Facts can also lie. Katy Perry sold more records than Dire Straits, Bon Jovi and the Guns N’ Roses. White Christmas by Bing Crosby and Candle In The Wind by Elton John are the two bestselling singles of all-time. Mariah Carey‘s album Butterfly sold more copies than each album ever released by Taylor Swift. Let’s fix these anomalies thanks to our Commensurate Sales to Popularity Concept.
Yes, something is wrong here. All these claims are correct in absolute terms but completely meaningless. The intuitive thinking when looking at a list of bestselling records and artists is to assume it reflects the most successful ones. This is false. As fitting as it seems, checking raw data only isn’t enough to identify which songs, albums and artists are popular. Most articles state “record sales” mixing everything, as if one digital track sales and one deluxe 4CD album was the same product. Lately, streaming has been growing too. Many voices denied them as legit ‘sales’. In reality, they highlighted a need that has been around for decades but ignored for too long. Indeed, the music industry needs one unique relevant and consistent scale that would fit for all records, from all eras, instead of barely looking at ‘units’ even if they refer to apples and oranges.
You got the point? Wait, there is more. If weighting appropriately formats is important, we also need to consider the way majors have been working out on a catalog. If you have a look into Elvis Presley‘s catalog, you will easily notice it has way more compilations than studio albums. Thus, checking studio album sales give the feeling he was a pretty weak seller. The point is that his singles were available through a large amount of records, thus diluting sales over all of them. In the other side, various one-album wonders a la Ace Of Base look like monster sellers, barely because all their success has been concentrated on a single product. As a consequence, our generic scale must also put on par all recordings independently from the way they have been exploited.
This Master Series will be presenting figures for various albums using a completely new point of view, aimed to be the figures reflecting the best the real value of an artist’s discography.
This generic scale is named the Commensurate Sales to Popularity Concept, abbreviated CSPC. When displaying figures using this concept, I’ll be using the measurement unit “CSPC”.
1. Format Generalization
This concept has been all other the place lately with the explosion of streaming that made it mandatory. This has been a last minute adjustment to only one format yet. We need to go much deeper. At the time, all countries are adopting different ways of measurement, separating albums and singles or merging them together.
If we aim to create a generic scale, we need to consider the popularity of an album as the cumulative popularity of its songs. Similarly, the popularity of an artist is the cumulative popularity of its singles.
So far the industry norm is that 150 audio streams equal to 1 single. On countries pushing the logic up to the albums, 10 singles equal to 1 album, thus 1500 streams equal to 1 album.
Then there is video streams. They are much less profitable than audio streams and they are also less restrictive in their counts since it is not needed to watch 30 seconds of a video to increment a tally. Once everything is considered, we conclude on a ratio of 11,750 video streams accounting for the same as 1 album sale.
No, digital sales and physical sales are not the same. As much as they have been presented as being on par, sometimes mixed together as it has been done extensively in the UK, as far as singles are concerned one download doesn’t equal to one CD single / one 45 rpm. No matter the way you look at it – the price, overall market size, sales of bestsellers – you will find out that it has been way easier to sell digital tracks than it was to sell physical singles in the past.
One fundamental conception is the cannibalization factor – the average buyer doesn’t purchase several times the same product. The consequence is that during the physical era, since three singles were priced as much as one album, consumers were mostly going after albums, creating only one sale. During the digital era, since the price of one song is on average 10 times less than the album, consumers tend to pick the 3-4-5 singles and let the fillers go, creating that way an overall amount of sales which is much higher.
For this reason, the CSPC method sets different weightings for digital and physical singles sales. Due to the historical pricing standard, 1 physical single is valued as 0,3 album. Digital downloads / ringtones are valued with 0,15 album sales for reasons detailed in this page.
Music Video Sales
Yes, let’s not forget about them. Constantly overlooked, sales of music videos (VHS / DVD) sales can’t be ignored. Not only they are extensive products, highlighting much more dedication than digital sales or streaming, they are also largely purchased by fans, being as such truly relevant of the popularity of a record. Usually released along with live albums, those two products cannibalize each other meaning it makes no sense to consider one but not the other only because the format is different. The CSPC method sets the standard as 1 music video = 1 album.
