Likewise, Trans World rock and pop buyer Mark Hudson says the matchup is "too tough to call."
Industry projections put first week sales for both albums just north of 300,000 units, not including streaming and track equivalent albums. Even with those added, eight out of nine music merchandisers (i.e., retailers, wholesalers and label sales and distribution executives) Billboard contacted say the shootout is simply too tight to call. One executive tells Billboard he thinks the sales standoff is "going to be tighter than Pentatonix and Demi Lovato's race for No. 1," which played out over the week that ended Oct. 22. (Both Pentatonix and Lovato drew just above 98,000 copies and only 270 units separated Pentatonix's No. 1 from Lovato's No. 2 position, according to Nielsen Music.)
"I am feeling a little more hustle on behalf of One Direction than I am [on] the Bieber release," says Chris Brown, CFO of the 12-unit Bull Moose chain, which has stores in Maine and New Hampshire. But Brown was unable to elaborate on that. On the other hand, he wonders if One Direction sales could be slowed by the high price of the deluxe edition, which has a list price equivalent of $22.98 ($16.10 wholesale). The Bieber deluxe edition carries a $17.98 list price, ($12.90 wholesale), while the standard version carries a list price of $13.98 ($10.35 wholesale). Some merchants say price could be a factor in which ultimately winds up selling better. Deluxe versions typically sell better than standard on the front-end of a release's lifespan.
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Newbury Comics head buyer Carl Mello says the there are see-sawing reasons as to why one will outsell the other. "One Direction has a bigger recent fanbase, but Bieber has an actual huge hit single from the album, so he has the comeback momentum going for him. Also, Bieber appears to be pulling off the George Michael/Justin Timberlake gambit, artists who appealed to teen fans crossing over to a slightly more discerning music fanbase. Bieber is pulling a new fan base, but the question is how much new will he get and how much old fans will he pull along."
After pondering overall fan dynamics, Mello says, "I think the Bieb has more crossover, while One Direction's fanbase still has plenty of young fans. One Direction's fanbase has aged too, but they may not have an in with the over-20s fans the way Bieber has." Consequently, Mello concludes that One Direction may have the bigger number the first week -- younger fans tend to rush out in the first week to buy their favorites while older demos get their favorite new records when its convenient -- but in the long run, he thinks Bieber will outsell One Direction.
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One key indicator is how preorders are showing at iTunes. On Apple's digital storefront, One Direction shows an advantage, with about 170,000 units on order versus 110,000 for Bieber. Or does that show an advantage?
Bieber's digital sales across his discography account for 15.5 percent of his 10.7 million aggregated album sales. One Direction's digital penetration across the group's 6.64 million album scans in the U.S. stands at 34.8 percent, more than double Bieber's. So it stands to reason that One Direction would have more digital pre-orders, and digital data backs that up. Over the course of his U.S. career, Bieber has scanned 20.4 million tracks -- 1.96 million this year -- including 1.16 million from his album's first single, "What Do You Mean," while One Direction has scanned 26.3 million tracks, 3.7 million this year.
(A quick explainer: SEA, or stream equivalent albums, is a chart measuring tool wherein 1,500 streams equal one album unit. TEA, or track equivalent albums, is where 10 individual track downloads of songs from an album equal one album unit. Both count towards an artist's position on the Billboard 200.)
If it comes down to consumption (which takes into account all sales, plus track and stream-equivalent albums), label soothsayers give Bieber a slight edge, saying that he has stronger track sales at the moment. Also, since Bieber's deluxe album has more tracks -- 19, versus 17 for One Direction's deluxe edition -- he has another slight advantage on streaming services. Both albums are expected to total between 50,000 and 80,000 equivalent units, with Bieber possibly winning that race by 10,000 units or so.
As to what exactly the labels are doing to drive business, details are scant. One Direction's one-sheet says key selling points include first single "Drag Me Down" hitting No. 1 on 90 iTunes charts, that it drew over 100 million total streams in its first day and registered the highest-ever first-day streams for a single globally. The song has sold 926,000 units in the U.S., with a little less than a third of those occurring in is debut week (ending Aug. 6, 2015). The sheet also says the band has over four billion YouTube views, 38 million Facebook fans and 25 million Twitter followers. Meanwhile retailers say Bieber's one-sheet is completely useless -- between surprise releases and kept-under-the-wrap marketing plans, "the whole secrecy thing in the industry has gone out of control," as one merchant puts it.
So far, Bieber is doing a week on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show and "a whole bunch of other TV," says one industry executive. Also, the Bieber team announced that fans who buy tickets to one of his live concerts can get the album if they are willing to pay an additional $4; while Lyft riders can download the album for $5 and get a credit of equal value for the service. Both promotions will count towards the record's chart position.
Another retailer at a large music account says that Bieber himself has been working hard with their account to help set up the album for them. "Both artists have awesome management teams working hard for their artists, but I think Bieber is going to win -- he has the momentum," that merchant says.
One exec at a different large account wonders if Bieber's antics will ultimately turn off his fans once again. That would be too bad, because now that Bieber is showing signs that he is maturing musically, "he could be in another commercial stratosphere -- like the boy Taylor Swift -- if he put his mind to it," that executive says.