France best selling albums ever: Le Grand Bleu Soundtrack by Éric Serra (1988)
Sorry for the pun, but with Eric Serra composed Le Grand Bleu Soundtrack we get into troubled waters. After well over 100 albums studied, this is the very first one full of controversies and debates around its results.
There is no debate about the movie success with over 9 million French people seeing it on theaters, making Le Grand Bleu the #1 movie of 1988. The movie smash was accompanied by the Soundtrack smash as well, a very rare feat for a French movie. After this one, France saw no million selling local soundtracks until Amélie Poulain by Yann Tiersen in 2001, some 13 years later.
Now, time for debate. The first question while studying this case is which album are we studying? This may seem obvious, but not this time. In fact, in April 1988 Le Grand Bleu Soundtrack was released. In December, Le Grand Bleu Intégrale Soundtrack was released along with the extended movie version issued on theaters.
Both albums charted separately and both were certified separately. Two distinct albums? No. The latter one is the first one with an additional CD. At the time, releasing two distinct formats of the same album was rare thus explaining why they were treated as different albums. This being said, norms changed. In recent years, we accepted extended albums (Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry, Rihanna etc.) as part of the original albums sales, just like most classic albums received anniversary editions with several CDs. In order to stay consistent, we need to consider both Le Grand Bleu albums as the same one.
This conclusion makes perfect sense as what matters isn’t a technicality but instead the function. In fact, the Intégrale edition occupied the function of the original Le Grand Bleu album as this one was killed by the extended format after its release, meaning the second album wasn’t a new one but barely a premium replacement of the first one.
Chart-wise, the original album was a strong 8 weeks #1 set boosted by the unexpected hit of My Lady Blue single. It spent over six consecutive months inside the Top 10 starting from its chart entry. Sales exceeded 600,000 as the set was certified 2xPlatinum prior the end of the year, sales were on 650,000 units with calculations giving its chart run and the size of the market in 1988. It added about 120,000 units sold in 1989.
From that year yet, the Intégrale edition progressively replaced the first one. Peaking at #5 with ten weeks inside the top tier, the album was highlighted by its consistency when it remained most of the year inside the Top 50 in spite of a promotional campaign over for very long. This format was certified 2xGold in 1989 with calculated sales of 255,000, hitting Platinum, 300,000 copies shipped, in early 1990. In 1991, the Intégrale album made a large impact on charts again, charting during the fourth quarter for two months, peaking at #21, selling around 100,000 units for the year.
Controversy, Part II. During the year 1992, two pieces of information came out. First, the album Le Grand Bleu was certified Diamond by the SNEP, representing 1 million sales. Second, Billboard mentioned 2 million units sold by the set in France, plus 250,000 abroad.
These two updates, that can’t be ignored considering the accuracy of both sources, bring more questions that information. Concerning the Diamond award, the big question is, has the expanded edition been added to the original album or was the latter over a million as a standalone set? As for the Billboard claim, the question is, how have they come out with a 2 million sales figure in France alone considering known information?
What do we know? The original sold about 770,000 by the end of 1989. The 2CD edition sold close to 500,000 copies by mid 1992. Then, to add complexity to this huge mess, the extended edition second CD was released as a standalone album, Le Grand Bleu 2, Gold in 1989 and with about 120,000 copies sold that year.
The Billboard article specifically mentions 2 million units sold rather than 2 million copies. That’s a strong difference as historically they used the term units each time they were announcing a figure per disc. In other words, the 2CD edition accounts for almost 1 million sales. Factor in the 890,000 units sold by both 1CD releases up to the end of 1989, plus catalog sales of those two sets in the missing 29 months up to May 1992, you now understand how this 2 million figure was compiled.
This also pretty much answer our question about the Diamond award. It is highly unlikely the original set sold 230,000 catalog sales in 1990-05/1992 considering it was the second choice behind the comprehensive set. The fact it never charted in the meantime, even when Intégrale was as high as #21, shows the album wasn’t even close to chart, making the figure of close to 100,000 yearly sales near impossible.
Another interesting information is that Le Grand Bleu Intégrale was never certified 2xPlatinum in later years despite reaching the 600,000 units mark in mid-90s. This support even more the argument of this set being ultimately added to the original one. Removing the stand alone Le Grand Bleu 2 and double counting of the Intégrale edition, the Billboard claim implies 1,35 million copies sold, roughly 850,000 copies of the original plus 500,000 of the 2CD set.
Pretty much everything around this movie became absolutely cult in French culture. The movie itself, the soundtrack, the director (Luc Besson), the main character (Jean Réno), the composer (Eric Serra), all are household names until this day. Obviously, this granted the album strong catalog sales. It re-entered in January 1998 (#62), in June 1998 in a 10th anniversary edition (#33), in 2002 (#73) and in 2013 (#116) for its 25th anniversary. It also charted in the catalog chart in 2002/2003/2004. Estimates are on 1,5 million prior the 1998 buzz then 1,6 million by the end of the 90s plus over 150,000 copies since, from 20k/year in 2000-2002, 10k/year in 2003-2008 and 5k/year since.
Net shipment as of the end of 2015 is estimated at 1,760,000 copies.
As usual, feel free to comment and / or ask a question!
Sources: SNEP, Nielsen, Platine, Billboard.