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U2's 'Horizon' sales bring band back to Earth

March 11, 2009 |  4:13 pm
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First-week sales of U2’s “No Line on the Horizon” brought the superstar rock band back down to Earth. The album, given the band's stature and sales history, was essentially preordained to debut atop the U.S. pop charts when it was announced last year. The only question was how many it would sell.

The Interscope album sold a brisk 484,000 copies in the U.S., according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. It’s the biggest first-week tally since Britney Spears’ “Circus” sold 505,000 copies during the holiday season last year.

But the number everyone will talk about is 840,000. That’s what U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” sold when it debuted at No. 1 in 2004. Another recent barometer, the U2-influenced band Coldplay's album "Viva la Vida," sold more than 700,000 units when it was released last year.

Though the 356,000-unit sales gap can certainly be attributed to year after year of double-digit declines in album sales, a closer look at U2’s recent sales stats suggests that “Atomic Bomb” was a bit of an aberration in the career of the Irish superstars.

“Certainly this is not the 800 [thousand] that the last album did, but that was more than four years ago -- in a different kind of economy, a different kind of music-buyer landscape, and it came out Thanksgiving week,” said Billboard chart analyst Keith Caulfield.

U2’s 2000 release “All That You Can Leave Behind” opened with sales of 428,000 copies. Prior to “Behind,” U2's highest debut in the pre-file-sharing era was 1993’s “Zooropa,” which launched with 377,000 copies. SoundScan began tracking sales data in 1991.

“Behind” reestablished U2 as a force on rock radio, spawning hits such as “Beautiful Day” and “Elevation.” The trend continued into the release of “Atomic Bomb,” as the single “Vertigo” topped Billboard's modern rock chart and was the cornerstone of an inescapable Apple iPod commercial. When “Atomic Bomb” was released, “Vertigo” was a top-40 hit on the U.S. singles chart.

That kind of radio success has thus far eluded U2 with “No Line,” despite a massive U2 marketing campaign that has taken the act to the Grammys and a weeklong stint on “Late Show With David Letterman.” When Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends" topped the U.S. pop chart with sales of 721,000 copies in June, the title cut was on its way to hitting No. 1 on the U.S. singles charts.

By comparison, U2’s recent release, “Get On Your Boots,” has spent only sporadically appeared on the chart and most recently was hanging on at No. 96. SoundScan reports the cut has sold 188,000 digital copies to date, a number that seems rather quaint when rapper Flo Rida is setting digital sales records with one-week totals such as 636,000.

U2's “last album was kind of an anomaly,” Caulfield says. “Could they have done more? Sure. Lil Wayne did 1 million, but I don’t think this is going to drop off the chart next week.”

Perhaps not, but the real test for U2 is likely to come this summer, when the band begins its upcoming U2360 stadium tour. A Los Angeles date has not yet been announced for the Live Nation-produced endeavor -- the first tour as part of U2's 12-year, multifaceted arrangement with the promoter. The band’s last tour, tied to the release of “Vertigo” in 2005, was the second-highest-grossing tour ever, bringing in $389 million, according to Billboard.

--Todd Martens

Photo credit: Associated Press