As blockbuster hits go, the smash So Sick is hardly new territory for the 23-year-old singer known as Ne-Yo. Before crooning the song on his own album, he was a co-writer on the 2004 chart-buster Let Me Love You for the singer Mario.
But there's one big difference: Even though fans could hear So Sick on the radio for the last two months, they couldn't buy it at popular online services like iTunes or Rhapsody, or anywhere else for that matter. Breaking from the music industry's current custom, the singer's label -- Island Def Jam -- decided not to sell So Sick as an individual song before Ne-Yo's album hit stores last week. Label executives worried that releasing the track too early might cut into sales of the full CD.
The results of fans' pent-up demand for Ne-Yo are now clear: His CD In My Own Words, burst onto the national album chart last week at No. 1, with sales of more than 301,000 copies, easily ranking as the biggest debut of the year so far. And just as eye-popping: the digital single of So Sick sold almost 120,000 copies in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
There is still plenty of debate over the effect of holding off on sales of the digital single; many also note that Island Def Jam offered a discount to retailers who stocked the album, allowing it to sell at stores like Target for US$7.98.
But if the industry determines that restricting digital sales pays off with bigger album sales, fans may soon find the instant gratification of snapping up new songs online becoming a little less instant.
No one is talking about a wholesale shift away from the now-common practice of selling singles online ahead of new albums.
But even before Ne-Yo's big debut, some music executives fretted that they were offering too many songs too early.
So consumers looking for some hot new songs may have trouble finding them before the albums are released. SOS, a rising radio hit from the Caribbean-born ingenue Rihanna is not expected to be available for sale online before her forthcoming album. And Shakira fans will not find her new song, Hips Don't Lie, for sale at any of the major online music services, music executives said.
The restricted sales are evidence that record companies are a re-examining the fledging digital music field, where consumers have become accustomed to easy -- and early -- access to new stars' work. In the early days of paid digital sales, major labels routinely refused to sell singles or albums online until well after the "physical" recording went on sale at brick-and-mortar stores.
"The labels are shooting themselves in the foot," said Tim Quirk, executive editor of the Rhapsody music service. To the labels, Quirk advises, "every single track that you are worried about is available for free whether you want it to be or not."
"You need to take advantage of every possible opportunity for people to pay in legitimate ways," he said.
But in the case of Ne-Yo, whose real name is Shaffer Smith, the first-week sales figures vindicate their strategy, executives say. It is impossible to know how many fans would have bought Ne-Yo's single as it became a radio smash, but the executives reckon that whatever price Island Def Jam paid in lost singles, it more than made up for in extra sales of the album, which costs more.
Contrast the Ne-Yo experience with another new R&B star, Chris Brown. He had a similarly inescapable radio hit with the song Run It! on the eve of his debut album's release late last year. Run It! was available for sale online for more than three months before his eponymous CD hit stores. During that time, Brown's song sold more than 300,000 copies. When the album finally went on sale, it sold roughly 154,000 copies in its first week -- about half the sales of the Ne-Yo recording, according to Nielsen SoundScan.