Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience tops Billboard after selling 968,000 copies in its first week, beating industry forecasts and his personal best of 684,000 copies for the debut of 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds, according to new Nielsen SoundScan figures.
It's the biggest opener since Taylor Swift's Red sold 1.2 million copies in October, and the tallest bow by a male artist since Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III moved 1.01 million in 2008.
Based on industry experts, Billboard had estimated sales of 500,000 before 20/20's release, then raised projections almost daily as consumer frenzy grew.
"When you have arguably the biggest male pop star take a vacation for several years, there's a lot of demand for new music, and that demand never went away," says Keith Caulfield, Billboard's associate director of charts/retail.
20/20 ranks 16th among debut weeks and 19th overall in the SoundScan era. Only 18 albums in the past 20 years have opened with sales greater than 900,000, and the top two were by boy band 'N Sync, Timberlake's pre-solo affiliation.
On Spotify, 20/20 racked up 7.73 million U.S. streams its first week, second only to Mumford & Sons' Babel (with 8 million streams) in the digital music service's history. Every 20/20 track was streamed at least 500,000 times.
Smart promotion deserves partial credit. "He was careful in not completely overexposing himself, though it does seem like he was everywhere," Caulfield says. "Instead of doing all the morning shows and late-night shows, he partnered with a handful that he could get the most benefit from. He chose key promotional vehicles: Jimmy Fallon, Target, iHeartRadio, iTunes and Saturday Night Live."
Such massive sales stampedes have become extremely rare, but with 20/20's whopper and back-to-back million-plus openers for Swift, "there has to be hope that other artists can rack up these kind of superstar sales," Caulfield says. "You have to have across-the-board saturation visibility, where you're a pop culture phenomenon that people of all ages like. An obvious possibility is Adele."
Top pop and rap stars have countered music business assumptions about big-selling albums, says David Bakula, senior vice president of analytics at Nielsen Entertainment.
"We saw great debuts by Mumford & Sons and Taylor Swift last year, and Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga and Kanye West have done very well," he says.
Piracy and the shift to digital singles did slow album sales, he says. In 2000, five albums sold more than 1 million copies in their first week. After 50 Cent's Massacre opened with 1.1 million in 2005, no title cracked the platinum mark until Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III in 2008.
"People said we wouldn't see those massive numbers again, but they've been proven wrong," Bakula says. "Consumers love certain types of artists, and they want as much engagement as they can get, and they want it immediately. They're saying, 'I love Justin Timberlake. Give me everything you've got.'
"Justin continues to break new ground, collaborate with new artists, broaden his appeal," he adds, noting that recent sales spikes for earlier solo albums suggest a growing fan base.
"Even though he left music for a while, he was very visible on TV, movies and socially. This isn't a case of coming back after six years and people going, 'Justin who?' When some artists go away, people say, 'You have to win me over again.' Timberlake has proven since 'N Sync that these are very loyal consumers. He's always going to have great numbers."
By Edna Gundersen