This week's No. 1 album is a major exception to a rule: Adele's "21" made it to the top of the Billboard album chart mainly on the strength of digital sales. In fact, it would have been #1 even if it hadn't sold a single CD.
There are always exceptions to rules. So when I wrote in the most recent Business Matters column that the best sellers tend to sell the most CDs, I was simply adhering to the rule that CDs tend to represent the lion's share of sales for hits.
But Adele's "21" is a glowing exception. It made it to #1 even though just 38% of its 352,000 first-week units came from the CD format, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The other 62% of sales came from digital albums. Take away the CD sales and "21" still would have sold more units than Justin Bieber's "Never Say Never: Remixes," which sold 102,000 units.
A 61% digital share for a No. 1 album -- especially one with such a big debut week -- is pretty rare. In the past, digital-heavy debuts have sold far fewer units. The other big debut this year was Bieber's "Never Say Never: Remixes," which had a 30% digital share.
Some of this year's top ten debuts have also had a high digital share but had much lower unit sales: Red's "Until We Have Faces" was 56% digital on sales of 39,000; Amos Lee's "Mission Bell" was 69% digital on sales of 40,000; Iron and Wine's "Kiss Each Other Clean" was 54% digital on sales of 39,000; Cake's "Showroom of Compassion" was 43% digital on sales of 44,000; Cage the Elephant's "Thank You Happy Birthday" was 44% digital on sales of 39,000.
In terms of unit sales, "21" was a digital monster. It sold 217,000 digital albums last week, over six times as many as the next best digital album last week (Mumford & Sons' "Sigh No More") and over 14 times as many as the third digital album (Bieber's "My World 2.0"). It wasn't far behind the 224,000 digital albums sold in the first week of release by Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." And keep in mind that album sold far more total units -- 496,000 -- in its first week.
As detailed in Billboard's recent cover story, there are all kinds of reasons why Adele has a No. 1 album, and why she's is one of 2011's rising stars in the U.S.: She's already a superstar overseas (her last LP, "19," has sold nearly 2.4 million albums worldwide), her "Rolling in the Deep" single is featured in a ubiquitous Nike ad, her performance of "Someone Like You" at the Brit Awards has millions of pageviews, XL/Columbia have been smart and strategic about promoting the album, and she's performed on almost every late-night show in the country. But her digital sales suggest something else: That maybe she's struck a chord with a young audience, one that could be with her for years to come.