Like Madonna or Kanye West, Lady Gaga has a knack for attracting controversy, even when the matter at hand is out of her control. “Born This Way,” the pop star’s latest release for Interscope Records, debuted atop the U.S. pop charts Wednesday with more than 1.1. million copies sold, yet that number comes with something of an asterisk.
The figure marked the best first-week album sales since 50 Cent's “The Massacre” sold 1,141,000 copies in 2005.
But what was unusual was that Lady Gaga’s total was fueled by digital downloads – a high percentage of which were sold for less than individual songs from the album.
Last week, retailer Amazon.com raised eyebrows when it set the price for a download of the 14-track album at 99 cents on its May 23 release day, representing an unprecented low bargain-price discount for a marquee release. iTunes was selling a download of the album for $11.99.
Though Amazon only sold the album at that price for two days, Billboard estimated that it sold more than 440,000 albums at that price, and Nielsen SoundScan reports that overall digital sales among all retailers accounted for 60% of the first week sales of “Born This Way.”
Though the firm doesn’t break out the 662,000 downloads sold by retailer, a look at some recent major releases can put Lady Gaga’s digital sales in perspective. When Taylor Swift’s Big Machine album “Speak Now” bowed at No. 1 in November 2010 with more than 1 million copies sold, only 27% came from the digital sector. Likewise, for Eminem’s Interscope album “Recovery,” which debuted in June 2010 with more than 740,000 copies in its first week, only 34% of that tally came from the digital sector.