Adele's Label Got 3.6 Million CDs to Stores... But How?

adele, 2015, 25 promo
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Adele on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on Nov. 23, 2015.

Like most everything Adele has done over the past few weeks, the number is almost completely unprecedented.

Adele’s shipment of 3.6 million CDs of 25 appears to be the second-largest physical shipment of that format ever, after the 4.2 million that NSYNC’s No Strings Attached moved back in 2000. Notice the 'appears' qualifier?

While the music industry has gotten much better at keeping track of sales since the advent of SoundScan (now Nielsen Music) in May 1991, data on shipments of physical product hasn't been greeted similarly by the digital age.

Before SoundScan, the only reliable source of sales data, at least for albums that sold more than two million units, remains RIAA certification data. (For albums that moved less than 2 million, labels were known to game the system, offering retailers free shipments of hit albums in exchange for their agreeing to not return the exuberantly over-shipped album until after the RIAA had awarded them a platinum sales certification.)

Shipment data in general from back then, is downright scarce, particularly initial purchase orders (IPO’s), known as the pre-order amount shipped to accounts prior to street date.

A survey of veteran sales and distribution executives on big shipment albums pre-Nielsen Music shows that Adele and *NYNC define the upper stratosphere of physical shipments. While pre-orders of 1 million units was more common before the digital marketplace began to supplant those formats, shipments of more than 2 million units on an album was a rarity regardless of epoch. A story in the Sept. 5, 1987 issue of Billboard quotes Sony Music Entertainment as saying that its 2.25 million pre-order shipment of Michael Jackson’s Bad was the largest in the company’s history.

Trusting the memory of industry veterans points to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, their follow-up to Rumors, having shipped 2 million units, according to former WEA executive Fran Aliberti. Kiss’ four solo albums shipped a million each. Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love shipped nearly 2 million units. Other albums that probably -- yes, the data is that scarce -- generated big shipments include Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Garth Brook’s Ropin’ The Wind. And, of course, The Beatles.

In almost every instance, the key to how much is shipped often lies with how the recording act’s last album performed. The other key factor was the size of the available pipeline -- where to put the records, and how to get them there.

During the '60s and '70s, independent stores had begun growing into local and then regional chains, with the main sellers of music department stores. But as record stores grew, so did sales numbers. In the '80s some of the regional chains like Musicland (Sam Goody), and Trans World Entertainment (FYE, Cocounuts, Record Town) started building toward national chains.

In the beginning of the '90s, the race to become national went into high gear as chains like Wherehouse Entertainment, Wall-To-Wall, Camelot Music, Record Bar, Turtle’s Sound Warehouse, National Record Mart and Tower Records were soon joined, or replaced, by chains like Blockbuster Music, Super Club, and invaders from the U.K. like Virgin, HMV and W. H. Smith. Moreover, being national wasn’t enough and people started opening superstores to compete against Tower Records. So in addition to more stores, people were building bigger stores like HMV, Virgin Tower Media Play, and Hastings.

By 1993, Billboard counted 4,183 stores operated by national, regional and local chains, with another 2,000 or 3,000 independently owned stores also competing. It was during the '90s, as record store chains continued to grow, that the million-seller debut week started occurring more regularly. Conversely, albums that scan one million units in their first week have declined since 2000 through today as record store chains have gone out of business due to the big-box price wars and the conversion to digital. 100 albums scanned one million units in 2001 -- last year four albums reached that total.

Which brings us back to the beginning. How was Adele able to ship 3.6 million CDs in 2015, when there are now only two record store chains left with more than 25 stores (Trans World Entertainment with about 375 stores and Hastings Entertainment, with about 125 stores). Look to the growth of mass merchants and other retailers carrying music.

In '93 Target had 502 stores -- it now has 1,800Walmart had 1,800 stores that year, and now stocks music throughout 3,600 stores. Best Buy had 112 stores -- it now has 1,700 stores. Those three chains are how the industry can -- when necessary -- ship one million CDs.

However, one thing to remember: many of the industry’s biggest selling albums didn’t initially ship a lot of records. Aliberti remembers that Metallica’s so called "black" album, the band's best-selling to date with total sales of 16.2 million units, might have shipped one million units its debut week.