Adele's dominance, and potential history-making sales week, in perspective

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Adele's 25 is currently projected to break the record for most album sales in a single week. Billboard has reported that she's expected to ship almost 4 million CDs to retail outlets, with debut week sales projections bumped to around 2.5 million units the day before the album's release. For clarity: Those numbers, and the numbers discussed throughout this post, all refer to the number of sales 25 is expected to see in the United States alone.

More recently, it was reported that 25 sold 900,000 copies on its first full day of release -- in the iTunes Store alone. Debuting with a full 3 million units isn't out of the question, and Billboard now appears confident that she'll top that aforementioned all-time single-week sales record.

This is an insane thing -- and probably even more insane than most people realize. It goes far beyond the casual idea of "no one sells music anymore these days," and even if you follow album sales pretty closely, the gravity of this still takes some digesting. Let's dig into it.

Update 11/23: Most of this article was written on Sunday, Nov. 22. Around the time I published this on Monday, Nov. 23, Billboard posted an article saying that 25 has already sold 2.3 million units through its first three days of release. It's on pace to become the first record to sell 3 million copies in a week.

Update 11/24: Billboard is now reporting that Adele has broken the single-week sales record...in just over three days of 25 being released. Industry sources are projecting a 2.9 million debut week now, so we'll have to see if she can become the first artist to hit 3 million sales in a week. And because I like to think ridiculous thoughts: Adele would need to sell 3.541 million copies to reach the combined total of Taylor Swift's debut-week sales for Speak Now, Red and 1989.

Update 12/1: Adele wound up selling 3.38 million copies of 25 in its debut week. The album becomes the first to sell over 3 million copies in a week, and really finished just shy of the 3.541 million units mentioned in that last update above.

Only one album has ever sold 2 million units in one week

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N-Sync (sorry, but I refuse to consistently type it *NSYNC) currently holds the record for most albums sold in a single week. This record, as well as all similar types of modern records, are recognized by Nielsen SoundScan, which has tracked album sales since 1990. The mark is 2.415 million units, set on the April 8, 2000 charts, for the album No Strings Attached

No Strings Attached owns this record by a very wide margin. No other album has reached 2 million sales in one week, though N-Sync tried its best to top itself. The second-highest selling week ever goes to N-Sync's Celebrity, which did 1.879 million on the August 11, 2001 charts. The third and fourth spots on this list belong to albums that were released in the 15 months between when No Strings Attached and Celebrity came out: Eminem's The Marshal Mathers LP (1.760 million on June 10, 2000), and Backstreet Boys' Black & Blue (1.719 million on December 9, 2000). Eminem rounds out the top five with 1.321 sales of The Eminem Show on June 15, 2002 -- and that album would have done a lot more if it had a proper release week.

Only 19 albums have ever sold 1 million units in one week

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So, there's your top five. Let's notice a couple of things -- all five of these albums were released between April 8, 2000 and June 15, 2002. Looking back, those 26 months were the most fertile time for album sales ever: A total of eight albums sold at least 1 million units in a single week during that time period.

That number -- eight -- may not seem like a lot until you consider the next statistic. Only 19 albums have ever sold 1 million units in a single week over the past 25 years (full list at the bottom of this post). It wasn't exactly a common occurrence before No Strings Attached. That album was only thefourthto move 1 million units in a week, preceded by Whitney Houston's The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1.061 on January 9, 1993), Garth Brooks' Double Live (1.085 million on December 5, 1998), and Backstreet Boys' Millenium (1.133 million on June 5, 1999).

At the time of N-Sync's record-setting week, No Strings Attached sold more than double the previous best single-week margin -- so even at the time, it was a crazy and unexpected accomplishment. Britney Spears' Oops, I Did It Again (1.319 million on June 3, 2000) and Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish & the Hot Dog Flavored Water (1.054 million on November 4, 2000, sure) were the other two albums to take significant advantage of this fertile music economy between 2000 - 2002.

That was the only time sales like this were sustainable

This pattern -- from those three early best-sellers in the '90s to the boom in the early 2000s -- makes a lot of sense. It was right in that moment, between 2000 and 2002, that CDs were at their peak (selling in their largest quantities in 2000 and 2001). The CD is the most popular format of physical music ever. It was significantly more convenient for consumers and cheaper for manufacturers than vinyl LPs, enabling wider appeal and larger profit margins. Of course, that caused greediness in the music industry: Major labels controlled the market during the CD boon, and when those majors failed to foresee the digital revolution of music, the industry obviously turned to shit.

