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Does the Success of JT"s “20/20 Experience” Prove Streaming Increases Album Sales?

Posted by Nathan S. on 04/03/13 | Filed under Top Stories, Opinion, Sales, Justin Timberlake
Justin Timberlake just sold a crap ton of albums. I mean a shitload. I mean sweet baby jesus, he sold the bejeezus out of this album. His "20/20 Experience" is now sitting at about 1.3 million copies in two weeks.

That's a number no one else is even in the ballpark of touching in 2013 (aka the age of the historically low album sales). The last rapper to come close was Lil Wayne's "Carter IV", but that was now two years ago. These days Weezy's (pretty terrible) "I Am Not a Human Being II" managed to do a meager 217K. But even compared to his pop star peers. JT's still killing everyone in sight.

Adele's "21", the top selling album of the last two years, only sold a third of "20/20" in its first week. Taylor Swift's last album, "Red", did about 600K first week, and Justin Bieber's "Believe" did about 500K.

So the real question is why? Why is Timberlake doing numbers the music industry had largely come to admit were essentially impossible these days?

Sure, part of the answer is in quality. It's a very well made album and of course there's a correlation between quality and sales, but that can't be the entire explanation. Is "20/20" THAT much better than Adele's "21"? Mumford & Sons' "Babel" won the last Grammy for Album of the Year, so it's got to be pretty high quality, and it only sold 600K its first week.

When we first learned about JT's skyhigh numbers I proposed a hypothesis that basically went like this: we live in a visual age, and Timberlake's now a bonafied movie, TV and interwebs star. Views drive sales, and no one's got a bigger combination of views and musical rep than Timberlake.

I stand by that hypothesis, but BusinessWeek just came out with another that's definitely worth mentioning (aka is much better than mine because it contains, you know, like facts and shit): Timberlake allowed "20/20" to be streamed to an unprecedented degree.

Timberlake offered up a full stream of "20/20" on iTunes days before the album release, and also distributed it widely on Rdio (where its songs currently occupy six of the top ten Rdio spots), Spotify (where it's been streamed over 7 million times) and Pandora, the three major streaming services.

Trust me, that's kind of a big fucking deal. I spend a large portion of my life working to stream albums, and even among independent artists and labels, there's a lot of resistance to the idea that streams can drive sales. As for major labels, let alone major label releases as high profile as Justin Timberlake's first album in seven years? For-fucking-get it. They might stream an album for a day or two before the release, but as soon as the album goes live they take that stream down. Thou Shall Not Stream is essentially a major label commandment.

I'd say that right now overall, 50% of artists/labels categorically refuse to stream their for-purchase albums for three primary reasons. One, they're worried about hackers ripping the streams. Two, streaming services like Spotify pay a fraction of a penny per stream (if anything at all). And three and most prominently, why would someone buy an album they can listen to anytime?

The success of "20/20" likely won't change that, the music industry doesn't exactly have a track record of adapting quickly to change and JT is one of the few with the leverage to persuade a label to stream, but it's the best evidence yet that streaming could actually increase album sales, not diminish them. And yes, I do have to use the word "could". Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to directly prove that the streams increased sales, but "20/20" does prove that, at the very least, streams don't significantly hurt sales. Given that "20/20" sales are already at astronomical levels, it doesn't make sense to claim that they could have been even more astronomical-er without streaming.

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's that if you want people to hear your music (and then buy it), you've got to go to where the people are. Building fortresses around your album and then expecting people to work to scale those fortress walls just doesn't work anymore. In 2013 it's stream or die; unfortunately many artists and labels would still rather go down stubbornly swinging than live to stream another day.

But if that changes, and from where I'm sitting that change feels inevitable, we might just look back at "20/20" as the turning point.

See Also:  What Rappers Can Learn From Justin Timberlake Selling 1 Million


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