Even by the high standards of posthumous career boosts, Prince is breaking new ground when it comes to album sales in the wake of his death.
Minneapolis’ rock icon set a new record by landing five titles simultaneously in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart. It’s the first time an artist has accomplished that since the chart was created in 1963 — a feat that can be partly attributed to his music not being available on most digital streaming sites.
Prince made the chart at the Nos. 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 positions with “The Very Best of Prince,” “Purple Rain,” “The Hits/The B-Sides,” “Ultimate” and “1999,” respectively.
He likely would have made the No. 1 spot two weeks in a row if not for his 2004 Grammy Awards duet partner Beyoncé, who issued her much-ballyhooed new album, “Lemonade,” last week.
All told, Prince sold what Billboard itself called “a staggering” 4.41 million albums from the day after his April 21 death to the chart cutoff day last Thursday.
By comparison, David Bowie racked up 308,000 in U.S. album sales in the four days after his Jan. 10 passing. Michael Jackson sold 422,000 in the week after his death on June 25, 2009.
Prince’s “Very Best Of” alone sold 391,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music figures — and he had 18 more albums make the Billboard 200 chart. These figures include both physical and digital (download) sales.
“If people in Minneapolis had any doubt just how big Prince was to the rest of the world, this should settle it,” said David Bakula, a senior vice president at Nielsen Entertainment, which tracks album sales.
Those unprecedented sales numbers provide something of an I-told-you-so bragging right for Prince from beyond the grave. He undoubtedly sold more albums because over the past year he removed his music from sites such as Apple Music and Spotify, where songs are available on an unlimited basis with paid monthly subscriptions.
Only one streaming company, Jay Z’s Tidal, has rights to Prince’s music. Tidal has not commented on how Prince’s death boosted its numbers. Forbes magazine speculated it “could help Tidal pad its reported 3 million paid subscriber count and possibly lead to a sale to a larger company like Apple or Spotify.”
Said Bakula, “You would hear people saying, ‘I can’t find his songs online,’ and they had to resort to watching his Super Bowl performance instead. I’m sure he sold a lot more albums because of it.”
He’s selling a lot of song downloads, too. “Purple Rain” is the No. 1-selling single for the second week in a row. It sold 282,000 downloads, followed by “When Doves Cry” at No. 2 with 198,000. The last artist to hold the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on the Billboard singles chart was Taylor Swift in 2014.
Neill Olson, manager of Cheapo Records in south Minneapolis, believes Prince’s scarcity on streaming sites is “just a small reason” for the crush to own his albums, mostly on CD. And it truly has been a crush in stores all over the Twin Cities.
“We’re getting more stuff in, but we can’t keep it in stock very long,” said Olson, who noticed a lot more younger customers than normal clamoring for the records. “They’ve been telling us, ‘You can’t find his stuff online!’ It’s been a good introduction to brick-and-mortar record stores for a lot of them.”
As for the older customers who grew up buying CDs and vinyl LPs, Olson quipped, “We sort of say to ourselves, ‘Why don’t these people own these records already?’ ”
The numbers would have been even more impressive if Prince’s albums were more widely available on vinyl, a format that has rebounded in popularity in recent years. Only four of his most popular albums, including “Purple Rain” and “1999,” were reissued on vinyl in 2011.
Recognizing the demand this week, Warner Bros. Records pushed up the release dates for a series of nine classic albums to be reissued on vinyl in chronological order this year, starting with 1985’s “Around the World in a Day” on June 21 through 1992’s so-called “Love Symbol” album on Dec. 13.
Prince might be on the charts the rest of the year, in other words.