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Sam Smith’s Spotify Gamble: Did It Pay Off?

Hoping to beat Lana Del Rey to the No. 1 spot in first-week sales, Capitol Music Group took significant risk in betting against streaming.

A version of this article first appeared in the July 25th issue of Billboard Magazine.

Sam Smith lost a battle but not the war. In an effort to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the buzzing Brit’s first full-length album, “In the Lonely Hour,” was kept off Spotify in the United States, sources tell Billboard. The tactic didn’t work. The 182,000 first-week sales of Lana Del Rey’s sophomore effort, “Ultraviolence,” on Interscope surpassed his 166,000-unit June 16 release on Capitol. (Both are Universal Music Group labels.) Could the 16,000-unit chasm have been bridged by the streaming service, which, in theory, would have allowed fans to sample Smith’s music before buying or spread the word to other potential buyers? Perhaps. But a different street date would have easily done the trick.

“In the Lonely Hour” could have reached the top spot in 17 of the first 28 weeks of 2014 – its first-week sales bested the debuts of The Black Keys’ “Turn Blue” (164,000), Jack White’s “Lazaretto” (138,000), Schoolboy Q’s “Oxymoron” (139,000), Trey Songz’s “Trigga” (105,000) and Sia’s “1,000 Forms of Fear” (52,000) and Coldplay’s week-two tally of “Ghost Stories” (83,000). Further upping his cachet, Smith could have landed at No. 1 in 11 of the 13 weeks dominated by the “Frozen” soundtrack.



However, Smith was beat by one of the world’s most streamed artists. Del Rey’s 2012 debut, “Born to Die,” was No. 1 globally in Spotify’s “median ranking,” measuring the popularity of all tracks on an album, and eighth in overall streaming activity. (Sales-wise, the album has moved 1.1 million units and 4.5 million tracks in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.) “Ultraviolence” is Spotify’s top U.S. release so far in 2014, with 6.8 million streams in week one. Del Rey’s manager Ben Mawson believes her streaming power comes from having a young fan base who first discovered “Video Games” online, creating a viral sensation. He speculates an artist that gets fans through radio is more likely to sell downloads. “For Sam Smith, I think it’s much more about radio,” Mawson tells Billboard. “Lana is much more about the Internet. Streaming is a form of advertising, really.”

As for Smith, his Billboard Hot 100 hit “Stay With Me” first became available on Spotify on July 12, with the full album arriving July 16 (it was streamed 256,000 times its first day), but he could win the long game. (Capitol would not comment for this story.) Buoyed by strong reviews and growing radio play — not just for “Stay With Me” but also Disclosure’s “Latch,” on which Smith delivers the hook — “In the Lonely Hour” has sold 278,000 units in three weeks compared with 252,000 for “Ultraviolence.” When individual tracks are factored – fans bought 2.5 million from “In the Lonely Hour” vs. 367,000 from “Ultraviolence” — Smith’s edge is obvious, with track-equivalent albums of 533,000 to Del Rey’s 289,000. Finally, talk of Grammy nominations should carry Smith through the holidays and well into 2015. And with that: checkmate.