I don’t know about you, but I always marvel at the great expanse of music appreciation that separates the world of popular music (or Pop music) from that of respected music, or even cult favorites.

In the past, major labels had no problem at all releasing not only the Michael Jacksons of the world (this is a massive list, folks), but also the music that may not have attracted a massive following, but definitely an appreciative one.

This is of varying degrees.  For example, Michael Jackson, the self-appointed King of Pop, sold many millions of albums.  Each album generated a selection of bonafide hits.  It is easily understandable why a label would want to continue releasing this kind of success.  Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, etc, etc.

Then there are the moderately successful bands and artists.  They still sold albums into the millions but amazingly not the numbers of Jackson or a Mariah Carey.  This would include The Rolling Stones, who may have sold around a few million copies of a particular album.  But when you realize the sheer amount of people in the world at the time of their popularity, why not more?  In fact, why would 15 million units for say, Goats Head Soup, be a difficult number to achieve?  Yet it was.  The Rolling Stones, while considered wildly popular, amazingly influential, never rose much above several million copies of any one of their titles, except for maybe Some Girls.

What’s the big deal, Matt?  Well, when you realize how many albums Michael Jackson sold of Thriller, you really have to wonder how a popular band like the Stones couldn’t replicate that kind of sales number.  Is there THAT much variance in taste that only several million fans can profess enough love to buy a Stones album, or a Beatles album, or others like these, and yet a much larger group of people have no qualms about spending that cash for a Michael Jackson album?

And then there are the cult bands.  These bands never sold a million albums. They may have delivered half a million units into households.  Still, labels gave these bands plenty of room to grow.  There are a ton of these bands.  Wishbone Ash, early J Geils, The Cult, and on, and on.

Then, of course, there are the bands that would only sell 250,000 units or less, and yet still received enough affection that they were kept on rosters.

This is in no way a knock on Michael Jackson, or Mariah Carey.  It is certainly not a bash at Pop, nor is it an indictment of “misguided” appeal.  I just find it amazing that a band like The Stones, or Jethro Tull, at their peak, could only move a million albums, and sometimes, even after decades can’t move some titles past a million.

The psychology of music appreciation is a mind-boggling one for me.  At a very early age, this used to make me wonder.  And I still think on this from time to time, marveling all the while of the kind of allure a Pop artist can hold over an audience, while a popular band can still only move a fraction of their “classics”.

Or did I ramble too much?

Let’s talk about this.

By MARowe

11 thoughts on “Gold Records On The Wall, or The Great Gulf Between Pop and Other Successes”
  1. My theory is: some people LIKE music, BUY records regularly and/or have a taste of their own. Many others (milions, actually) HEAR something in the media about one particular artist having made a great album or whatever, and then jump at it massively, because that particular record or artist IS the latest thing, so to speak. These people, in the old times before downloading, would buy two or maybe three records per year, the ones that they would be told to or the ones with a music that everybody could “understand” (i.e., hum along or dance to). It’s the same story all around the world.

  2. I believe the reason is that Pop appeals to the least common denominator within the general public. Everyone can appreciate a non-threatening song or performance. By everyone I mean from little sister up to great-granny. That is a much larger pool of wallets than say any one particular demographic. Lets face it just about every demographic at one time or another cannot believe why their particular artist’s record isn’t also loved by the masses.

  3. Michael Jackson’s Thriller album had a lot of cross-over appeal between many genres of music. It was pop but I remember that a few of the songs were also being played on serious rock stations. The Rolling Stones were a rock band and therefore only appealed to rock fans and only got played on rock stations.

