100 & Single: Lady Gaga Gets Ready To Join The Million-Weeker Club
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 controversyso much that Billboard's editor felt compelled to respond to some angry Britney Spears fansit'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 regardedor 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 robbedin 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.