Just in case you didn't know, the Backstreet Boys released a new album last week. They did all the right things to promote Unbreakable: press, "TRL," the whole shebang. But according to the latest SoundScan report, the Boys sold only 81,000 copies.
Their labelmate and pop contemporary, Britney Spears, released her new album, Blackout, on the same day. She has done almost nothing to promote the album in the traditional way, but still Blackout sold 290,000 copies. If it weren't for the classic-rocking Eagles and a last-minute Billboard rule change, Britney would be on top of the chart.
The discrepancy really can't be explained away by a perceived difference in quality; both Blackout and Unbreakable have received similar mixed-to-positive reviews. The simple fact is, Britney's been in the news — make that she's dominated the news — for months. And her absence from the promotional circuit has probably been a good thing.
Entertainment Weekly writer Margeaux Watson, who reviewed Blackout, said, "When I first heard it, I was surprisingly delighted with it. I was like, 'I can't believe how great this is.' Because with everything going on in her life, and her performance at the VMAs, which was disappointing to say the least, you kind of thought, 'This album's gonna be a hot mess.' But it turns out that it's really great."
And fortunately for Jive Records, Britney's the type of superstar who doesn't need to go the traditional route when it comes to promoting a project. "She has a built-in audience that's enormous and she sells herself," Watson said. "She's like, 'Why do I have to do an interview? You're gonna write about me anyway.' So it's unnecessary, and it's kind of lucky for a record label that they don't have to spend the money on promotion. It's kind of a win-win situation for all." Even if Jive had wanted to mount an extensive promotional campaign, it would have been impossible because Britney has just not made herself available to them — but with Britney, every time she steps out of her house, that's a public appearance.
Scandal doesn't always help to sell a product (look at Lindsay Lohan's recent box-office failures, for example), but in many cases it doesn't exactly hurt. Universal Pictures found itself in a challenging situation when T.I., a co-star of the film "American Gangster," was arrested on weapons charges. Though the rapper's role in the film is rather small — and stars Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington are big enough to draw huge audiences — the fact that T.I., already a convicted felon, plays a wannabe gangster onscreen makes for an unusual plus.
"The one scene that he's in is basically what they keep showing in the commercials," Watson points out. "It almost seems like they're trying to play up the fact that, 'Here's this guy who's in hot legal water, and now he's in this movie "American Gangster" and he's telling [Denzel's character], "I wanna be just like you, Uncle Frank." ' So it almost seems like they're trying to play that up and capitalize on it."
And though no one can know for certain whether Watson's theory worked, "American Gangster" did open at #1 at the box office.