Beyoncé’s team will be rightly feeling pretty pleased with themselves right now, having created a massive buzz around her eponymously titled fifth studio album by deliberately creating absolutely no buzz whatsoever prior to its release on Friday 13th. By doing something a little different with digital they have managed to get swathes of media coverage, cutting through in a manner that could only be dreamed of with a traditional music marketing campaign. Showcasing a big digital gimmick is a reasonably well used trick by established artists wanting to cut through, whether that be Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’ pay what you like experiment or Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ iTunes exclusive. There of course many serious permutations of the ‘Beyoncé’ release, both in terms of product strategy (e.g. the integration of video) as well as marketing (turning the traditional album build-up strategy on its head). But of most significance is what it says about the growing role of first week sales.
Prior to the release of this album Beyoncé’s sales were in sharp decline, from a peak of 4.9 million US sales for ‘Dangerously in Love’ in 2003 to just 1.4 million for ‘4’ in 2011 (see figure). The total market decline in album sales was clearly a mitigating factor but the rate at which Top 10 US album sales declined over the same period – 50% – was significantly less than the 71% by which her album sales declined. Beyoncé’s team needed something clever to ensure that the latest album didn’t continue the downward trend. Doubling down on first week sales was a smart move. It combined the novelty of the tactic, the creation of a sense of scarcity by being an iTunes exclusive for one week and the ability to mobilize her core fans into buying in a concentrated manner and thus increase the odds of pushing the album to the number one spot on its debut full week.
First week sales have become a crucial marketing tool for big artists, with efforts focused on concentrating sales to build the platform for the rest of the marketing and sales strategies. First week sales of ‘Beyoncé’ look set to represent 30% of all sales, a considerable rise from the 6% for ‘Dangerously in Love’. As impressive as ‘Beyoncé’s expected 600,000 first week sales are though, the record for US first week sales was set last year by Taylor Swift’s ‘Red’ with an impressive 1.2 million. In many respects Taylor Swift’s album sales trajectory is similar to Beyoncé’s even though she is in an earlier stage of her career. Again the decline in total music sales plays a key role, but over the period Swift managed to ever so slightly buck the trend, declining by 25% instead of 26%. (Though if the high water mark of her second album ‘Fearless’ is used then the decline is 41% compared to a Top 10 rate of 5%.)
What unites Taylor Swift and Beyoncé is the growing importance of first week sales. Both are suffering declining album sales as a result of broader consumer trends, and both have concentrated ever larger proportions of sales into the first week of release. Consequently for Beyoncé first week sales volumes have increased by 89% while total sales declined by 71%. For Swift first week sales have increased by 218% while total sales fell by a quarter. Other artists have woken up to the importance of the first week sales springboard too, not least Daft Punk who secured first week sales of 339,000 for ‘Random Access Memories’ representing 44% of all US sales to date. By contrast their last album ‘Human After All’ sold just 127,000 in the US.
As music sales continue to dwindle artists’ release teams have to get increasingly creative about how they get the most bang for their marketing buck. Expect the first week sales focus to sharpen even further now for frontline global scale artists.