It’s been seven years since Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, or more accurately, since he released FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. It was four years between this second production and his solo debut, Justified, and between this milestone and saying “Bye Bye Bye” to teenage boy-band N*SYNC, a very modest few months.

As a result, Timberlake’s comeback album The 20/20 Experience (entitled because a friend told him it was “music you can see”) was a highly anticipated one, and within its first week, could proudly call itself iTunes’ fastest selling and most preordered album of all time, exceeding his record label RCA’s sale estimates by 63%.

As previously reported, in the US, 968,000 copies of 20/20 flew off the shelves in the first week, after debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, JT racked up an extra 106,000 records, ultimately “dethroning” David Bowie’s own comeback albumThe Next Day, from the top position, down to #2, according to Billboard music charts.

One million albums is an incredibly impressive feat, considering that the Nielsen SoundScan figures for the year’s first quarter are in, and individual track sales are down 1.3%, while overall album sales declined 3.8% to “109.7 million units, down from 114 million units in the first quarter of 2012.”

Timberlake streamed the album for free exclusively via iTunes ahead of the album’s release and considering the monstrous commercial success of Mumford & Son’s second studio album Babel after 8 million free streams of their album worldwide, the question still seems valid: is music streaming good for sales?

Founder of Glassnote Records and distriubtor of Babel, Daniel Glass would likely give an emphatic yes, given his previous commentary about major streaming service, Spotify, which he calls “a huge form of exposure, and they’re not stealing,” he adds.

Bloomberg Business Week suggests more pessimistically however, that, “free online access has become part of record companies’ marketing strategies. But there’s evidence that streaming may eventually replace MP3 downloads altogether, which has already happened in Sweden, where more than 90 percent of digital music is streamed rather than downloaded.” At this rate, the considerably more popular Timberlake will earn only $32, 340 for the 7.7 million listens of 20/20 in the lead up to its release.

Furthermore, while appreciated by consumers for their accessibility, streaming services aren’t renowned for paying the musicians they host well. Last year, an independent musician from North Carolina, Zoe Keating undertook a highly detailed analysis of what artists really earn from streaming services, down to the ten-thousands of a cent.

She detailed the findings on her Tumblr blog, and found that with Spotify, where her music – admittedly not mainstream or hugely popular – played 131,000 throughout the year, earned her a mere $547.71, averaging the reward for each pay at an even humbler 42 cents. Her findings were published in the New York Times.

At this rate, the considerably more popular Timberlake will earn only $32, 340 for the 7.7 million listens of 20/20 in the lead up to its release.

To provide some perspective however, FutureSex/LoveSounds sold 684,000 copies in its first week of release in 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan, followed rather un-competitively by John Mayer’s Continuum with 300,000 copies, and coming in third totThe Billboard 200 charts at the time, with 162,000 sales, was Beyonce’s second studio album, B’day. 

The success of FutureSex/LoveSounds built upon Timberlake’s solo debut, Justified, which sold 439,000 copies in its premier week back in 2002.

Readwrite observes somewhat neutrally that while streaming services may not be ready to replace paid downloads as a form of revenue raising for artists and record labels, “what The 20/20 Experience launch does show is that subscription services… can be a critical tool for marketing and ultimately driving sales.”

Considering this, it seems likely that 20/20‘s instantaneous success is more the product of an extraordinary amount of intensely sought after exposure in the lead up to the album’s release, with the free album stream just one “critical tool,” employed in a diligent marketing campaign of exposure and saturation.

Firstly, the revamped Myspace was launched in mid-January this year (after it was purchased for only a fraction of the original $580 million Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation paid in 2005), with the website’s front page conveniently adorned with a full-page advertisement for Timberlake’s new single, “Suit & Tie.”

In the days following the launch, the new website was met with considerable praise, with Billboard suggesting, “Myspace thinks it has the answer for the empty space between the hipster niches and the top of the charts,” and “on day one of the new era, it looks like the company is off to a decent start.”

For further evidence’s sake, there was the Grammy performance with Jay-Z in early February, followed by a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and a week-long residency on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, a highly anticipated, secret Myspace show at SXSW in March.

In a final twist, late last year, it was revealed by BusinessInsider that the parent company of Myspace, Interactive Media Holdings, along with primary investors and fund providers (including none other than Timberlake) were attempting to raise $50 million in order to relaunch Myspace as a direct competitor to streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. It seems likely that 20/20‘s instantaneous success is more the product of an extraordinary amount of intensely sought after exposure in the lead up to the album’s release.

Myspace apparently still intends to “launch a music subscription business for mobile in the second quarter of 2013,” which would make the last month’s free album stream the perfect testing of the waters for Justin Timberlake’s – the man with a proverbial finger in every pie –  future releases and current business model.

All other projects aside, the The 20/20 Experience’s actual musical content has not been received well by critics. Pretty Much Amazing called it “confused, sloppy, frustrating, too safe, a let-down… Timberlake’s lyrics are laughable,” while NME gave it 6 out of 10, and suggested that the new 2013 Timberlake is on “that marriage and luxury bath shit and while it’s a good listen, every song drags.” A Sputnik Music reviewer said the album, “reeked of entitlement.”

So what gives? Or more accurately, who’s buying? And why? It would seem that Timberlake’s rich (both in monetary terms and pop-culture endeavours) and globally celebrated career, is one that never really disappeared from the public consciousness, even if his music had from the charts in his seven year absence.

Timberlake has kept a finger on the pulse during the near decade between albums,  always garnering some interest from the public, through his appearances spanning all mediums, and all such appearances further plumped by his recent, major media acquisition in MySpace.

Free streaming may have lured fans in, or at least tickled the interest of those who know that Timberlake’s been in the public eye for nearly 20 years, but superficially at best.

It’s likely that between Timberlake’s own far reaching influence, highly-strategised marketing campaign, and his well accepted celebrity, the album was always destined for great things, (until it reached reviewers ears that is) regardless of whether people were hearing it for free or not.

In short, the period of free streaming may have played its small role in the record breaking sales of The 20/20 Experience in the first week, but really Justin Timberlake’s comeback album sold stupendously well because he is Justin Timberlake – no more, no less.

Given the recent announcement of a forthcoming Australian Tour, and the impending September release of The 20/20 Experience‘s complimentary sequel, its likely Timberlake’s storming success is set to continue.

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