Kanye and 'Pablo' Didn't Hit the Charts, But They Will (When He Decides He Wants To)
The stutter-stop semi-release of Kanye West's The Life of Pablo on Feb. 14 eventually shook out with a "partial version" of the album streaming exclusively on Tidal, a stasis in which it still exists with an official commercial release, if at all, seemingly somewhere on the horizon. But Tidal's decision to not report its number of streams to Nielsen Music this week means that despite the fact that the album is out, TLOP is nowhere to be found on the Billboard charts.
The rollout strategy so far has been by all accounts unprecedented, and West's last-minute decision to hold the album back, regardless of his creative compulsions, seems certain to cut into his eventual sales and, by extension, chart position. Not helping matters is a report released last week by piracy watchdog TorrentFreak that estimated Pablo had been illegally downloaded more than 500,000 times in its first 24 hours of availability, a situation that Trans World Entertainment exec Ish Cuebas tells Billboard will only get worse the longer West waits to release a finished product.
Yet no matter how long he waits, West has one ace up his sleeve that could prevent TLOP from being his first album since The College Dropout to miss out on the top spot on the Billboard 200. Each ticket purchased for his Madison Square Garden Yeezy 3 fashion show Feb. 11 was bundled with a digital download of the album, set to be delivered contingent upon "Def Jam's official release" of The Life of Pablo, meaning somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 fans are currently in a suspended pre-order situation. In addition, fans who purchased tickets to the simulcast at nearly 400 movie theaters in the U.S. and 800 worldwide were given the option of buying a ticket for admission ($25 in the States) or a ticket bundled with an album download ($35) for each screening. Those downloads will be counted as sales during the chart week when the album is eventually delivered.
That means whenever West does release The Life of Pablo, he can count on thousands of sales already in the bank on top of any additional sales or streaming numbers accrued during the week. If Pablo does arrive as some sort of deluxe physical edition or bundle, as multiple sources have indicated is on the table, it could also help combat piracy by enticing fans who already have the "partial" version to spend money on the "finished" product. And any release wider than a Tidal streaming exclusive -- whether to retail or to other streaming services -- would as well.
Currently, BY Experience and Fathom Events, the companies responsible for presenting and distributing the MSG show, respectively, to domestic theaters, declined to provide information on ticket sales, number of theaters sold out, or how many fans bundled admission with the album download code, while a representative for Def Jam told Billboard the label does not have those numbers, either. But the live event at Madison Square Garden sold out in 10 minutes, according to West's Twitter account, despite tickets starting at $50, and 20 million people logged on to Tidal's live stream, volume that sunk the stream's video quality. Simply put, the demand for West's first album in almost three years was through the roof, and with theater capacity averaging around 200 people according to a Fathom Events rep, it's reasonable to assume that thousands more are also awaiting the album's delivery.
One retail executive told Billboard that with a conventional release (and the hype surrounding the album), Pablo could have sold between 350,000-400,000 copies in its first week, which Billboard estimates would pay out to $3.6 million in sales revenue at standard wholesale pricing. That number is likely out the window now, though West wouldn't have to reach that high to make a decent chart debut; on the current Billboard 200 chart, Adele's 25 returns to No. 1 with 151,000 equivalent album units (125,000 in pure sales) in its 11th week, while Future's Evol rounds out the top 10 at just under 40,000 units. With approximately 400 U.S. theaters at an average capacity of 200 people, only a quarter of the maximum number of attendees per theater would have had to purchase the album bundle to push Pablo past the 40,000 mark.
That makes a top 10 debut practically a slam dunk, even if Tidal never reports any streaming numbers (a rep for the service did not respond to this inquiry as of press time). A No. 1 album would be tougher; setting aside the record-breaking success of Adele's 25, the average one-week sales of a No. 1 album over the past year stands at 145,000. Without the help of streaming equivalent albums (and based solely on these download numbers), it would be an uphill -- though by no means impossible -- task to top the chart.
Of course, this is all contingent on when West deems the album, once again, to be ready for release. Until then, Kanye West and his fans will have to keep the faith.