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It’s Harder Than Ever to Sell a Million Albums in a Week. Can Adele Do It With ’30’?

| November 20, 2021

The Nov. 19 release of Adele’s 30 has revived an old music business guessing game: Can a hot new album sell 1 million copies its first week out? This wasn’t so unusual during the CD era, but by 2014, it was so rare that a Billboard headline asked, “Can Anyone (Even Taylor Swift) Hit The First-Week Million-Selling Mark Anymore?”

Swift answered that question when her 1989 album sold nearly 1.287 million in its debut week ended Nov. 2, 2014, without being available on streaming services. Since then, Swift has done it again (with Folklore in 2020), as have Drake (with Views in 2016) and Adele (whose album 25 sold 3.48 million in the week ending Nov. 26 2015 and went on to sell more than a million in two other weeks before the end of that year).

That was before streaming services became so dominant, of course. But most music executives are confident that 30 will generate a million album equivalent consumption units once streaming is included, and some brick-and-mortar retail executives think it may even sell more than a million copies, counting only vinyl, CDs and downloads.

“I don’t think there is any doubt it will hit a million consumption units,” a brick-and-mortar executive says. The question, the executive says, is how the album gets there and what that says about the potential for physical sales of a mainstream album in the streaming era.

Another music executive says that “If Sony [Adele’s record company] can meet the demand, it will definitely hit the million-unit mark” and suggests that it might do 1.5 times as well as Swift’s Folklore, which sold 845,000 — about 1.3 million — or half as well as 25, which would be about 1.75 million.

Others aren’t so sure. “If anyone can hit the million-unit-mark in the debut week, it’s Adele,” says a sales and commerce executive at a competing label, “but I don’t think she is going to do it. It’s really hard to accomplish that nowadays.” One challenge: Adele’s streaming numbers are likely to be disproportionately low in the debut week compared to hip-hop and other pop acts, so her album’s first week performance will depend largely on physical sales.

Sony should have enough physical albums available. Both Billboard and Variety have reported that Sony has ordered 500,000 vinyl records for street date; that’s likely a global number, which means about half are for the U.S. That’s in addition to over a million CDs in the U.S. alone, according to speculation from sources familiar with the market. Target has an exclusive CD version of 30 with three bonus tracks, and to get that deal knowledgeable executives believe the chain would have had to order between 350,000 and a million units — most likely around 500,000. The other big box retailers and independent stores might have ordered another 700,000 copies of the CD. (Neither Target nor Columbia Records, Adele’s label, responded to requests for comment about the number of Adele albums available.)

All told, that means about 1.2 million to 1.5 physical copies of the Adele album will be available in the U.S. in its debut week, which is unusual these days. At the very least, physical sales should hit about a third of that, or 500,000, according to the same sales and commerce executive. And though downloads are a fading format, it’s one in which Adele could do well in the debut week.

Anticipation for the albums looks strong. Over the last 10 weeks, Adele’s three previous albums combined have been selling and streaming nearly 41,000 units a week combined — a 173% increase — over their performance before then this year when the catalog averaged about 15,000 album consumption units a week.

Adele will also get a boost from the Nov. 14 CBS television special Adele: One Night Only, which averaged 9.9 million viewers and included performances of four new songs, as well as an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “If Grammy performances can drive massive sales, what does an Oprah special do for sales?” one of the physical retailers wondered. “Everyone in America will know about 30.”

(Sony is getting high marks for its promotion and marketing campaigns for 30, even though no one is allowed to talk about it. One executive who declined to speak to Billboard joked that he hears the Sony non-disclosure agreement his company signed is so strong that he’s not sure anyone there can even say the artist’s name.)

Which doesn’t mean the album doesn’t face challenges. It will only have a six-day sales week, since physical retailers are closed for Thanksgiving. The single “Easy on Me” didn’t have a major sales jump the Monday after the special, even though it has had a four-week run on top of the Hot 100 chart. The vinyl version is pricey, with a $25 wholesale price for the regular version. (Target is offering pre-orders for $35.99; Walmart is selling the album with a print of the cover for $39.97; and Amazon has a white vinyl version for $35.99.) And since this is the first Adele album to be available on streaming services on its release date, that could cut into first-week sales.

That’s not a bad problem for Sony to have, of course. As one music executive points out, people can argue over whether Adele will hit the million unit mark, but there are only two questions about first week sales: “Is the Adele album going to be huge? Or huger?”

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