Adele’s crazy-pants sales numbers

When I saw the initial sales projections for Adele’s new album ’25’—selling 2+ million copies in its first week—I thought someone had made a typo. The all-time record, 2.4 million, was set way back in 2000 by NSync, before the music industry cratered. In the last 10 years, nobody has sold more than 1.3 million in their first week.

Instead, Adele actually sold 3.4 million units. IN ONE WEEK.

That number is mind-bogglingly huge in this day and age. It’s nearly the same as Taylor Swift’s last 3 albums combined. Adele is an outlier of an outlier.

Timeline

The amazing thing about this album is that experts expected it to do big numbers…just not anywhere close to THIS huge. Check out this timeline:

Week-by-week sales

And, if anything, ‘25’ continues to exceed expectations in the weeks since its debut. Here are sales week-by-week:

  • Week 1 (11/20–11/26): 3,354,773
  • Week 2 (11/27–12/03): 1,056,429
  • Week 3 (12/04–12/10): 660,472
  • Week 4 (12/11–12/17): 786,901
  • Week 5 (12/18–12/24): 1,112,902
  • Week 6 (12/25–12/31): TBD
  • Total 2015 sales: ~7.5 million

It took Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ more than a year to sell 5.57 million units. Adele’s ‘25’ has already sold 7+ million copies in just over 5 weeks!

Adele’s previous albums

Adele’s only real competition is herself. Billboard did a good job of putting this into perspective: ‘25’ has sold more copies than any other album since Adele’s own ‘21’ (which has sold 11.37 million units since 2011!). In fact, Adele’s ‘21’ and ‘25’ are the two biggest-selling albums since 2009.

Just how high can sales go? Well, let’s compare it to her previous albums’ early sales:

  • ‘19’: Debuted in UK at #1 (Jan 2008), in US at #61 (June 2008) (Inexplicably, I can’t find actual sales numbers anywhere.)
  • ‘21’: 352,000 first-week US sales / 208,000 first-week UK sales
  • ‘25’: 3,354,773 first-week US sales / 800,000 first-week UK sales

Notice that? ‘25’ sold nearly TEN TIMES as many copies in its first week in the US as ‘21’ did. You’d think such front-loaded sales would precede an inevitable dropoff, but we have yet to see evidence of that. So if ‘21’ has sold 11m copies to date and ‘25’ has already sold 7m copies…the sky is the limit!

Biggest one-week album sales of all time

Thomas Nassiff wrote a really great article looking at the 19 albums that have sold more than 1 million units in a week before now. But as he points out, most of those albums were sold in the early 2000s, at the height of CD sales and a time when you had to buy an entire album to hear one song.

Here’s a full list of albums that have sold at least 900,000 units in a week, including Adele (I’ve bolded the albums released in the last 10 years):

  1. 2015 / 3.378 million / Adele – 25
  2. 2000 / 2.416 million / NSync – No Strings Attached
  3. 2001 / 1.880 million / NSync – Celebrity
  4. 2000 / 1.760 million / Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
  5. 2000 / 1.591 million / Backstreet Boys – Black & Blue
  6. 2002 / 1.322 million / Eminem – The Eminem Show (2nd week)
  7. 2000 / 1.319 million / Britney Spears – Oops!…I Did It Again
  8. 2014 / 1.287 million / Taylor Swift – 1989
  9. 2001 / 1.259 million / The Beatles – 1 (Christmas week)
  10. 2012 / 1.208 million / Taylor Swift – Red
  11. 2015 / 1.160 million / Adele – 25 (Christmas week)
  12. 2005 / 1.141 million / 50 Cent – The Massacre
  13. 1999 / 1.134 million / Backstreet Boys – Millennium
  14. 2015 / 1.112 million / Adele – 25 (2nd week)
  15. 2011 / 1.108 million / Lady Gaga – Born This Way (see note below)
  16. 2004 / 1.096 million / Usher – Confessions
  17. 1998 / 1.085 million / Garth Brooks – Double Live
  18. 1993 / 1.061 million / Whitney Houston – The Bodyguard OST (Christmas week)
  19. 2000 / 1.055 million / Limp Bizkit – Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water
  20. 2010 / 1.047 million / Taylor Swift – Speak Now
  21. 2004 / 1.022 million / Norah Jones – Feels Like Home
  22. 2008 / 1.005 million / Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III
  23. 2013 / 0.968 million / Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
  24. 2011 / 0.964 million / Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV
  25. 2007 / 0.957 million / Kanye West – Graduation
  26. 1993 / 0.950 million / Pearl Jam – Vs.
  27. 1994 / 0.907 million / Garth Brooks – The Hits (Christmas week)

A few things to note based on this list:

  • Adele’s ‘25’ is the first album to ever sell more than 1 million copies in multiple weeks: its debut week (3.38m), its second week (1.11m), AND its fifth week (1.16m).

  • Since 2006, only 3 artists had sold more than a million units in one week: Taylor Swift (3 albums), Lady Gaga (1 album, but subsidized – see below), and Lil Wayne (1 album, barely). And now Adele.

  • The only artists to sell 1 million albums in a week more than once: Taylor Swift x 3, Adele x 3, NSync x 2, Backstreet Boys x 2, Eminem x 2 (all but Adele for different albums).

  • Of the 20 albums that sold a million-plus, 5 came out in 2000. No other year had more than two.

  • Before researching this, I assumed an album’s first-week sales were always its highest. Not so! Turns out the week leading up to Christmas is huge. Adele sold more albums in the Christmas week (1.16 million) than in her 2nd week (1.11 million). And The Beatles, Whitney Houston, and Garth Brooks all saw more sales in the Christmas week than in their respective albums’ debut weeks. Crazy!

  • One more week artists can expect a huge bump in sales? After the Grammys! It’s not quite enough to show up on this list, but Adele sold a staggering 730,000 copies of ‘21’ the week after the 2012 Grammys, Outkast sold 275,000 copies of ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’ the week after the 2004 Grammys, and Norah Jones moved 621,000 units of ‘Come Away with Me’ the week after the 2003 Grammys. Full list of the post-Grammy bumps here.

  • Wondering why ‘The Eminem Show’ shows up in this list for its 2nd week of sales but not its first? To combat massive piracy from an early leak, Eminem’s label let retailers start selling it a week and a half sooner than expected, on a Sunday (instead of the traditional Tuesday). So its first official sales “week” was only 1.5 days, in which it sold 284,000 copies. In its first full week of sales, it moved 1,321,799 units.

  • Lady Gaga’s appearance on this list is somewhat dubious because Amazon sold her album for $0.99 (cheaper than a single song on iTunes for $1.29!). Amazon, which sold 440,000 copies or 40% of its total sales, took a significant loss on this stunt to drive up publicity for its MP3 store because it still paid Lady Gaga for the full price of the album. Billboard later changed its rules to only include albums that sell for at least $3.49 in its charts.


A note on numbers and sources: If you see small variations between numbers in this post, it’s because it’s really hard to find a single consistent source of information. Some sites use traditional album sales, some use TEAs (track-equivalent albums, where buying 10 digital singles = 1 album purchase), and some include SEAs (stream-equivalent albums, where 1,500 Spotify/YouTube/etc streams = 1 album purchase). In addition to some of the links above, I used a Billboard list of albums that have sold 1m+ in a week, a Complex list of the 25 biggest FIRST-week album sales, an article that mentioned the fastest-selling albums in 2013, and a list of the fastest-selling albums of 2014. But just as I was finishing writing this post, I found an old but amazing resource for the biggest sales weeks of the Soundscan era that was invaluable for correcting numbers and which I hope to write more about in a future blog post soon!


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