Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is the Number One Album in the US Yet Sold Poorly. Wait–What?

C’mon! How can an album reach the top of the Billboard charts yet sell a negligible number of units? Welcome to the weird world of the music charts in the streaming era.

For decades, Billboard compiled all their album charts on the number of units sold. The more people bought your record, the higher it ranked at the end of the sales week. Things began to get a little wonky in the digital when they introduced Track Equivalent Albums (TEAs). If anyone bought ten different songs by the same artist, that was ranked the same as one sale of an old-school album. That was a bit weird, but okay.

Now, though, we have Stream Equivalent Albums. If an artist has tracks from an album streamed 1,500 times, that counts the same as the sale of a regular album. Nothing is actually acquired by the consumer, either in its physical or digital state. SEAs are just people listening to the album. At the very most, they’re renting the tracks using their paid subscription to their streaming music service of choice. Stop paying for the subscription and the tracks disappear.

Then along comes Kanye West and The Life of Pablo. While he does offer fans the chance to buy a copy from his website, most of the consumption of this album has been done via Tidal (where it was an exclusive) and torrents (where it was pirated). Now, though, Pablo has been made to all the other streaming music sites and listening–in the form of SEAs–has exploded.

BuzzAngle, a company that watches chart action, sales that between Friday, April 1 and Thursday, April 7–the last full sales week for the music industry–enough people streamed Pablo to push it to the top of the Billboard charts thanks to nothing but SEAs. Crunching the streams (there were about 85 million of them) and whatever sales/downloads exist (they’re minuscule), Pablo appears to have moved the equivalent of 82,000 units this past week.

If you want to drill deeper, “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” was the most popular with 10 million US streams with “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission” having the least with 1.9 million.

Still think that streaming isn’t going to catch on?

More here and here.

UPDATE SUNDAY EVENING, APRIL 10: The official numbers are now in and they’re even bigger than forecast. Pablo sold 94,000 equivalent album streams of which 28,000 were pure album sales. Breaking that down, the 66,000 SEAs involved 99 million streams. Full details here.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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