but Britney fans—despite their nasty and at times borderline-incoherentrants—have a right to be at least a little annoyed with Billboard. They justpicked the wrong moment to be annoyed, in my opinion.

 

Between 2007 and 2009, Billboard reversed two big,long-established album-chart rules. The problem is that they were badlyinconsistent with the timing of these reversals.

 

The first reversal is the one that infuriates Spears fans.Billboard denied her a No. 1 album in early November 2007, whenBlackout was poised to become her fifth No. 1 debut butinstead wound up No. 2 to the Eagles' Wal-Mart exclusive comeback album LongRoad Out of Eden. According to Billboard's rules at the time, theEagles album shouldn't have counted toward the chart at all; Billboard had adecade-old rule preventing special albums sold at only one retailer (e.g.,Wal-Mart, Target, Starbucks, iTunes) from being permitted to chart. ThenEden outsold Spears's Blackout by atwo-to-one margin, and Billboard caved and killed the retailer-exclusives ruleimmediately, giving the Eagles the No. 1 spot. (One day before Billboard caved,I wrote thisexplanatory post at the music blog Idolator.)

 

I often snark that Billboard caved at the behest of ascreaming Irving Azoff (the Eagles’ legendarily fearsome manager), and hey,maybe they did. According to Billboard’s Bill Werde in his editorial this week(linked above in the column), the reversal was because Wal-Mart (again,probably pressured by Azoff) gave Billboard sales data on an album exclusive forthe first time, and Billboard chose to include, or at least not exclude, it.

 

Whatever the reason, I actually believe Billboard made theright call in November 2007. It was silly to pretend the Eagles’ album wasn'tthe country’s best-seller that week. When in doubt, I always err on the side ofmore data, not less.

 

That makes a nice segue to Billboard’s other big album-chartreversal, at the end of the 2009 chart year. This one regarded “catalog” (i.e.,old) albums, and it was a much bigger deal. Like the one-retailer rule, thecatalog rule, which had been in effect for about 20 years, kept albums olderthan two years off the chart if they fell below the top half of the chart. ButBillboard finally decided to eliminate that rule, and it was entirely motivatedby one major music-related event: the summer 2009 death of Michael Jackson.

 

It became a serious embarrassment for Billboard during thelong period that summer where Jackson's chart-ineligible NumberOnes was the best-selling album in the country for weeks on end (and Thrillerwas perpetually among the 10 best-selling) but Jackson's albums weren'tappearing on the Billboard 200 at all. Billboard didn't want to cave on therule in the middle of the year, because including catalog has such an outsizeeffect on the makeup of the chart. So Jackson's posthumous achievements weren'tproperly recorded during that crazy summer, but he was the catalyst for themreneging on the rule at year-end.

 

What’s kind of annoying here isn’t that Billboard changedthese two rules. It’s that the first time, they changed the rule in the middleof a chart year, at a moment it had an outsize effect on one album, Britney’slatest; and the second time, they changed the rule months after the change couldhave helped the late Jackson. If they were going to fix the first ruleimmediately, they should have fixed the second rule immediately too, in thesummer of 2009, the minute they realized Jackson’s old hits disc was going tooutsell every album on the chart. Waiting until December was pointless.

 

Now, to the Gaga controversy: Britney fans (if I can arguetheir point a little more coherently than they currently are on Twitter andelsewhere) are up in arms that Gaga, like the Eagles, is getting an artificialalbum sales boost via the Amazon 99-cent sale; but in the Eagles’ case, Billboardchanged a rule to favor them, and in Gaga’s case, Billboardisn’t doing something similar to make the chart, in theireyes, fairer. All Gaga album sales, even Amazon’s, will count, despite the factthat some chunk of those sales, arguably, never would have happened if oneretailer hadn't priced Born This Way below a buck.

 

Here’s my apples-and-oranges problem with the Spears fans’complaint. In 2007, Billboard proactively killed a longstanding rule that, oncekilled, hurt Britney, yes. But this time, there’s no rule to kill—Billboard hasnever had a minimum-price rule for albums. So why Spears fans feel it’sequivalent to introduce a rule that’s never existed before,to make things more “fair,” is incoherent to me. I accept their anger (which,wow! they've never let go of four years later) about the abrupt rule change in’07; but I don’t accept that knocking Gaga down a peg now with an abrupt ruleintroduction would somehow be vindication.

 

(It should be added that fans of big pop stars, in particular,are notorious for mixing their chart obsessions, which I share, with their star-vs-starobsessions, which I don’t. How hurting Gaga, who’d never even released an albumin 2007, vindicates Spears only makes sense in the warped mind of a pop act’sstan-base. Ask me sometime about the raging debate I got into with Mariah Careyfans a couple of years ago over my interpretations of her chart history. Oy.)

 

A far better argument to be made against Billboard is thatthey should make album-chart changes on a consistent schedule: either rightaway, when the rule change can have maximum impact, or at the end of a chartyear, as in the 2009 post-Jackson catalog rule-change. In his editorial, Werdestrongly implies that if he’d been in charge in 2007, the pro-Eagles rule wouldnever have been changed immediately; he would have waited for the end of thechart year. Werde was in charge in 2009, which is why themagazine waited to make the post-Jacko change. I’m actually of the oppositemindset as Werde—I applauded the 2007 insta-change and wish the Jackson changehad been made sooner. But either way, chart fans should demand consistency fromBillboard.

 

If the Britney lambs, back in 2009, had argued thatBillboard was screwing Jackson and being inconsistent after the Spears-Eaglesdebacle, that would be a somewhat more coherent, internally logical argument.But they’re not.

 

As it stands, Billboard’s doing the right thing, and theBritney-stans are making a well-intentioned but illogical argument.

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