The Empire soundtrack was released March 10 through Columbia Records and bows with 130,000 equivalent album units earned in the week ending March 15, according to Nielsen Music. It's the first TV soundtrack to debut at No. 1 since 2010, when three different Glee albums arrived atop the list. (Both Empire and Glee air on Fox TV.)
Madonna's Rebel Heart, also issued on March 10, starts in the No. 2 slot with 121,000 units. The Live Nation/Interscope Records release is Madonna's 21st top 10 album.
The rest of the new Billboard 200 chart's top 10 will be revealed on Wednesday, March 18.
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A week ago, industry forecasters were projecting that there was a race for No. 1 between the titles, with some giving the edge to the multi-artist Empire soundtrack. What's especially notable is that Empire wasn't even initially a contender for No. 1. When talking to Billboard about Empire's performance over the past week or so, multiple sources have used phrases like "huge surprise," "has really blown up" and "how an album can change…!"
The album's forecast quickly rose to around 125,000 on March 11, the day after it went on sale. (Much like the show's blockbuster TV ratings -- which grew tremendously on a weekly basis -- the album's forecast swiftly grew past expectations.)
As for Madonna's Rebel Heart, it too was aiming for a 125,000 start on March 11.
By Friday, March 13, industry forecasters continued to say that either Empire or Rebel Heart could come out on top. As the final numbers show, Rebel Heart's performance slowed down a bit, while Empire galloped ahead of its forecast.
Empire features contributions from its newcomer cast, like Jussie Smollett, as well as hitmakers like Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Estelle, Rita Ora, Juicy J and Courtney Love (all of which have acted on the show). Empire stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.
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Traditional album sales comprise 84 percent of Empire's first week, equating to 110,000 copies sold. That places the album at No. 2 on the Top Album Sales chart, which ranks titles by pure album sales. It lands behind the also-arriving Rebel Heart, which sold 116,000 copies (96 percent of its overall unit total) and is Madonna's sixth No. 1 on the Nielsen-driven Top Album Sales tally (its chart history dates back to May of 1991, when Billboard began using Nielsen's point-of-sale data).
Comparably, Madonna's last studio set, 2012's MDNA, started with 359,000 copies sold. Sources estimated that about 180,000 of those sales were generated by a concert ticket/album bundle offered with U.S. dates of Madonna's then-upcoming MDNA Tour. (Many acts have moved albums this way, including Cher, Austin Mahone and Bon Jovi.)
Madonna employed the concert ticket/album bundle offer again for Rebel Heart, but with a twist. Unlike the MDNA tour -- which saw all its U.S. dates on sale before the MDNA album was released, thus helping first-week sales -- only a handful of the Rebel Heart tour dates are on sale. Thus, sources say the Rebel Heart concert ticket/album offer has so far spurred less than 10,000 in sales. (The rest of the Rebel Heart tour dates go on sale over the next two weeks.)
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It's also probably not incredibly helpful that the entirety of Rebel Heart, at least in demo form, leaked to the Internet in December. Then, in early February, what appeared to be the full mastered album turned up on the Web. Certainly, neither event helped the sales picture for Rebel Heart.
Although Rebel Heart debuts with more albums sold than Empire, it fell behind the soundtrack when it came to streaming and track equivalent album units -- so it ended up at No. 2 on the overall Billboard 200 chart.
Empire earned 17,000 units from track equivalent albums (thanks to the strong performance of the set's multiple Billboard Hot 100 hit singles like "You're So Beautiful" and "Conqueror"), while it tallied another 3,000 units from streaming equivalent albums.
Also helping matters: During release week, Empire's Jussie Smollett performed on TV's The Ellen DeGeneres Show (March 9) and on Fox's American Idol three days later (joined by fellow cast member Yazz).
Comparably, Rebel Heart's track equivalent album units totaled just over 4,000 (the set has yet to land a hit single on the Billboard Hot 100) and another 1,000 units in streaming equivalent albums.
Madonna did not perform on U.S. TV during release week, though she did a series of sit-down interviews with multiple news outlets, including a much-publicized 90-minute chat with Howard Stern.
Interestingly, Rebel Heart is Madonna's first studio album not to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since 1998, when another red-hot soundtrack blocked the diva from the top: Titanic. Ray of Light settled for a No. 2 arrival on the chart dated March 21, 1998.
Titanic was so popular -- it spent 16 weeks at No. 1 -- that it also thwarted chart-topping debuts from Pearl Jam's Yield and George Strait's One Step at a Time: both debuted at No. 2.
Back in the present day, it appears that Madonna herself is a fan of Empire: on March 17, the diva announced that the show's Terrence Howard would star in her new music video for Rebel Heart's second single, "Ghosttown."