When Justin Bieber appeared onstage at West Hollywood nightclub 1OAK on Nov. 13 to perform the Jack U hit “Where Are U Now?,” the pop singer was not only serenading the 500 superfans in attendance but symbolically addressing throngs of Beliebers who have the power — and the cash — to take his new album, Purpose, to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Behind the scenes, a retail war was brewing that pinned the 21-year-old star against the United Kingdom’s most popular boy band, One Direction, both of whom released albums that same day. Who won? The music industry.
As of press time, Purpose, released by Def Jam, is projected to reach 450,000 units in sales with another 100,000 in TEA (or track-equivalent albums, whereby 10 individual downloads of songs from an album equal one album unit) and SEA (or stream-equivalent albums, whereby 1,500 streams equal one album) anticipated for a total of 550,000 units. Meanwhile, One Direction’s Made in the A.M., the group’s fifth album for Sony’s Columbia Records, is expected to scan about 425,000, with potentially another 50,000 consumption-equivalent units for a total of 475,000.
Weeks of promotional activities pitted the two against each other. In Bieber’s case, the 21-year-old staged five listening events, dubbed “An Evening With Justin Bieber,” at arenas like Staples Center in Los Angeles and Allstate Arena in Chicago during release week, where fans had the option of paying $18 for a ticket or $22 for a ticket bundled with a digital copy of Purpose. A live stream of the event was offered as well for $9.99 and came with an option to redeem a download of Purpose.
Bieber also aligned with Lyft and 1-800-Flowers for promotions, offering Lyft riders a digital copy of Purpose for $5 (along with a $5 credit on their next ride) and a “Sorry”-branded bouquet of roses (a reference to the second single from Purpose) bundled with a redeemable digital copy of the album.
For its part, One Direction sold tickets to appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! that were bundled with redeemable CD copies of Made in the A.M. (typically, access to such TV shows is free). The group also sold tickets (again bundled with redeemable CDs) to prerelease listening events with One Live Media at movie theaters.
As for traditional retailers, Target offered customers five different One Direction album covers. As a result of that marketing tactic, Made in the A.M. outsold Purpose (81,000 to 28,000 units) in sales gathered over Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the discount chain. 1D and Bieber were neck and neck at Walmart, where the band sold 22,000 units to Bieber’s 19,000.
But the real fight will come down to digital. At iTunes, Bieber scanned 270,000 units during the weekend, according to sources, versus 190,000 One Direction downloads. A week earlier, 1D was in the lead, with 170,000 in preorders during a six-week availability period, while Bieber had 110,000 in a three-week period. Usually, artists with shorter preorder windows have a bigger lift during the debut week, but the one experienced by Bieber is greater than anticipated.
“It’s understandable that Bieber is winning in consumption because he has much bigger singles at radio,” says one label executive, which means that Bieber is generating more SEA and TEA than One Direction.
In the end, the competition resulted in “both albums way overperforming,” says Ish Cuebas, vp music and new media at Trans World — and not cannibalizing sales as initially feared.
This article was originally published in the Nov. 28 issue of Billboard.