Britney Spears just can't catch a break. Even when she makes a positive career move — i.e. a strong album — things seem to fall apart in unprecedented ways.In this case, after a surprising last-minute rule change on Tuesday night, her expected #1 debut on next week's Billboard albums chart for her fifth effort, Blackout, will be trumped at the finish line by the Eagles' Long Road Out of Eden. Though Britney was pegged to top the charts with sales of 290,000, according to early SoundScan numbers, a press release issued Tuesday afternoon from Wal-Mart, the exclusive retailer of Eden, revealed that the Eagles' first album in nearly 30 years sold 711,000 copies.
Just hours before the press release was issued, a Billboard executive lamented that even though it appeared the Eagles had handily beaten Spears, they would not debut at the top of the charts because of rules forbidding albums exclusively sold at one retail outlet from hitting the Billboard 200.
"In consultation with Nielsen SoundScan, Billboard will now allow exclusive album titles that are only available through one retailer to appear on the Billboard 200 and other Billboard charts, effective with this week's charts," read an article posted on Billboard.biz Tuesday night. "Prior to this, proprietary titles were not eligible to appear on most Billboard charts."
Around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, several hours before the reversal was announced on the Billboard site, the magazine's senior analyst and director of charts Geoff Mayfield explained to MTV News why the Eagles would not be soaring over Britney. "Is Britney the best selling artist? I don't know. That's the difficulty of them [Wal-Mart] not reporting their data to SoundScan," Mayfield said of the chain, which historically has not released sales figures on albums for which it has exclusive deals. Most of the Eden sales came at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores, Billboard reported, with the only other sales coming from physical and download copies moved on walmart.com and the Eagles' Web site. Wal-Mart said in its press release that the robust sales of the Eagles album at its stores represented the best first-week album sales in two years at the chain.
"We were confident that Eagles fans would embrace Long Road Out of Eden but it has exceeded our first-week projections," said Gary Severson, Wal-Mart's senior vice president of entertainment, in the release. "With the holiday season approaching we are confident that the double-CD package will be one of the biggest sellers in Wal-Mart history."
"I can believe the Eagles sold more, but I'm not seeing anything that verifies for me that they outsold her and anything we see otherwise might be from people with a stake in suggesting that," Mayfield said Tuesday afternoon, admitting that he was frustrated by the situation and had been in talks to try and convince Wal-Mart and the Eagles to share the data. Because the trend of artists cutting exclusive deals with major retailers has grown over the past decade, Billboard developed a chart three years ago called the Top Comprehensive Albums chart that tracks sales in the overall market, taking into account not just current albums sold everywhere, but records that have been in the market for several years, exclusive releases (which typically don't report their figures to SoundScan) and seasonal titles that repeatedly chart during holiday seasons.
Mayfield was not available at press time to explain what specific changes spurred the decision to include the Eagles on the chart and change the Billboard policy on exclusive albums, which has been in place for more than three years.
But in describing the rule reversal in a press release Tuesday night, Mayfield said, "We know that some retailers will be uncomfortable with this policy, but it was inevitable that Billboard's charts would ultimately widen the parameters to reflect changes that are unfolding in music distribution. We would have preferred to make this decision earlier, but only became aware within the last 24 hours that Wal-Mart would be willing to share the data for this title with Nielsen SoundScan." Other titles set to debut on the chart will also be affected by the revision.
Because of the changes, Spears will now debut at #2 and the Eagles will also debut atop the Top Country Albums chart.
But while the Eagles' spot at #1 was being cemented, some started to question the Long Road Out of Eden sales figures. While the album is supposed to be a Wal-Mart exclusive, copies — shrink-wrapped and with promotional stickers on the cover — have been popping up at the other locations, including multiple Virgin Megastores, according to RollingStone.com. "Someone told me it was the third-best seller for Virgin," Mayfield told the site about the album, which reportedly is being sold for a significantly higher price at Virgin than at Wal-Mart, where it costs $11.88. But he then qualified: "SoundScan was [also] aware that this was happening. They audited the data to weed out double sales."
At press time, a spokesperson at Spears' label had not responded to MTV News' requests for comment.
[This story was originally published at 8:18 am E.T. on 11.07.2007]