Kanye West’s new album debuted at #1 on the latest Billboard chart (for the week ending April 23), making it seven #1 albums in a row for the controversial rapper and firmly placing him in élite territory in the category of artists with the most chart toppers.
But here’s the kicker: the album, The Life Of Pablo, only sold 28,000 copies during the tracking week.
That measly figure is a major statement on several fronts – about Kanye, about TIDAL, about the state of the music industry…you name it.
But that laughable 28k sales figure can also be misleading.
Here are the facts behind it and Kanye’s #1 ranking:
Although the album makes its chart début this week, it was actually released two months ago exclusively on the Jay Z-owned streaming service TIDAL. So other music stores such as Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify and Pandora (all of which report their sales to Billboard) did not have it for streaming or downloading.
By the way, TIDAL does not report its streaming numbers to Billboard…more on that later.
Also, following the album’s initial release, Kanye has (reportedly) still been tinkering with it, changing certain tracks and song sequencing – as if the album was (and still may be) an unfinished product.
Then there’s the fact that there also was (and still is) no physical component (no CD or vinyl album) available for sale. So that took all the Walmarts and Targets – not to mention any other stores that still sell physical records – out of the equation. On that note, Kanye has vowed that the album will “never” be available for sale. (He also previously stated that it would only be available through TIDAL streaming, but more on that in a minute as well)
So how does an album that was marketed so umm, questionably, and is still being tinkered with make it to #1 on the album chart? And with just 28,000 copies sold?
There are three major factors that created this imperfect storm: 1) Billboard’s album chart methodology; 2) the popularity of music streaming (except on TIDAL) and 3) a well-timed change of heart by Kanye and his people.
First there’s Billboard. For the past year or so, the music industry’s chart authority has included streaming and single downloads as factors in its album chart calculations. So if an album or any of its single tracks is being streamed on the non-TIDAL services I mentioned earlier, those clicks count toward the album chart’s rank (in addition to the singles charts). The conversion factor Billboard uses is that every 1500 streams of any combination of the songs on an album equals one album sold.
That’s where the streaming and TIDAL factors (or non-factor in TIDAL’s case) kick in. After two months of exclusive availability on the Jay Z-owned service, which, again, does not report its streaming totals to Billboard, Kanye’s people relented and made Pablo available on the other more popular (and more transparent) music streaming services on April 1.
When The Life of Pablo was expanded beyond TIDAL, its streaming total exploded to 99,000,000, which equates to 66,000 albums sold – or album-equivalent units.
But Kanye’s album-equivalent point total of 66K would not have been enough on its own to make The Life of Pablo the #1 album this week. Country music’s rising king, Chris Stapleton, was well positioned to rebound to #1 in the wake of last week’s Academy of Country Music Awards, with a loftier point total than what Kanye’s album was trending towards.
That’s what makes that third factor, Kanye’s change of heart, so important. After promising never to make the album available for sale (only for TIDAL streaming), West caved like a house of cards to the pressure of wanting another #1 album, so he made the album he swore would never be available for sale…available for sale. As of April 4, Pablo can now be purchased on both TIDAL and Kanye’s website for $20.
Granted, he has not let the traditional record sellers in on the Pablo madness, so he did kinda keep his promise. But the album can be purchased nonetheless. That’s how he achieved the 28,000 sales number.
When you add the two figures (28K from sales and 66K from streaming) the resultant 94K album-equivalent units was just enough to push Kanye over Chris Stapleton and get the rapper that dubious seventh #1.
Well, what doesn’t make much sense in my mind is the wacky marketing of this album in the first place by an artist who otherwise used to sell close to a million true albums (CDs, vinyl or digital downloads) in the first week of release. His third album, 2007’s Graduation, for instance, sold 980,000 copies in a week that it even had to complete with a then-relevant 50 Cent for consumers’ dollars.
Granted, in ’07, we were only about halfway through the current 15-year decline in record sales, and albums were selling far more even then than they are now (although current chart superstars Adele, Taylor Swift, Drake and Justin Bieber still see those loftier numbers when they release new material).
