Kanye West's Album Yeezus Drops... But Digital Sales Don't

Jacob Harper  |

This morning saw the release of Yeezus, Kanye West’s highly anticipated follow up to 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Already, the album has raced to the top of the iTunes (AAPL) chart, and is expected to remain atop it all week. Despite an online leak of the album Friday, a common occurrence for high profile music releases, West’s label Def Jam (subsidiary of Universal) expects album sales to top 500,000 in the first week alone.

While 500,00 units 20 years ago would have seemed like a pittance, in today’s diversified music market it’s a major success, perhaps the greatest music success of any major release all year. And that 500,00 number has already taken into consideration the leak. What’s interesting to note about Yeezus--arguably the most anticipated album release of the year--is how not low that figure is, but how much less pure album sales as a means of judging an album’s financial success, matters. Twenty years ago there weren’t the major players in digital downloads and streaming: namely, iTunes, Amazon (AMZN), and Pandora Radio (P). Not to mention the album will stream on Spotify, and in a move typical of Kanye’s outsized personality, a sneak preview/purchase option starting last night on his own website, kanyewest.com.

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Kanye’s album Graduation, released in 2007, sold 957,000 copies in its first week according to Nielsen Soundscan. Which is certainly impressive. But 2007 was before releasing an album on myriad digital platforms had become as ubiquitous a strategy as it has today. Not to mention, the rise of buying (and listening to via YouTube) individual tracks over a full album. The 500,000 number for Yeezus, for instance, only includes physical purchases (the actual CD) and full album downloads. But with iTunes and Amazon, many users opt to instead buy individual favored songs. And Kanye is no slouch when it comes to individual digital downloads. With this new album Kanye is poised to overtake Beyonce to become the eighth most downloaded artist of all time, at over 30.4 million digital downloads total, a huge boon to Amazon and iTunes. (The album is currently available via both stores.)

And then there’s ad-supported videos. Concerning YouTube (GOOG), Kanye’s single “Black Skinhead” has already garnered 1.42 million views on VevoTV. And that's just on his much-hyped SNL appearance. An official video associated with Yeezus has yet to premier. When one does, it will surely even exceed the 13.92 million hits his 2010 promotional film "Runaway" garnered. Which, in itself, was an unusual approach to promotion: a 35 minute film used to promote a 68 minute album (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). A traditional video for Kanye like the 2009 single "Stronger", has over 95 million views on YouTube -  views prefaced with a 15 or 30 second commercial.
Perhaps what makes Yeezus such an interesting release to follow is how, on the surface, it appears to be dwarfed by his previous releases. And Late Registration and Graduation certainly sold more physical copies. But between all the various platforms music is now being listened to, it's still poised to be a major smash for YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, and the like.

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