Chris Brown: Sometimes, Bad Publicity Is Bad Publicity

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What happens when music collides with the paparazzi-fueled media machine?

If no publicity is bad publicity, then Chris Brown is one exception worth studying.  More than a year after their disastrous pre-Grammy altercation in 2009, Brown has slumped, while Rihanna has continued to elevate.

At the tail end of 2009, both released albums and tried to move on.  For Rihanna, it was Rated R, released late November.  Brown subsequently delivered Graffiti in early December, offering a nearly-equal starting point.

Fast-forward to the present, and the fates of these onetime lovers have diverged.  Brown has experienced some action on his singles, but the broader sales picture has struggled.  Graffiti sold a modest 102,489 units in the US during its first week, according to Nielsen Soundscan, and has since underachieved.  As of the week ending April 4th, Graffiti has pulled sales of 299,613.  By contrast, earlier albums like the self-titled Chris Brown and Exclusive achieved multi-platinum status.

By even starker comparison, Rihanna has garnered cumulative sales of 796,766 on Rated R, thanks to a stronger – and more heavily played – batch of singles.  And, during its first week, Rihanna scored a career-best 181,000 (also US).  Earlier albums like A Girl Like Me (2006) and Good Girl Gone Bad (2007) were similarly multi-platinum.

The Brown album was supported by singles “I Can Transform Ya” (feat. Lil Wayne and Swizz Beatz), “Crawl,” and “Sing Like Me,” of which “I Can Transform Ya” performed the best.  Brown scored some traction on his single stream, though Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette,” “Hard,” and the chart-topping “Rude Boy” have proven more potent.

The album sales traverse both physical (CD) and digital (album download) formats, though the singles story also highlights the divergence.  On the hourly iTunes chart, as tracked by BigChampagne, Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” is currently 5th and rising, while “I Can Transform Ya” ranks 152nd and falling.

In fairness, these singles were delivered across different timetables, and “I Can Transform Ya” peaked at 14th in November.  But the current Brown single – “Sing Like Me” – is not in the top 300 on iTunes.  Tellingly, the top-ranked Brown song on iTunes is the older “Forever,” which is currently floating at 129.  That song, from Exclusive: Forever Edition, enjoyed a huge resurgence thanks to its use within the YouTube sensation, ‘JK Wedding Entrance Dance’.

That certainly helps, though in the current situation, radio remains cautious around the controversial Brown.  “Rude Boy” is currently the most-spun song in the US, as monitored by Mediabase (and reported by BigChampagne), but Brown is getting far less airplay.

In fact, Brown is now fighting back, part of a broader crusade to reverse resistance among retailers, radio, and other critical outlets.  “A lot of radio stations aren’t playing my records,” Brown recently audio-blogged on SayNow.  “It’s on the fans and what you guys do in your power to bring me back.”

So far, the response has been half-baked.

Report by publisher Paul Resnikoff.  BigChampagne is a data partner of Digital Music News.