LOS ANGELES — On a trip through London’s Heathrow Airport earlier this week, Lady Gaga tumbled off the impossibly high heels she was wearing and took a nose dive onto the facility’s linoleum floor. She quickly righted herself and continued on her way; her new album, however, isn’t showing the same resilience.
Five weeks after posting the biggest first-week sales figure for any album in more than six years — spurred by a two-day sale during which Amazon.com sold the album for 99 cents — “Born This Way” has slipped to No. 8 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart on sales last week of just 49,000 copies — that’s only slightly ahead of “Alpocalypse,” the latest from novelty artist “Weird Al” Yankovic, with a single parodying Gaga.
Most in the record industry had expected “Born This Way” to show a steep drop on its second week of release, although perhaps not as steep as the 84 percent plunge it saw after the stellar first week. But the slowdown for “Born This Way” has continued to be more pronounced than many anticipated. Gaga spent just two weeks at No. 1 before Adele returned to the top of the chart.
“I can’t remember that ever happening like this — selling so much and then going down to so little, so quickly,” said Brad Sheldon, music buyer at the Amoeba Music store in Hollywood. “I had to look really hard to find it on our best-seller list. We’re stuck with a lot of copies now.”
Music industry analysts say there are probably multiple reasons for the swift decline of Gaga’s album. Among the potential problems: Amazon.com’s bargain-basement sale price devalued it in the minds of potential subsequent buyers; Gaga fans are more interested in singles than albums; her so-called “little monsters” are more likely to share or illegally download her music than other artists’ fans are.
The full effect of Amazon’s 99-cent “Born This Way” sale, a promotion for its new cloud service, has yet to be determined authoritatively. But it didn’t endear her or her record company — even though the decision was Amazon’s, which took a multimillion-dollar loss on the deal — to other merchants who found themselves stuck trying to sell downloads and physical CDs for much higher prices.
“We definitely weren’t a fan of them doing that,” Amoeba’s Sheldon said. “It sort of devalues everything after that, and it raises the question of whether she’s going to have to do that again on her next record.”
Meanwhile, British soul singer Adele’s “21,” the album that “Born This Way” displaced at No. 1 upon selling 1,108,000 copies during its first week of release, sold more than double what Gaga’s album did last week — more than 101,000 copies — keeping it at No. 3 behind new releases from R&B singer-songwriter Jill Scott and alt-rocker Bon Iver. Adele’s album has sold 2.4 million copies since its release in February, making it the biggest-selling album of the year so far.
The Lady Gaga album’s sales arc to date also is in striking contrast to Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now,” which last fall logged first-week sales of 1,047,000 upon release. By its fifth week, “Speak Now” had sold more than 2 million copies, compared with “Born This Way’s” five-week sum of 1.5 million. (Lady Gaga’s previous album, “The Fame Monster,” has sold 4.2 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.) “Speak Now” yielded the No. 1 slot to new albums from Susan Boyle and Kanye West before returning to the top of the chart for another four weeks at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011. It has sold more than 3.5 million copies in eight months.
One big difference: Swift’s album came out at the height of the holiday sales season, when music sales are traditionally at their peak. But another factor may be more relevant: Swift and Adele have been embraced by middle-age and older listeners as well as the youth audience that typically determines who’s on the pop charts.
Swift “also has the country fans who actually still believe in buying an album,” said Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts for Billboard. “She appeals to consumers who still buy albums, and who still buy a number of them.
“It’s the same with Adele — she’s still being discovered by people who really want someone they consider to be a ‘true artist,’ someone who really resonates as honest and true, who has a wonderful voice that’s appealing to older people and younger people, kind of like Norah Jones and Amy Winehouse.”
Caulfield said that today, the anomaly isn’t Gaga, but Adele and Swift, who buck the trend of ever decreasing shelf life for pop albums.
There’s also the matter of hit singles to drive album sales. “Edge of Glory,” the current single from “Born This Way,” peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and has dropped to No. 6 this week. Without a major hit to sustain sales, album sales typically suffer.
But the story may not be over yet: Caulfield noted that fans of an artist such as Gaga frequently download a new single immediately, pushing it high on the chart out of the gate, but it can take weeks for radio to catch up and expose it to a broader swath of listeners.
Still, the overall effect of album sales is no longer what it once was.
“What’s most important to Gaga is that fans are familiar with and excited by her new material,” Billboard editorial director Bill Werde wrote recently. “That way she can make money leveraging those fans, be it through a partnership with a brand that wants to reach said fans, or concert ticket sales.
“It isn’t inconceivable to think of a day soon when Gaga and other superstar acts will use radio and social networks and giveaways to create massive international hits — not defined by sales, but by the number of fans that are familiar with and excited by the music.”