There was a time when album sales weren’t just a measure of an artist’s success, they were the measure. Album sales were the engine that drove everything else in an artist’s career; simple, quantifiable proof of who actually had a foothold in the music business and who didn’t. But in 2014, the age of social media and YouTube views and Spotify streams and corporate partnerships, album sales have never mattered less…except they’re still incredibly important…except they’re not…but they are…maybe.
On one hand, it’s now entirely possible to tour the world without EVEN HAVING A SINGLE FOR-SALE ALBUM. Now, more than ever, an artist can build a legitimate, sustainable, meaningful career without once even glimpsing the Billboard Hot 100.
On the other hand, album sales are still a pretty damn good way of sorting out who has actual, paying fans, and who’s just racking up video views and blog coverage off some viral videos (cough, cough). And if you look at the top of the album charts, you still get a good sense of who the true heavyweight artists are. Lady Gaga may have three times more followers on Twitter than Beyonce, but look at the sales of their last albums; it’s not even a question who the real queen is.
All that was an extraordinarily lengthy way of saying I’m not sure what to make of Ab-Soul’s “These Days” album sales. Solo moved 22K units first week, a number that’s either impressive, average or a flop, depending on your perspective.
First, we need some context. Ab-Soul’s TDE peers did far better with their last two albums, as Kendrick’s “GKMC” sold 240K and ScHoolboy Q’s “Oxymoron” did about 140K. So clearly Ab’s popularity pales in comparison to Kendrick and Q, but it’s also crucial to note that unlike them, Soul isn’t also signed to Interscope Records. Which means that he didn’t get the same full-on marketing and publicity push that, say, “Oxymoron” did.
Q’s previous album, “Habits & Contradictions,” sold 4K when released solely through TDE, while Souls “Control System” sold 5K. So is that what signing to Interscope is worth, about 100K in album sales? If he had signed, would he have done similar “Oxymoron” numbers? Beyond it just being an almost ridiculously (but still interesting) hypothetical question, Soul’s also a very different artist. “These Days…” is unapologetically complicated and counter-cultural; would Interscope really have been cool with all the Jesus imagery? Just as easily as signing to a major could have also pushed Soul into 100K plus, legitimate rap star territory, it could have taken away what his fans love about him and crippled his career.
So that’s the “no it didn’t flop” defense, and it’s one I’m warranted to take. 22K is nothing to laugh at in 2014, especially if it means Ab-Soul got to be truly creative and make the album he wanted to. Although….I also have to admit I was a little surprised to see such a low number. TDE may be independent, but let’s not pretend that Top Dawg is some mom and pop indie label working out of a garage. We’re talking about one of the most powerful and respected labels in hip-hop, and Ab’s not exactly starting from the bottom; the man did have guest features from Rick Ross and Lupe Fiasco on “These Days…”
The TDE machine has seemed so powerful lately that I had assumed it would be able to push “These Days” into 40K territory, which would put him on par with major label artists like Future, and for more perspective, G-Eazy’s “These Things Happen” just sold 46K independently*. Yes, 22k is still a big improvement from the 5K sales of “Control System” two years ago, but it’s also been two years of some pretty huge and consistent publicity. I have to imagine that TDE and Ab were hoping for more.
But either I assumed wrong and TDE botched the release, Ab-Soul’s not as popular as I thought, “These Days” just wasn’t a very good album or, more likely, I’m just wrong and what seems like a flop is really a success (compared to my unrealistically optimistic predictions). Maybe 22K for Ab-Soul in today’s market should be considered a huge win? Maybe we should be popping bottles and celebrating the commercial success of hardcore rap lyricism?
Frankly, I don’t know what to make of these numbers anymore, especially in this case. Which is why I’m writing this; maybe together all the bright, music industry minds of DJBooth Nation can help sort all this madness out. So….
* I’m 99% sure G-Eazy is a mindie rapper+, but until I have proof otherwise, I have to continue to call him indie.
+ Mindie = an indie rapper who’s secretly signed to a major label (ex. Logic).
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]