Madonna has had eight No. 1 albums in the US. Her latest, Rebel Heart, won't be one of them. Months after the singer's dancefloor-ready LP was first leaked, it officially released on March 6 and sold 116,000 copies in its first week. Meanwhile, the soundtrack for Fox's critically acclaimed hip-hop soap opera, Empire, sold 110,000 copies of its soundtrack, released the same day. Yet Madonna took the No. 2 slot on Billboard 200 album chart while Lucious, Cookie and co. bowed at No. 1. How?
It's all because of a thing called "album equivalent units." Late last year, the methodology for Billboard's charts changed from a straight-up tally of sales to a formula that includes streaming, digital track sales and traditional album sales. Where it used to take someone throwing down $14.99 for a CD to count as an album sale, now 1500 streams of a song from an album will do the trick. Alternatively, a mere ten digital track sales from a given album now also equal one album sale, despite the length of the album. Rebel Heart has 14 tracks and the Empire soundtrack has 18.
With #TeamHakeem and #TeamJamal rallying around particular tunes on the Empire soundtrack, the album as a whole exceeded sales of Rebel Heart based on the new methodology; Empire sold 130,000 albums and album equivalent units, compared to around 120,000 for Rebel Heart.
The new system is great for artists whose presence is driven by singles and whose fans are mostly streaming their music instead of buying it. However, album-oriented artists (like Madonna, who has yet to crack the Hot 100 with "Living for Love") might be penalized on the charts when fans with short attention spans are only streaming single tracks.
By comparison, Madonna's last album, 2012's MDNA, sold 359,000 copies in its first week, showing how sharply sales have fallen in three years. If there was ever a time when the writing was on the wall for the commercial viability of albums, now is it. It just took Lucious Lyon to point it out.
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