Promotions around Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" - including Amazon's controversial decision to sell digital copies of the album for just 99 cents on Monday and Best Buy's giveaway of the album with a smart phone -- have both pumped sales expectations and caused gripes in the retail sector about how the album sales will be tallied for the Billboard 200.
With shipments reaching 2.1 million units and strong digital sales expected - boosted by the Amazon promotion, despite its technological challenges -- sources say Universal Music Group is officially projecting first-week sales in the range of 800-850,000 units, and less-official projections are even higher.
But brick-and-mortar retailers who try to operate on tight profit margins for music are up in arms about the promotions, with some arguing that both Amazon's 99-cent sales and the Best Buy giveaway counts should be excluded from the numbers that are tallied for the Billboard 200.
In fact, Billboard's chart executives are excluding Gaga's Best Buy giveaway numbers from the Billboard 200, as both the data service and publication have a longstanding policy of not counting albums that are given away by retailers to consumers at no cost -- either as a stand-alone promotion or as part of a bundle with another item -- for charting purposes. But sales resulting from the Amazon 99-cents promotion will be factored into the Billboard 200, as those sales indicate consumer intent. (Currently no price minimums for charting inclusion have been established by Billboard for the sale of stand-alone albums, as a pricing policy is difficult to police with only sales volume -- and not consumer cost -- being tracked by SoundScan's data collection system.)
Even before these promotions, sales projections for "Born This Way" have been a rollercoaster - those projections even changed this week, climbing by a couple hundred thousand units between Monday and Tuesday in the wake of the Amazon deal. In March, before any songs from the album apart from its title track had been released, anticipation was building among industry distribution, sales and retail executives that the album could be the first since Taylor Swift's "Speak Now" to reach the million-unit-debut-week milestone. (Swift accomplished that feat in the week ending Oct. 31, 2010; the last album to do so prior to that was Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III," which sold just over 1 million units in the week ending June 15, 2008. At press time, the former had sold a total of 3.4 million units, while the latter had sold 3.6 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.)
Retailers and label sales and distribution executives were pointing to the then-new Target "Born This Way" sales promotion as the catalyst for their million-unit expectations. At that time, sources said Target was going to feature the album in a $10 million television campaign, which would have been its biggest to date. In contrast, Target's Taylor Swift "Speak Now" promotion was projected at about $7 million.
But Gaga and Target soon dissolved their deal, reportedly due to differences over the company's support for political candidates opposed to gay rights; the initial million-unit first-week sales projections dissolved as well.
But regardless of the Target promotion, Universal Music Group executives had been more cautious in their sales projection for "Born This Way," because female pop singers rarely have first-week album sales on that scale, although they do enjoy big first-week track download sales. That's what happened with Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" LP, which was expected to rake in 500,000-700,000 first-week sales but instead debuted with 192,000. Since then, the album has scanned a solid 1.5 million units, but the tracks on it have scanned 9.55 million units.
Also, some sales executives told Billboard that they backed away from their initial optimistic first-week sales projections after they found the album's first two singles, "Born This Way" and "Judas," musically disappointing. But the title track, which was the third-largest track download debut in its first week of availability, is already is at nearly 2.6 million downloads -- how that could be considered disappointing is a mystery.
The results of the Amazon promotion will be a key influencer in how "Born This Way" performs in its debut week. Up until now, Amazon has never produced a 100,000-sales week for an album, but some expect that to happen this week for "Born This Way," despite the download issues. The promotion played a big role in the upward trend of sales projections this week.
"Amazon offers great deals on some of the bestselling albums every day and we constantly look at ways to delight our customers," an Amazon rep told Billboard.biz on Tuesday. "Since its launch, 'Born This Way' has held the top spot on our bestselling albums list. We knew that customers would love this album and we were thrilled to make it the Deal of the Day yesterday."
Yet beyond all the promotions and precedents and some merchants and competing label-sales executives feel Lady Gaga is overexposed and may suffer a sales backlash. Yet she's the rare artist who is equally talented as a musician and as a media magnet, and that brings her a level of credibility and support not often seen for today's megastars.
As one major label sales executive told Billboard earlier this year, "[When Lady Gaga first burst onto the scene], I wasn't dismissive, I just wasn't interested. I thought she was just another pop star. I didn't know she was a serious artist. If you listen to her in interviews, she is very articulate. People see her in a different light. She is being seen as an artist who has paid her dues.
"People are rooting for her."