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Adele’s ’30’ Sales Prove She Can Still Deliver at Retail in a Streaming Industry

Early fears that Sony/Columbia had over-shipped the year's most anticipated album were unfounded, retailers now say.

With Adele’s 30 breaking through with 1.45 million album consumption units and selling consistently with the holiday sales rush in full force, an initial fear that Columbia/Sony Music may have shipped too much product into the U.S. marketplace has dissipated.

While it didn’t take off like a moonshot the way 25 did when it opened with 3.5 million units sold in 2015, Adele’s latest “did fantastic in the debut week and now there are consistent sales,” says one physical music executive. “This title feels like it definitely has legs.”

Nevertheless, industry sources initially speculated that Sony had shipped anywhere from 1.2 million to 1.7 million pieces of physical product in the U.S., with that higher figure fueled by the belief that as much as 1 million combined CD and vinyl albums went to Target alone. For the first day or two of its release, the permeating concern among physical music executives was that Sony over-shipped.

Neither Columbia nor an Adele spokesperson responded to a request for comment.

Adele’s last album, 25, hit shelves before streaming had come to totally dominate the music industry. Its first-week sales included nearly 800,000 copies sold at Target and another 400,000 copies scanned at Walmart, industry sources told Billboard at the time.

Considering the transformation of the economic model that has occurred over the last six years, no one was expecting 30 to come anywhere near those numbers, yet some physical music executives held out hope that Adele could still break the million-unit mark in the debut week. That didn’t happen, and 30 reached just 839,000 album consumption units for the week ended Nov. 25 — 691,000 of which were from sales.

As one brick and mortar merchandiser put it near the end of the debut week, expressing a mix of delight and disappointment, “It’s the most successful unsuccessful release I have seen in a while. Sony executed a very successful launch; everything fell into place according to plan; and the album is selling grand. The issue might be the amount of inventory pushed into the field.”

But now, with almost 642,000 30 CDs already sold and more than 193,000 vinyl copies in U.S. consumer hands, the album is riding high into Christmas. When 228,000 album downloads are thrown into the mix, album sales are well beyond the 1 million milestone.

Now, music merchandisers say sales are consistent and going very well, and as retail picks up over the last two weeks of the year, sell-through should be strong. Or, as another music merchandiser echoes, “30 looks like it has legs; this will be a long-haul release.”

In its second week of availability, ended Dec. 2, 30’s activity hit 288,000 album consumption units. In week three, ended Dec. 9, the title came close to topping the 200,000 album consumption units, moving 194,000 units worth of sales and streaming activity.

Breaking out 30’s overall numbers by channel, mass merchants like Walmart and Target — the latter of which had an exclusive CD version with three extra songs —have scanned nearly 432,000 copies, while digital streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have generated 381,000 album consumption units. Elsewhere, mail order services like Amazon have shipped almost 347,000 copies, download stores like iTunes have generated 228,000 copies, independent stores have sales of 32,000 copies and chains have sold 26,000 copies.

Surprisingly, the album’s CD is performing better than its vinyl version, executives tell Billboard. While vinyl has been the top sales format for most of the year, Adele’s album briefly helped the CD reclaim the best-selling format title during the week ended Nov. 25, when annual CD units reached 34.3 million scanned compared to 34.2 million vinyl copies. Alas, Record Store Day’s Black Friday titles then put the old(er)-school format back over the top at 35.67 million vinyl copies versus 35.54 million CDs. For the week ending Dec. 9, those U.S. industry-wide numbers stand at 36.88 million vinyl copies to 36.79 million CD copies.

Now, music merchandisers realize that their initial concerns that Sony may have shipped too much product were misplaced, as Columbia is not done running out its marketing game plan for the album.

“Columbia has been so strategic with giving out information and the timing of the announcements,” says a music merchandiser. “Every time they come out with something — like announcing the Las Vegas residency — it becomes another major news story keeping interest in Adele and her album at a high level” of consumer awareness.