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Hip-Hop Fridays: First Week Sales


Looking at this week's Soundscan sales numbers - particularly the 1.6 million records sold by the Backstreet Boys and the 301, 000 sold by Wu-Tang Clan, I began to reflect over how the pressure to sell so many records the first week an album is released has changed the Hip-Hop industry and affected the careers of so many artists.

I first began to follow first-week sales around 1993. I think the first album that I can remember first-week sales for was the Ice Cube Predator album which debuted at either #1 or #2 on the Billboard pop charts. But even before that I remember the big stir that was caused in 1991 when NWA's album debut #1 on Billboard's Pop chart. It was the first time that a Hip-Hop album debuted in its first week of sales at the # 1 position on the pop charts. From that point on the flood gates opened as Hip-Hop album after Hip-Hop album would debut in the top 10 of the pop charts.

The most impressive of such albums, for me, was the Snoop Doggy Dogg album in 1994 which sold over 800,000 records in its first week of sales.

However, all that glitters is not gold. The first-week sales phenomenon may have helped retailers and the major record labels and distributors more than it helped artists. In many ways, but not all, it may have stifled the growth of artists. Why? Because with albums generating such huge numbers in just the first week of their release, it allowed record labels to reap huge financial rewards without spending anywhere near the same amount of money forHip-Hop albums as they did for pop and R&B albums in terms of marketing and promotion.

With rap albums selling sometimes as much as 30% of their total sales in the first week, there was little incentive, on the surface, for labels to release a second and third single or pay for a second or third video.

The development of artist's careers suffered because of this.

But the retailers and labels tried to work the phenomenon to their advantage.

I remember a meeting that I and another manager had with major record executives one year where they practically begged me to influence the artists that I represented to release an album in the fourth quarter of that year. They even explained how several music chains were asking them to encourage this to happen. We were even told of one music chain that might go under if certain Hip-Hop releases did not come out.

Of course we did not bite but it was a real issue for the label.

These record labels and music chain stores know that Hip-Hop albums are "quick cash". They deliver millions of dollars in one week. So they encourage their releases at certain times of the year expecting that these albums will deliver quick revenue streams that often can save an otherwise disappointing year of business for a label

Secondly, Hip-Hop albums were selling so many albums in their first week and then the album sales in the second and third weeks would drop dramatically. Record executives used to tell me that a record should maintain at least 50% of its first week sales in the second week. But Hip-Hop albums often fall far below that.

I remember in 1997 when the second Wu-Tang album was released that we sold around 612,000 albums the first week. In the second week we dropped to 156,000 albums sold. That is a drop of 75%. From 1993 to 1998 Hip-hop album after Hip-Hop album would lose well over 50% of their first-week sales in their second weeks.

Then came Jay-Z. To this day, many people miss the most impressive aspect of Jay-Z's album in 1998. He was able to maintain almost the same level of sales for the first five weeks of his album's release. He kept selling over 200,000 albums per week. It blew people away and represented a turning point as a few albums, including Dr. Dre's album in 1999 were able to do what Jay-Z did in 1998, even better.

And of course what Eminem did this year was unprecedented in Hip-Hop.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Hip-Hop albums still explode with great sales during their first week of release and then fall off the face of the earth, in terms of profile and sales, sometimes within 4-6 weeks. Labels win, chain stores win but artists may or may not.

It is an interesting phenomenon and one that we will continue to consider.


Cedric Muhammad

Friday, December 1, 2000

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