When Chris Brown claimed his second No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 this week, he also logged an unexpected accomplishment. The singer/songwriter became the second R&B hitmaker in a month to bow at No. 1 with a comparably soft launch.
Brown's fifth studio album, "Fortune," sold 135,000 first-week copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That sum is half of the 270,000 units that launched "F.A.M.E.," the artist's 2011 album, atop the Billboard 200 - and gave Brown his first No. 1 debut. Four weeks ago, RCA labelmate Usher came in at No. 1 with 128,000 for his latest, "Looking 4 Myself." That figure marked a significant 61% slide from the 329,000 first-week sales for his last full-length album, 2010's No. 1-debuting "Raymond v Raymond."
While overall album sales are down 3.2% from last year, bright spots have still dotted the landscape. Nicki Minaj's sophomore set, "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded," and Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" bowed with a healthy 253,000 and 267,000, respectively. And more recently, Justin Bieber's "Believe" served up 374,000 in sales for a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200.
However, given the hit-churning stature of Usher and Brown and their highly anticipated sets -- two summer flagship releases under the newly restructured RCA Music Group -- their resulting opening sales frames raise a few questions. Are Usher and Brown, with their pop- and dance-leaning album tracks, alienating their core audiences? Are segmented singles targeting multiple formats fostering confusion instead of album sales? Or is this just another sign of the times in a singles-dominant, consolidating industry? While RCA executives couldn't be reached for comment, several executives from radio and retail did weigh in on the matter.
Derrick "DC" Corbett, director of urban operations for Clear Channel's New Orleans cluster of stations that includes R&B/hip-hop WQUE, suggests that the Usher and Brown albums may not provide enough material for their core R&B fans. Brown performed "Turn Up the Music" and "Don't Wake Me Up" at the recent BET Awards - two songs that aren't being played on R&B/hip-hop radio. Of the five songs released prior to "Fortune's" debut, only "Strip" became a hit, reaching No. 3 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. "Sweet Love" topped out at No. 27 while "Till I Die" rises 37-27 this week.
While Usher's "Climax" spent 11 weeks atop Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, it peaked at No. 36 after only three weeks on the Mainstream Top 40 chart. Conversely, his pop-focused "Scream" isn't being heard on R&B/hip-hop radio even as it reached the top 10 on Mainstream Top 40. Another album track, "Lemme See" with Rick Ross, rises 5-3 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
"There's nothing wrong with growing creatively or crossing over," Corbett says. "But you also have to superserve your audience. The same audience that built you is the one you have to stay consistent with. You can get away with a 'Yeah 3X' and a 'DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love,' but that can't be the crux of your album. You can't leave your core shaking their heads."
Indeed, last time out, Brown's "F.A.M.E." catapulted him back into the limelight - and a first-time Grammy Award - thanks to a solid foundation of R&B hits that included "Deuces," "Look at Me Now" and "B.S." Likewise, Usher's last album was propelled by such R&B-focused hits as "Papers" and "Hey Daddy (Daddy's Home)" before he dropped the full-throttle pop/dance track "OMG," a hit on both the Mainstream Top 40 and Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop airplay charts.
Acknowledging that first-week physical sales for both artists' new albums fell well below projections, an urban buyer for a major chain notes that the gap between releasing singles and the album's arrival may have played a harmful role. "Labels want that traction at radio. But sometimes it's too long in between or an album is pushed back, then labels miss the key time to release the album. But scanning 100,000 first-week nowadays is still good."
Dedry Jones, of Chicago's Music Experience store, says, "If you're releasing singles so far in advance of the album and people are buying all of those on iTunes, what's the reason to buy the albums?"
Others contend that first-week sales aside, Usher's and Brown's standing as key R&B format artists remains strong. "Both of these artists are part of my core rotation," Perry Broadcasting VP of radio programming Terry Monday says. "It's still early, and honestly nothing to be alarmed about. The industry is changing. Album sales overall aren't going to be the huge numbers they used to be."
Neke Howse, PD of WKYS Washington, D.C., agrees. "Between the economy and this changing industry, it's a sign of the times," she says. "But both of these artists will be fine, and their albums will do OK."
Additional reporting by Keith Caulfield.