Pazz & Jop's Album Results Get Soundscanned

The incredible shrinking album

Famously, Nirvana’s major-label debut in 1991 was only expected by David Geffen Company to sell about 100,000 albums, tops. That’s about how much indie godfathers Sonic Youth sold for DGC with their major-label debut, and surely, for Kurt Cobain’s little band, that figure would be a reach.

The reason this probably apocryphal bit of lore is oft-repeated with such delight is the gobsmacking way Nevermind went on to surpass expectations—by a factor of roughly 100 times. What’s gotten lost is what the anecdote reveals about the realism of music-industry expectations. Sonic Youth were the ultimate critics’ band, and a conglomerate-backed label was both willing to sign them and fairly sensible about how many copies they, or a band like them, could shift, largely on the strength of ink-stained wretches’ hosannas. (Attempts to break Thurston and Kim on the radio, via the then-emerging alternative rock format, were halting at best.)

It’s worth reflecting on the 100,000 figure when we consider the winner of the 2011 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Currently at 47,000 in sales, and having never got higher in Billboard than #148, tUnE-yArDs’ w h o k i l l is—likely—the lowest-selling and lowest-charting winner in the poll’s history.

Tom Waits's Bad As Me. #5 album.
Tom Waits's Bad As Me. #5 album.

Details

Pazz and Jop 2011
Essays
Joyful Noises
Finding the bright side of 2011
By Maura Johnston

Suffering from Realness
The spotlight shines on Adele's heartbreak
By Katherine St. Asaph

Written on the Body
tUnE-yArds, PJ Harvey, and St. Vincent get physical
By Eric Harvey

Guarding the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West try to bring back the group listen
By Mike Barthel

Games People Play
Lana Del Rey lights up the Internet
By Tom Ewing

Riding the Bummer
Drake and the Weeknd wallow in their miseries
By Nick Murray

The Incredible Shrinking Album
Pazz & Jop's album results get Soundscanned
By Chris Molanphy

Confuse the Market
Post-crossover, indie retreats
By Scott Plagenhoef

California Demise
Tyler, the Creator and EMA feel the bad vibes
By Jessica Hopper

Most Valuable Supporting Player
André 3000 has a great year without a single starring role
By Andy Hutchins

Just Dance
The year ravers and pop fans learned to (file) share
By Michaelangelo Matos

Comments
Top 10-Plus
The year's big albums, from tUnE-yArDs on down

Singles Going Steady
Rolling down from "The Deep"

Raves and Rants
Making cases for the great and the grating

The Personals
Feelings, whoa-whoa-whoa

I say “likely” because reliable recording-industry sales figures are hard to come by before 1991, when Billboard converted its charts to Nielsen Soundscan data and made them dependably accurate. Hence, it’s hard to know how well, say, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks had sold in America by the time it won the 1977 edition of Pazz & Jop; 47,000 in year one is probably a reasonable figure for them, too, but who knows? Bollocks did eventually go gold, in 1987, and platinum five years after that—sales marks tUnE-yArDs will have trouble reaching.

Garbus's sales and chart figures might say less about critics' independence and incorruptibility than about how the album format itself has diminished during P&J’s existence. All but one of Garbus’s 38 fellow Pazz album-winners either eventually went gold or peaked in the Billboard Top 40; of the 20 prior winners released in the data-accurate Soundscan era, all have outsold her. For context, here are the sales of the previous five winners of Pazz & Jop, according to the helpful folks at Nielsen Soundscan, as well as their respective peak positions on the Billboard 200 album chart:

Previous P&J winners

2006 Bob Dylan
Modern Times
1,010,000; Billboard peak No. 1

2007 LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver
178,000; No. 46

2008 TV on the Radio
Dear Science
203,000; No. 12

2009 Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
192,000; No. 13

2010 Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
1,238,000; No. 1

In all five cases, the peak Billboard chart position came in the album’s debut week. Taking Dylan and West out of the equation—each had a serious base of fans boosting their respective discs to the top of the chart—we’re left with a trio of winners in 2007–09 that more closely resemble tUnE-yArDs in pop profile. All three arguably got their first-week chart lift entirely from underground buzz; none had a significant radio presence at the time each album dropped. And even these three acts did better than tUnE-yArDs on the charts.

Generally, albums that win Pazz & Jop peak within the Top 40 of the Billboard 200. Looking just at the Voice poll’s 20 winners from 1991 to 2010, i.e., the Soundscan era in Billboard, we find their mean Billboard 200 peak is 26. That’s a pretty high average for a group of albums that, in their acclaim, are supposedly blind to pop success. All 20 winners made the album chart, and one-fourth actually topped it, including discs by Nirvana, OutKast, and Kanye West; add in discs by Arrested Development and Bob Dylan, and fully half made the chart’s Top 10.

Only four of these 20 albums missed the Top 40; three of the four are by women or are woman-fronted: 1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair (Billboard peak #196), 1994’s Live Through This by Hole (#52), and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams (#65). Albums by ladies tend not to debut well unless they’re solidly in the pop genre; avid male rock fans can aptly be compared with boys who refuse to see a girl-fronted Disney movie in its opening weekend. Happily, acclaimed female rock albums improve in sales over time—Phair’s and Williams’s discs are gold, and Hole’s is platinum.

(The one dude among the foursome of Pazz winners missing the Top 40 is James Murphy, with the aforementioned 2007 winner by LCD Soundsystem. Sound of Silver still isn’t anywhere close to gold.)

Garbus is recording in an era of vastly diminished sales. But that’s vastly diminished compared with 12 to 15 years ago, not five—in fact, album sales in 2011 were up slightly from the prior year. All five of Garbus’s immediate Pazz predecessors peaked higher and sold at least three times as many copies as she has. And even if we give her another year or two to catch up, cracking DGC’s 20-year-old Sonic Youth benchmark is going to be tough.

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2 comments
Jim Testa
Jim Testa

There's one big factor you haven't taken into account and that's the changing demographics of the Pazz & Jop Voter. There used to be far fewer critics voting in the poll and many of them represented more mainstream media like daily newspapers. Most of those jobs don't exist anymore and I would guess that as P&J adds new voters, most if not all of them come from the blogosphere - younger, hipper, and far less involved with Billboard positions than the aging, retiring, or unemployed dead-tree media critics they replace.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

A very fair and apt point--thank you.

I still say, though, that the dropoff in sales from the three indie-centric winners from 2007–09 is too steep to be explained by a changing voter panel alone. It's always tempting to point to a big macro trend like that and say, "It's mostly this"; but even as rapidly as the Internet has Changed Everything in the last decade, if you can point to a counterfactual in the last 3–5 years, that argument is a bit less persuasive.

I had a similar (pleasant) debate with some American Idol fans who responded to my October column about Scotty McCreery by explaining away his decent-but-modest sales as the product of the industry-wide downturn in album sales. Yes, I said, except there were a couple of Idols who sold significantly better just three years earlier – album sales since 2008 are down, but they're not that far down. (They're down far more steeply since 2001.)

OTOH, to give your argument its due, I suppose it could be argued that the shift in dead-tree criticism in just the last 2–3 years is staggering, an even more precipitous shift than the steady but slower downturn in music sales over the last decade. So you definitely have a point there. My only point is, let's not overstate the effect of one macro trend.

 
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