Hold up a sec. Surely, Ye is still in the same élite group as those four artists, isn’t he? (Don’t tell him I compared his relevancy to that of Taylor Swift, or he’ll waste even more studio time creating another diss track about the pop starlet…as he did for Life of Pablo with the track “Famous.”)
But let’s get back to the point here.
It appears that Kanye’s initial decision to withhold the album from services other than TIDAL – in which the rapper has a financial stake – backfired. Rihanna learned the same lesson (but much quicker) when she initially released her album ANTI exclusively to TIDAL in January. A week later, her label expanded its availability to the other services and it soared from #28 (reflecting only TIDAL’s sales) to #1.
So what does all of this mean?
Well, for starters, it means the jury may still be out on the struggling TIDAL service. In the one year since its infamous relaunch with the Jay Z/Alicia Keys/Beyoncé/Kanye-led press conference, subscriptions have reportedly gone from around 500,000 to about 3 million. Those are not bad numbers. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. Some reports suggest that the service’s subscribers increased further when TIDAL was the only way to get ANTI or The Life of Pablo.
But with TIDAL’s streaming numbers not tracked by Nielsen Soundscan (whose data feeds Billboard charts), there’s some question as to whether the artists and songwriters who were supposed to be the biggest financial beneficiaries of the artist-owned service are truly reaping their promised benefits.
For one, without an exact accounting of streams and sales totals, who knows if their royalty payments reflect true sales of their products. (Some lesser known artists have already taken TIDAL to court over this issue.)
Also, with some of the world’s biggest artists like West, Rihanna and others issuing their new releases exclusively on TIDAL, piracy and bootleg versions of those products have increased substantially. Potential consumers are more likely to plop down a few hard-earned dollars for a bootleg copy of a hard-to-get superstar album than commit to a $10 or $20-a-month subscription – especially if they’re already paying for one of the other services like Apple Music or Spotify.
Billboard estimates that around a half-million bootleg versions of The Life of Pablo were sold before it became available on the major streaming sites this month.
As for the music industry, it proved that, for an artist like Kanye – no matter how bastardized the marketing strategy of a major superstar album release – circumstances can be manipulated to get that artist a #1 album. It doesn’t matter how low the sales are or how questionable the quality of the musical content may be (wait, we already knew that last part, didn’t we?).
It also means that Kanye West still controls his own fate – something else we already knew. He ultimately decided when the album would be released and by what means it would be made available for our consumption.
The good news about that is, as an artist, West is not constrained by any big bad record label’s traditional rules of how an artist’s work is to be marketed. Ye dictated the terms of Pablo’s release and he owns the results. These are the kinds of rights for which musicians like Prince have fought the corporate giants for decades.
Other artists should be aware though: only a few musicians (like Kanye and Prince, whose recent album was also released exclusively on TIDAL) have attained the kind of status where they would be given such creative and decision-making authority. In other words, whether musicians like it or not, the big bad record companies are still in control.
But most importantly, Pablo’s “success” means that people are still interested in all-things Kanye – whether it’s some new schizophrenic tweet or public outburst, or a new chart accomplishment resulting from a crazy marketing strategy.
In this case, however, the accomplishment of his seventh #1 album comes with a heavy set of asterisks, leaving Kanye-watchers wondering how much better this album might have done had it been handled differently.
Maybe his next album, reportedly also due this year and tentatively titled Turbo Grafx 16, will mark a return to sanity.
Then again, it’s Kanye…so nah.
Ps. The Life of Pablo is the 154th rap album to top the Billboard 200 album chart. To see a complete list of all 154 albums – dating back to 1987 – click here.
Pss. Despite its wacky first two months, there are actually a few decent tracks on Pablo. The songs worth checking out are: “No More Parties In LA” (featuring Kendrick Lamar), “30 Hours” and “Wolves” (featuring Sia and Vic Mensa).
But hurry up, Kanye has indicated that Pablo is still a work in progress, and any one of those tracks could be gone from streaming before you know it!