1 CSPC = 1 album = 1 music video = 10/3 physical singles = 10/1,5 digital singles = 1500 audio streams = 11,750 video streams
2. Artists Catalogs Generalization
We already mentioned the need of mixing both albums and singles. A question is still open, do we put all figures on the scale of albums or singles? If an artist sells 750,000 albums and 2 million digital singles, will his sales be of 1,05 million (album equivalent) or 7 million (singles equivalent)?
I’ll be going with his sales equaling 1,05 million CSPC, meaning putting the scale at the album height. This point of view is taken because artists release albums as one package, they refer to the same recordings session, the same state of mind. Putting CSPC figures in a singles-scale is perfectly acceptable as well yet.
There is various kind of albums – studio, live, remix, compilation. To create a generic catalog for all artists, we need to merge everything into the only kind of albums all artists release, which are studio albums. They are the only ones which create new popularity for the artist so that makes perfect sense. How should compilation or live album sales be considered then? We will illustrate the role of compilations in a catalog with a concrete example. Below are yearly US sales of Come On Over album by Shania Twain:
1997 – 1,600,000
1998 – 4,900,000
1999 – 5,618,134
2000 – 1,541,385
2001 – 494,972
2002 – 343,453
2003 – 406,441
2004 – 370,139
2005 – 87,950
2006 – 53,533
The album was alive during years 1997-2000 before turning into a catalog item. From that point, it sold roughly 400,000 units every year. After four consistent years, it suddenly dropped to 88,000 units in 2005. Why so? Barely because her Greatest Hits album was released in November 2004 taking over the appeal of songs from Come On Over. Had Greatest Hits not been released, the original album would have retained much better sales in the later years. Overall, Greatest Hits sold 4,3 million units in 10 years, an average of 430,000 copies, give or take what her studio albums covered by the hits package would have sold as catalog items if it wasn’t released. This resumes a key element, the Greatest Hits is not selling because it is popular by itself, its sales are instead reflecting the popularity of the original Come On Over album – and Shania Twain, The Woman In Me and Up! at a lower scale.
So, do we simply ignore sales of compilations? Definitely not. Do we add a fourth of Greatest Hits sales into each of the four albums covered? As one of them is much bigger than the others, it wouldn’t be reflecting their own popularity. Do we add a part of Greatest Hits proportional to the album sales of original records then? Again, no. Some tracks sell a lot of albums upon release but fail to hold their appeal in the long run unlike others.
The best method consists in dispatching sales of Greatest Hits into studio album as per streams of each songs it contains. In fact, streaming is so powerful that we can know perfectly which songs are appealing consumers nowadays. The 21 songs of Greatest Hits accumulate 123 million streams, out of which 91 million are coming from Come On Over songs. The conclusion is that Come On Over is responsible for 74% of the compilation’s attractiveness, which means it fueled 3,18 million of its 4,3 million units sold.
When rating the success of Come On Over, the Commensurate Sales to Popularity Concept will not only add its singles (physicals and digitals), its streaming and its related music videos to its album sales, but also 74% of Greatest Hits sales and so forth for her remaining live and compilation packages.
Technicalities shouldn’t impact the meaning of charts and sales. Applying the Commensurate Sales to Popularity Concept will avoid them and bring the very first lists of Most Successful albums and artists rather than the usual Best Selling lists. At last, albums highly popular but with sales spread over too many records like Rumours (Fleetwood Mac) won’t be unfairly overshadowed by albums that benefited from a studio albums-axed catalog management like IV (Led Zeppelin), Dark Side Of The Moon (Pink Floyd) or Black In Black (AC/DC).
To compile such a list requires an heavy amount of knowledge but also of time. It won’t be possible to put it out within’ a day. Instead, I’ll be posting articles about artists one by one, analyzing how much the CSPC impacts their results. Stay tuned!
As usual, feel free to comment and / or ask a question!