With streaming on the rise and album sales on the decline, simply counting up the number of albums sold every week no longer seems like an accurate way to measure the most popular albums in America. So, controversially, in late 2014, Billboard adjusted the tabulation system for its primary albums chart, the Billboard 200, to account for streaming data in addition to sales. Artists are now awarded the equivalent of one album sale for every 10 track purchases (track equivalent albums aka TEA) or every 1,500 track streams (streaming equivalent albums aka SEA).
Until recently, the new rules affected only minor adjustments in the chart rankings, but last month Rihanna saw ANTI become the lowest-selling #1 album in history, with 17,000 in sales bolstered by 37,000 equivalent units. Thanks to TEA and SEA, that week’s actual bestselling album, Hymns by Christian country duo Joey + Rory, was stuck way down at #4 on the chart behind ANTI plus Adele’s 25 and Justin Bieber’s Purpose.
Now we may be on the verge of an even crazier statistical phenomenon. Kanye West finally released The Life Of Pablo to non-Tidal streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify last week, and it’s been a huge hit — so huge, in fact, that it’s on track to become the first album to top the chart with virtually zero sales.
Pablo still isn’t on sale anywhere besides Kanye’s site, and even if Tidal reported the limited number of Tidal TLOP purchases to Nielsen SoundScan, those sales happened weeks ago. But HITS Daily Double and @chartnews report that the album is projected to accumulate about 60,000 equivalent units based almost entirely on TEA and SEA and will likely ascend to #1 on the Billboard 200 next week. Not very regular!
UPDATE: Billboard confirms that The Life Of Pablo will debut at #1 on the Billboard 200. The album is projected to finish with 90,000 equivalent units, but that number includes some sales figures:
Industry sources suggest that of its total for the week, over 20,000 units are in traditional album sales, from KanyeWest.com, Tidal, and ticket/album offers with West’s Yeezy Season 3 fashion show at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 11 and its simultaneous live stream movie theater event.
Chris Stapleton’s former #1 Traveller is projected between 73,000 and 78,000 units this week thanks to a resurgence in interest after this week’s ACM Awards, so it sounds like Kanye needed those 20,000 in sales to enter the chart on top. So, not as cool as debuting #1 on the strength of streams alone, but Billboard still designates Pablo the first album to go #1 with more than half of its units generated by streaming equivalent albums.