Alanis Morissette would have called it "ironic." When the five young men in 'N Sync learned that they had the new No. 1 album in America with No Strings Attached -- a landmark achievement for the group, even considering the RIAA diamond (10 million shipped) status of their 1998 debut -- the guys were mired in promotion duties in Japan, a territory they have yet to crack. The news came via a long-distance phone call from their manager, Johnny Wright.
"It was like three o'clock in the morning, and they were up and jumping around, asking for the saki," laughed Wright Wednesday morning, shortly after the SoundScan numbers were released to reveal that No Strings had sold an unfathomable 2.4 million copies its first week in stores, obliterating the previous 1.1 million record set by the Backstreet Boys' Millenium. Although the boys weren't home to fully savor their victory, they received a surprise on-camera champagne toast from the heads of their new label, Jive Records, at the end of an hour-and-a-half stretch of satellite TV interviews. "It was actually a really special moment," said label president Barry Weiss. "These are a wonderful bunch of guys, and they deserve every ounce of success that they're getting right now."
"They're really taking it in stride," said Jive VP of Artist Marketing Janet Kleinbaum. "I think they're overwhelmed, because 2.4 million records is just unbelievable. It takes your breath away."
Both label and management credit the album's blockbuster success to the anticipation built over the two years since 'N Sync released their last album (not counting 1999's Christmas disc), stoked in no small part by the group's highly publicized emancipation from their former management and contract-be-damned defection from RCA to Jive last fall, and a dizzying media blitz (Rosie, SNL, and seemingly every other half hour on MTV).
The floodgates opened on March 21, the day the album went on sale. Weiss estimates that No Strings broke the 1.1 million sales mark the first day. A spokesperson for Tower Records said the 'N Sync sales ranked among the chain's highest first-day sales ever alongside the Millennium and the Beatles' Anthology series, while Musicland senior VP of music merchandising Dick Odette called it the biggest record the store's ever sold.
For those keeping score -- and most industry watchers are -- 'N Sync now seem to be firmly in the lead of their Backstreet rivals. But apart from distinguishing their sound from the Millennium boys, manager Wright is quick to downplay the competitive angle. "This whole thing about who's No. 1, who's No. 2 -- it doesn't really mean that much to them," he said. "The bottom line, when you look at it overall, we're selling comparatively the same amount of records that they were on the first one, and when we go out on tour we're selling the same amount of concert tickets that they're selling. So it's really all about maintaining your popularity and giving your fans that are buying your music what they want. Our biggest concern is not so much trying to beat Backstreet Boys as maintaining the fanbase that we got at the beginning and keeping them with us through the next journey that we're going to make."
That's all well and good, but come October when the Backstreet Boys release their follow-up to Millennium (or when Britney Spears releases her new album in May), Jive will undoubtedly be under the gun to push and market them to the new heights set by 'N Sync. "The yardstick is definitely extended, but you have to keep focused on what you're doing -- you can't keep comparing," said Jive's Kleinbaum. "We know now what the possibilities are. We're not going to compare a Britney Spears record to 'N Sync, or Backstreet Boys. However, 'N Sync has shown us what can be done."
Likewise, notes Weiss, the success of No Strings Attached should send a clear message that Jive can get the job done. "We're going to do everything we can to continue to sell a lot of records."