One more international release that needs no presentation. U2 album The Joshua Tree is an absolute classic, the record that turned a good selling band into superstardom.
A good selling band was true in their native UK. In France yet, their previous album The Unforgettable Fire failed to chart. Only War made some kind of impact when first released, hitting Gold certification in 1983 while peaking at #9. The Joshua Tree was on a fully different level, debuting at #1 and remaining there for 10 bi-weekly charts, 20 weeks in total. Massive sales? Well, not really.
This impressive run at the top led various uneducated sources to quote ludicrous sales figures for this release. Infodisc website has been famous for claiming precise sales figures for many albums in France, it has notably claimed over 2 million sales for this albums. The problem being that this website converted chart runs into sales without caring about the market size or the period. Both of those points are highly unfavorable for U2 blockbuster album.
The size of the market? A total of 55 million albums sold in 1987. From 1975 to 2009, the absolute minimum was 54 million albums sold, in 1986, making 1987 the second worst year of the period. Not only that, the market was actually down 6% after three quarters in 1987 compared to 1986. A legislation law changed in December 1st 1987 the VAT on record sales, decreasing taxes from 33% to 18%. This generated heavy sales during the Christmas season, enabling the year 1987 to ultimately register a slight increase from 1986. This bring us to the second point…
The period of sales? They are OK-ish February to June and in September, bad in January and during the summer, good to extraordinary during the fourth quarter as we get close to Christmas. To point out a concrete example, adding sales of the #1 album during the 9 July-August weeks in 2015 gives us 129,000 copies sold. The #1 album during 2015 Christmas week sold 182,000 units, in 7 days only. Give it an other look ; the 10,107 sales of the #1 album in the third week of August (Louane album Chambre 12) would have put it about #35 during Christmas week.
The problem in our case is that U2 album led charts from the end of March to August. Not only the weakest period of the year, but also during the worst 3-quarters of a 40 years time span market-wise. The fact charts were bi-weekly also largely facilitated long runners at the top. Indeed, fan base strong sales during debut week end up being diluted into two weeks. Then, bi-weekly charts also mean half of albums released only have one week to sell and compete against two weeks sales of already released albums.
The only albums that debuted at #2 during U2 domination were a The Cure album plus a Jean-Michel Jarre album, both of which would have certainly debut at #1 on standard 1-week charts. That its biggest challengers were a Live album plus an album by The Cure, a band that never got a Platinum album in their career, also highlight how weak the competition was.
In 1987, there was still only two certifications levels in France. Gold status, awarding 100,000 sales, and Platinum, representing 400,000 sales. It is only in 1988 that Platinum was reduced to 300,000 units and 2xPlatinum, 3xPlatinum and Diamond awards were introduced. This adds uncertainty to The Joshua Tree sales. It was certified Platinum in 1987, for 400,000 copies sold. As no higher level existed, nobody can tell if it sold just 400,000, 800,000 or 3 million copies. One strong indication yet from the original Platine Magazine that published all historical SNEP awards. Those certifications were ordered according to the certification date. U2 set was certified just before Bad album by Michael Jackson. This later album was issued a full five months after the former, exactly the period during which The Joshua Tree was at the top.
Those 400,000 copies sold during its first five months may look disappointing considering the run at the top, but that was already an incredibly success for the band. It was fully backup by only one song, With Or Without You. This one peaked at #10 for only one week but charted for over five months, a rare feat during the physicals era. Obviously, the track also did miracles for the album. The track entered the Top 30 in June only, showing again the debut of the album was unlikely to be huge.
The only other track that charted in France was I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. It wasn’t as big of a hit as it was elsewhere, peaking at only #37 and failing to push the album back up for the key Christmas season. The LP was already out of the Top 25 by November and never recovered, completely missing the opportunity to move larger amounts. It completed the year with an estimated 640,000 sales.
With no subsequent single to take over, the album dropped out in January 1988 and was done as far as initial run was concerned. At the very end of the year, the set was certified Platinum again, this time representing 300,000 units. It was the very first year of the new awards and the SNEP was still struggling a bit to stay consistent, letting majors apply for certifications on different ways. The most likely scenario is that this award was an addition to the previous one with the album reaching 700,000 units. In 1992, a first major audit of their early sales was done. The Joshua Tree got certified 2xPlatinum, which confirms it had yet to reach 900,000 sales overall.
During the summer of 1993, U2 released Zooropa album but more importantly did 4 giant gigs in France. This created a massive hype around the band. Incredibly, the largest beneficiary wasn’t The Joshua Tree but War, that charted over four months inside the Top 50 peaking at an outstanding #4 position. The Joshua Tree re-entered too although peaking lower, at #38, and charting for only four weeks.
In November 1995, the label of the band Island did a new major audit of their catalog. Interestingly, they only audited 90s sales of their older albums, just like they lost past bills of the band. Their incredible 1993 results enabled both War and Under A Red Blood Sky to be Platinum for their 1990-1995 sales alone, while The Joshua Tree was 2xGold. It may seem surprising to see Under A Red Blood Sky higher than their classic album but at the time it was the closest release to a best of issued by U2.
With sales in excess to the 2xGold plateau, the original 700,000 units and years 1989 and 1996 to be factored in, the album appears to have pass the million milestone during the boost of 1997. One more time, the promotion around their new album pushed The Joshua Tree inside the Top 50, this time peaking at #23. It did just about the same in 2001 with a #35 result. This last one was much more of a one-off already as the Best Of 1980-1990 released in the 1998 fall decreased a lot their studio albums catalog sales. From 1996 to 1998, the set added an estimated 100,000 units, plus 60,000 in 1999-2002.
During years 2003 to 2008, the album added 53,000 copies as per GFK. This included 39,000 units from the main edition plus 14,000 from the 20th anniversary remastered edition that went #1 in the Catalog Chart in 2007. It may be noted that even at that point, War was still outperforming it, selling just over 55,000 copies during the period despite no remaster released. From 2009 to 2015, estimates are on just over 30,000 units.
Net shipment as of the end of 2015 is estimated at 1,225,000 copies.
As usual, feel free to comment and / or ask a question!
Sources: SNEP, Nielsen, IFOP, Platine, GFK.