Women in Music 2016

Kanye West's 'Life of Pablo' Headed For A No. 1 Debut on Billboard 200, Despite Wild Rollout

 Jeff Kravitz/MTV1415/FilmMagic
Kanye West during the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards at Microsoft Theater on Aug. 30, 2015 in Los Angeles. 

From its late night arrival on Feb. 13 to April Fool’s Day, Kanye West confined his seventh solo full-length, The Life of Pablo, exclusively to streaming on Tidal while he tinkered with his “living album.” Then, after six weeks of withholding its numbers from Nielsen Music and insisting it would never be for sale, Pablo was released in its entirety on April 1 to streaming services, and, finally, as a $20 download via KanyeWest.com and Tidal, clearing the way for its debut on the Billboard charts.

And sure enough, industry forecasters expect The Life of Pablo to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart dated April 23, with over 90,000 equivalent album units earned in the week ending April 7 -- an impressive feat for an album that has been semi-available on Tidal for six weeks and was illegally downloaded a reported half-million-plus times.

The Life of Pablo will be the first No. 1 on the Billboard 200 where more than half of its units were generated by streaming equivalent albums. The previous high-water mark for streams at No. 1 was notched just three weeks ago, on the April 2-dated chart, when Rihanna’s Anti returned to No. 1, with 31.25 percent of its total units (54,000) derived from streams. Industry sources suggest that of its total for the week, over 20,000 units are in traditional album sales, from KanyeWest.com, Tidal, and ticket/album offers with West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11 and its simultaneous live stream movie theater event.

That’s a change from earlier this week, when insiders insisted that Pablo’s sales numbers would be withheld from Nielsen Music, leaving the album to rely solely on streaming numbers in its first week of eligibility on the charts. A source at Def Jam confirmed to Billboard today that those sales will now be reported, which should push it ahead of Chris Stapleton’s Traveller. Stapleton’s album got a big bump following his six-trophy night at the Academy of Country Music Awards April 3. Traveller will likely surge to No. 2 with around 70,000 units, of which 60,000 copies are traditional album sales.

Currently, Pablo is only for sale as a digital download via Tidal and West's online store, powered by 7digital, and insiders say there is currently no plan to release it to digital retailers like the iTunes Store. But thousands of fans purchased the album bundled with tickets to West's Yeezy 3 Fashion Show, and for livestreams of the event at some 800 movie theaters around the world -- sales that have been in limbo for six weeks as West held the album back. Following the wide release Friday, Universal Music Group began fulfilling those orders.

While it was unclear at press time what, or who, changed West’s mind in favor of a wide release for the album, sources tell Billboard that it was Scooter Braun, who officially joined longtime confidant Izzy Zivkovic as West's co-manager on March 31 after weeks of talks. If true, it’s likely that the streaming success of Braun’s client Justin Bieber, who broke Spotify’s record for most streams for an album in a debut week with 205 million global streams for November's Purpose, at least played a role in the decision.

There is currently no sign of a physical release for Pablo, though sources tell Billboard that some type of physical or deluxe edition will materialize eventually -- one insider teased plans for a direct-to-consumer plan for a physical release that seems likely to include unreleased tracks and artwork and other fan-baiting items.

And while overall U.S. CD sales continue to decline -- so far in 2016 they are down 12.4 percent to 19.7 million units compared with 2015 -- the decision to forego them for Pablo thus far has meant plenty of money left on the table for both West and Def Jam. In 2015, 39 percent of West's album sales were physical copies, while 42 percent of the 729,000 copies his last album Yeezus has sold since its June 2013 release were CDs. Based on his sales history, the decision to go digital-only for Pablo's release leaves about 300,000 sales on the table, Billboard estimates, amounting to $3.1 million in lost revenue for Def Jam and its parent Universal Music Group -- a surprising move given West’s recent claims of financial distress.

Still, as streaming continues to gain in importance -- in 2015 it became the biggest source of digital revenue for UMG -- Pablo’s ever-changing album rollout has provided many lessons for album-release strategies going forward.

With additional reporting from Keith Caulfield and Ed Christman.