By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
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.
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 winners2006 Bob Dylan
2007 LCD Soundsystem
Sound of Silver
178,000; No. 46
2008 TV on the Radio
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.