In some ways, the No Strings Attached single-week record is a product of its time: A massively hyped album by a boy band that appealed to a demographic eager to own its music (young people), lead by a huge single and music video ("Bye Bye Bye") during an era where there was no other convenient way to acquire music besides going and purchasing it. The iPod (and iTunes Store) weren't around yet, and computers were slow enough that burning a CD for a friend was still a relative hassle. (A number worth mentioning: 12 of the 19 albums to ever sell 1 million copies in a week were released before the iPod came out.) While Napster had peaked in early 2001, N-Sync's primary demographic likely didn't know much about P2P music sharing. Piracy and album leaks hadn't yet started to ravage the industry the way they would just a couple short years later.

Sales declined, a drought began

Only three albums sold over 1 million units throughout the middle of the decade as the music industry started to falter. Norah Jones' Feels Like Home (1.022 million on February 28, 2004), Usher's Confessions (1.096 million on April 10, 2004) and 50 Cent's The Massacre (1.114 million on March 19, 2005) were the sole albums to hit the mark during this declining sales era, as early leaks regularly ruined marketing campaigns.

As the industry hit its lowest points in the mid/late '00s, no album enjoyed a week of 1 million sales for over three years. Lil Wayne barely became the first artist to hit the mark since 50 Cent in 2008, when Tha Carter III did 1.005 million on June 28, 2008.

Pop (really, just Taylor) takes over

Lil Wayne was an outlier in the second half of the 2000s. There was another drought, this time over two years without a million-sale week, before Taylor Swift became a household name. Her release of Speak Now moved 1.046 million units on November 13, 2010, and began a bit of a trend. In four of the first five years of the decade (2010-14), one album moved at least 1 million units in a week.

That shouldn't be perceived as an industry-wide bounce-back, however, because three of those releases were by Swift. Red moved 1.208 million on November 10, 2012 and 1989 moved 1.287 million on November 15, 2014. The only recent non-Taylor release on this list is Lady Gaga's Born This Way, which sold 1.108 million on June 11, 2011, but deserves a significant asterisk by its name.

It's Adele's world now

here's adele's face on a billboard in new york city. image from the new york times.

here's adele's face on a billboard in new york city. image from the new york times.

2015 is guaranteed to have its own album with a million-plus sales week, because Adele's 25 is going to do that and much, much more. It could sell more copies in its first week than Taylor Swift's last two albums have sold in their combined first weeks. It seems primed to become the new No. 1 on this list, and even if it doesn't, it'll certainly hit the 2 million mark.

This happening today is, of course, crazy -- album sales are lower than ever (only 257 million proper album units were moved in 2014, which I believe is the lowest in the SoundScan era … though I cannot find a source that confirms that). But Adele is no stranger to moving a ton of albums, and the success of her last album, 21, may have foreshadowed this type of step up in ways that directly compare to some of these best-sellers we've just discussed.

21 debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 when it was released on February 22, but moved "only" 352,000 units. The album's sales legacy, however, is defined by its longevity and remarkable staying power. It resided in the top 3 spots of the Billboard 200 for 23 weeks and the top five for 39 weeks in a row (setting a record in the process). It became the best-selling digital album of all time, and went Diamond with sales of over 10 million copies in under two years (92 weeks, to be exact). That last statistic is particularly interesting, as 21 was the fastest album to reach Diamond status since -- you guessed it -- No Strings Attached.

As of February 2015, 21 had spent four entire years in the Billboard 200, including 80 weeks in the top 10.

So, while the jump from 352,000 first-week sales of 21 to whatever 25 does is going to be a massive one, it should also have been somewhat predictable: 21 has been the most dominant album of this decade, written by the decade's most widely appealing artist. There are not many artists that can lay a serious claim to that title -- to being the most widely appealing artist in the world. Taylor Swift and Beyonce are among them, but pure numbers show that Adele has them beat; Eminem and Drake are the rappers who hold the most selling power in today's industry, but neither of them would expect to hit much higher than 1 million sales in their debut weeks. Adele can sell a record to a person of any gender, size, age, color, sexual orientation or whatever other human-defining characteristic you care to divide people into. It's accepted, even joked about, that everyone loves Adele. Her ability to sell albums to anyone in a way that no other artist can match is paying off in a big way now.

As evidenced by the breakdown above, having an album that debuts with 1 million copies sold is a special, and extraordinarily difficult, thing to do. What Adele is doing now doesn't make any sense, and there's no modern comparison for it. 25's chart performance cannot be compared to Michael Jackson's Thriller, which has sold 29 million albums to date in the United States, or The Beatles' first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, which was watched by 73 million people. But Adele, as an artist and a phenomenon, will find a foothold amongst those landmarks of pop music history if she's able to break N-Sync's 15-year-old record this week.

Most Albums Sold In A Single Week

Click to enlarge. chart by thomas nassiff. data from nielsen soundscan.