What does Ed Sheeran's x album title really stand for? "Multiply" is the official pronunciation, but maybe it's just curse-word shorthand for "x@$%ing record sales," with albums down 15 percent this year and tracks down 13 percent.
THAT'S LOWER-CASE x, AS IN xoxo, NOT UPPER-CASE X, AS IN XXX: In an era when not even the late Michael Jackson can sell more than 200,000 albums in a debut week, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran's x lands at Number One with 210,000. Sheeran has taken the old-school, build-it-up-slowly approach to pop stardom. The 23-year-old Brit started out by playing tiny clubs and street-corners, then sold 841,000 copies of his 2011 debut, +, and peaked with an opening slot on Taylor Swift's Red tour. Swift deserves credit for starmaking, but Sheeran's light folk-pop fits perfectly among contemporary rock stars Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Passenger and Sam Smith (whose In the Lonely Hour sold 67,000 copies, a drop of 60 percent, still enough for Number Two).
MICHAEL: IMPRESSIVE WORLDWIDE SALES, OR POSTHUMOUS BUST?: Speaking of Jackson, his people were upset the other week when I suggested demand for his new music was soft and his album "stalled" at Number Two. "Why would RS characterize a Number Two debut on Billboard as 'stalled'?" asks an album rep. "It's amazing!" The point is taken—by late June, XScape had sold an impressive 2.3 million copies worldwide, and few albums are sales juggernauts these days. Still, XScape's first three U.S. sales weeks totaled 157,000, 67,000 and 35,000, respectively, and while the album surged back to Number 10 in late June, it then dropped permanently out of the Top 10. These numbers are better than most contemporary pop stars, and, granted, the record industry is way different today, but we're talking about a man who once wrote 100 million on his bathroom mirror.
GET USED TO READING ABOUT THIS GUY IN THIS SPACE: Although British crooner Smith's In the Lonely Hour has yet to hit Number One, and dropped in sales this week, he has something most album-sellers can't match—a hit single. "Stay With Me" leapt from Number Four to Number One this week on Billboard's Digital Songs chart, selling 211,000, and has logged 26.3 million YouTube views since it made its debut in late March. The song gained 42 percent in sales, but that was in part due to a technicality involving iTunes' complete-the-album function; apparently, Smith fans spent last week moving from the hit song to the entire album, hurting last week's single sales.