The Tortoise & The Hare: First Week vs. Longterm Sales

The Tortoise & The Hare: First Week vs. Longterm Sales

HotNewHipHop takes a look at first-week album sales and how the tortoise occasionally beats the hare.

Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. In an era of immediate consumption and instant gratification, we want something the second it becomes available, if not before. We wait in line overnight so we can be the first in our group of friends to have the newest iPhone, Call of Duty, or retro Jawwdins. Being a first adopter is a pride thing, and some care about it more than others, but nobody wants to be left out.

When it comes to music, however, sometimes we're a little late to the party. First week sales is the main metric used to judge how successful an album was commercially, but why do we only give an album one week to breathe? Sometimes the first two singles are hits and it benefits the first week sales, but what about when Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" is the fifth single to drop? Mack and Machine Gun Kelly dropped their albums the same day back on October 9, 2012 and The Heist only outsold MGK's Lace Up by about 20,000 copies in it's first week. But over time, as Macklemore later singles gained exponential momentum, sales ballooned to almost 1.4 million copies, whereas Lace Up is still sitting at around 180,000 copies sold. While a Gold album is nothing to sneeze at, it's not Platinum, and it shows that first week numbers are merely one metric to measure and not the whole story.

We looked at all the release dates from January 2012 to present day to compare first week and long term sales of albums that dropped the same day, and found some very interesting results. One of the most famous release date "wars" was June 18, 2013 when three of hip hop's heavyweights all dropped new albums. Kanye West's Yeezus, J. Cole's Born Sinner, and Mac Miller's Watching Movies With the Sound Off will forever be linked by all the hype leading up to that fateful day. Mac was never going to challenge either of the other two for #1 position first week, but it would be interesting to see how close he got. The marquee matchup was between Cole and Yeezy, a David and Goliath dynamic that kept the blogs buzzing for months ahead of time.

Yeezus debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 327,000 copies, narrowly surpassing Cole's Born Sinner, which sold 297,000 units that first week. Mac did extremely well considering the competition, moving 101,000 units of Watching Movies.... It wasn't a total surprise that Kanye won; his albums have historically had monster first weeks. In fact, this was West's lowest first week numbers, possibly hurt slightly by the album leaking early. The real surprise happened in week 2, when Yeezus only sold 65,000 copies, it's 80% drop-off being the fourth largest such freefall in SoundScan history. J. Cole had better luck after the first week, overtaking the #1 chart position in week 3, and ending 2013 in 34th on the year-end Billboard 200, three spots ahead of West. At first glance, it seems like Kanye's name had more trust in it, and people who were only going to buy one album that first week spent their money on the sure thing. Then, as some time passed, people gave Cole a listen and bought that album too, explaining the slightly longer trajectory bell curve in sales. Normally I would say the larger name artist with more marketing and bigger singles would usually persevere week 1, but in this case, Cole had the more impactful single in "Power Trip". It's important to note that after the "Bound 2" single and video were released later on, Yeezus experienced a massive spike in sales, beating Cole to Platinum status, and remains ahead in sales today.

In a slightly different example where both artists are veterans and have similar levels of influence and marketing push, Rick Ross and Pharrell both dropped huge albums on March 3rd of this year. Both were incredibly successful albums in their own right, but another instance occurred where the album that had a better 1st week wasn't necessarily always the long term sales leader. As you can see in the graph below, Ross eclipsed Pharrell week 1 quite handily, only to level out in week 2, and lose in weeks 3 and 4. The trend continues still today, where we find Pharrell in the lead by more than 100,000 units. Maybe we can get another N.E.R.D. album now, Skateboard P?

Album sales will always be tricky to predict, especially long term. This is where major labels have the upper hand on independents, as high album sales in the first few weeks are directly affected by how much marketing money is behind the project, especially in pushing singles. Obviously the singles need to have impact and disrupt the culture for the album to reach a high level of sales, but the data shows they don't have to do it right away. Often times, the album that debuts at  #3 or #4 goes on to outsell that respective #1 album. So let's give albums time to marinate when they drop, rather than branding an album a flop or disappointing based on simply 1st week sales. The 1st week is a battle; forever is the war.

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