Two snapshots of the music business were on display on the U.S. pop chart, with Prince's distribution strategy proving to be a bigger winner this week than the one used by rapper Flo Rida.
While Prince landed at No. 2, selling 168,000 copies of his three-disc "LotusFlow3r," released exclusively through Target, Flo Rida struggled to turn success selling digital tracks into album sales.
Flo Rida is a king of digital downloads. Already this year, his single "Right Round," which was released in January, has sold 2.4 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan figures released by Billboard. His song "Low," featuring T-Pain, was the No. 3-selling digital track of 2008, with just under 3 million copies.
Yet both of his full-length albums have had trouble gaining traction, with last year's "Mail on Sunday" and this week's "R.O.O.T.S." selling fewer than 100,000 copies each in their first week. "R.O.O.T.S." landed at No. 8 on this week's chart, selling 55,000 copies.
"The challenge of the entire music business is converting a massive amount of singles buyers out there to album buyers," said James Lopez, Atlantic Records' senior vice president of urban marketing. He added that Flo Rida has sold more than 10 million singles worldwide. On the flip side, Lopez said, Flo Rida's "Mail on Sunday," has sold about 381,000 copies to date in the U.S.
Atlantic allowed fans to purchase "Right Round" for nearly two months prior to the release of "R.O.O.T.S." Did the label consider withholding the single and making it available only to purchasers of the album?
"There's a lot of debate, within this building and within this industry," Lopez said. "Do you not make something available when it's being demanded now? Do you leave that money on the table, no matter what the margins are? Do you not sell 2 million singles before your release date and wait for the pent-up demand, or do you take advantage and trust the people who buy the singles? . . . I don't think we've quite figured it out."
Prince, meanwhile, has long experimented with release models. He bundled his 2004 album "Musicology" with tickets to his concert and gave away the 2007 album "Planet Earth" in a British newspaper.
In hooking up exclusively with a big-box retailer, he is following in the path of the Eagles, AC/DC, Christina Aguilera and Guns N' Roses.
"The gatekeepers must change," Prince told The Times earlier this year while discussing his decision to work without the help of a major label, releasing the album on his NPG imprint.
AC/DC and the Eagles each had No. 1 albums after aligning with Wal-Mart. AC/DC, in fact, had the No. 5 album of 2008, moving close to 3 million copies of "Black Ice." Prince's latest is a slight boost from the first week's sales of 2007's "Planet Earth," which bowed at No. 3 after selling 96,000 copies. His 2006 effort, "3121," sold 183,000 copies in its first week.
"LotusFlow3r" came with a budget price of $11.98. It was the do-it-yourself model on a grander scale, as Prince could keep retail prices low, say label executives, by recording the album in his own studio and forgoing a label deal, thereby not needing to split CD revenues with a record company and a distributor.
Additionally, the retail exclusive model offers another benefit to artists: It's now standard industry practice for major exclusives to be "one-way sales," meaning the retailer guarantees to buy a specified number of albums that are nonreturnable.