    While I don’t own Thriller personally, I have to admit it was a well done album with a lot of hit songs on it. I must also point out that you are using the all-time best selling album as an example here. You can find rock albums that are in that league – The Eagles Greatest Hits and Hotel California, Pink Floyd TDSOTM and The Wall, Fleetwood Mac Rumours. They may not have sold as many units as Thriller, but pick a few other top selling pop albums and they aren’t that far apart. I will also point out that most Stones albums had maybe two or three songs that were considered hits (even though people like you and I love every song on Beggars Banquet or Sticky Fingers) which is a huge factor in selling albums. Even today one of the excuses those who pirate music use is “I got tired of paying for albums with only one or two good songs on them”. Keep in mind that you and I and most Tap readers aren’t the norm – we like whole albums while the majority cherry pick the hits.

  4. There was Michael Nesmith who formed The First National Band after the Monkees split. The Monkees outsold The Beatles and Stones combined in 1967, and somehow Nez scored a hit single (#21) with Joanne, a very country-sounding affair. However, Nez was viewed as a joke by most LP buyers and most of his records sank without a trace (the post-FNB record “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” even had a tongue-in-cheek message “buy this record” printed very small on the cover, and the previous record was titled “And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'”. I consider Michael’s output from 1970-1973 to be absolutely killer, essential stuff in the realms of country-rock/alt-country/etc.

  5. Remember the promotional side of everything also, some people are Lemings and only go by what plays and is pushed on the radio and of course depending on where you live you’re never going to hear anything past the top 10 Pop artists of the week even in this day and age. I was lucky enough to have a friend growing up who had older brothers that would listen to some now classic rock bands (Supertramp, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa) that received little air play in the early 70’s.

  6. Back when I worked in record and tape distribution, there was a formula for how many albums to buy for the warehouse. If the album was going to have at least three singles released, we went heavy on the purchase; less than that, and it would come in as standard stock levels. So this verifies what others have already said – for the most part, singles (which essentially get classified as Pop regardless of what album or artist they come from) still rule the sales. And crossover radio stations are basically dead, so that is another reason, as mentioned with The Stones. In the end, though, it still comes down to who listens and who hears – we are listeners and most of the world are not. We are the “deep tracks” people and most of the world are not. We are “rock family tree” people and most of the world are not. With the age of easy downloads, and hundreds of songs on portable devices, I don’t think the majority will find the interest to explore. Fortunately there is enough of us out there that still buy albums, otherwise there would be no remasters, no reissues, no new artists in the underground and we might not have a web site like this one.

  7. There were few bands like Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and Pink Floyd who had sold more than the Britneys and Michael Jacksons.

    Look at The Eagles’ Greatest Hits 1971-75 that is the best selling album of all time in the States and people still buy it because of the music. Thriller sold big out of the gate but sales died down once the 80s plus Jacko’s “thing for little boys” and his quest to outdo Thriller caused his downfall.

    Britney suffers from “The Curse of Blockbuster Debut” which also besat Boston, Alanis Morrisette and Hootie and the Blowfish which means they declined dramatically. Her career is like the Genesis song “Duchess” which saw the rise of a female singer and her fall. We’re now late in verse three and everyone is sick of her.

    Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon have outsold Britney’s catalog and also Thriller in the States alone. Who knows if Thriller’s sales were overexaggerated (the best seller in the UK was Queen’s Greatest Hits).

  8. Don’t let me forget this one, Matt. I’m swamped with Oktoberfest and other stuff this month but it’s a fascinating topic that I’d like to contribute a word or two to.

  9. I have one more thought on this specifically about the stones vs. a Michael Jackson. In their hey-day the Stones were pumping out albums at an alarming rate. Counting Sutido albums, live albumscompilations they released around 18 albums in the 60’s. A fan could have gone broke buying them all! And the Stones did not have MTV in those days to take their music in to the homes of millions of teenagers after school everday.

    Not including his records with the Jackson 5. Jacko, on the other hand, released only 9 albums in about 30 years making each record release more of an event. And let’s face it, Jacko owned MTV for a few years with innovative and ground breaking videos from Thriller. Even the most casual bought that record because it was a good value when you consider the “hit-to-purchase-price’ ratio.

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