Is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” a quickly sinking bomb? In its first week, it sold more than 1.1 million copies in the U.S. alone, but by week four, its numbers have dropped to 66,000. This week it drops to No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with total sales of 1.45 million (Worldwide, it has reached 5 million copies, the singer tweeted yesterday).
By contrast, Adele’s “21,” after selling 352,000 in its first week, keeps steadily chugging along. It quickly replaced “Born This Way” back at the top spot and has spent 10 weeks at No. 1. In its 17 weeks on the Billboard 200, it has sold more than 2 million copies and has never dropped below No. 3.
How do we even measure this stuff anymore anyway in the age of iTunes? I’m not so sure, but I can’t believe that Interscope executives are dancing with delight over Lady Gaga’s steeply falling weekly album numbers, especially given the near 24/7 perpetual motion promotion machine. If this were 2001 instead of 2011, “Born This Way” would likely still be selling 250,000-300,000/week at this stage. But that was before digital downloading and just at the start of album sales diving precipitously.
The numbers do tell us a few things:
*The initial rush and excitement very quickly fell off at a staggering rate for “Born This Way.” After months of build-up and leaking tracks, it’s possible that fans are simply experiencing Lady Gaga fatigue or her biggest fans snap up anything in the first week and her moderate followers don’t feel moved to purchase.
*The Amazon promotion that offered the entire album for 99 cents for two days of the first week was great for fans, but was a gimmick. Lady Gaga would have still had an amazing first week—more than 700,000 copies sold—without the Amazon promotion. But the 1.1 million will forever have an asterisk by it since Interscope achieved the numbers by practically giving it away (we’re quite sure the label would have done that if Nielsen SoundScan counted giveways, but it doesn’t).
*Radio still matters. Yes, listenership is down and more and more people discover music through the internet and from friends, but a radio hit is still important for massive sales to reach the widest possible audience. For example, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” has been No. 1 on the Hot 100 for seven weeks. That’s not only because it’s receiving Top 40 airplay: the song is a cross-format smash at rock and AC as well. First single “Born This Way” debuted at No. 1, but second single “Judas” never ignited at radio and third single, “The Edge of Glory” is doing well, but isn’t burning up the chart. It is No. 6 with a bullet this week on the Billboard Hot 100, bolstered, sadly, by the death of Clarence Clemons, who appears on the track and video.
*We have to look at the full picture. Yes, album sales have slowed to a trickle of what they were, but the digital downloads have already surpassed the 5 million mark in the U.S. alone. There are some people who feel that iTunes ruined the albums market. Others believe it simply has allowed consumers to purchase in a way that works for them. To me, it’s a bit of both. By the numbers: “Born This Way,” 2.94 million; “The Edge of Glory,” 996,000; “Judas,” 720,000; “You and I,” 124,000 (downloads of other songs on the album get the tally up to 5,098,000).
So how’s the scorecard look? I’d say mixed. We can no longer look at album sales in a vacuum to gauge a project’s success. On the plus side, there is plenty that Interscope can tout to signal excitement, including the album and single resoundingly debuting at No. 1. Her “Fame Monster” tour was one of the highest grossing tours of the years and she has gone from club act to arena headliner in remarkably short time. On the downside, it seems almost impossible that someone could work as hard as Lady Gaga has (she has an inhuman work ethic) and that can only translate to 66,000 people feeling moved to purchase her album this week. Her fame far eclipses her buying audience at this point. The challenge for her label is how to convert all the looky-loos to consumers.