This week on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Jill Scott and Bon Iver arrived at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, with their “The Light of the Sun” and self-titled sets. For Scott, it marked her first topper on the list and for Bon Iver, it was the Justin Vernon-led act’s best rank ever.
While it may seem like the two have nothing in common, they actually do share an unusual feat: neither act has produced a top 40 single on the Billboard Hot 100 as a lead artist. Scott has gone as high as No. 43 with “A Long Walk” in 2001 — one of just three singles she’s notched on the list. As for Bon Iver, the act has yet to claim a Hot 100 hit as a lead — though it has tagged along as a featured guest on two Kanye West tracks: “Monster” (No. 18) and “Dark Fantasy” (No. 60).
Of course, Scott’s format home is R&B, so it’s no surprise that she’s racked up 14 singles on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Her best showing so far is “Walk,” which hit No. 9. However, her new single, “So in Love,” reached No. 10 and an ascent back up the list isn’t out of the question. (It dips 10-13 this week.) Meanwhile, on the Hot 100, “Love” debuts at No. 97, marking Scott’s return to the list for the first time since 2001’s “The Way” spent 20 weeks on the tally. Scott joins Susan Boyle (2009-10), India.Arie (2006) and Judy Garland (1961) as the only women to top the Billboard 200 without ever having banked a top 40 Hot 100 hit.
For Bon Iver, its radio chart history is more spotty: The act hasn’t notched a single radio hit any format ranked by Billboard.
As the top of the Billboard 200 has proved in recent years — and this week again — a top-selling album doesn’t necessarily require a hit Hot 100 single.
Of the 83 top 10 debuts on the Billboard 200 this calendar year (starting with the Jan. 29-dated chart, as we post-date our tallies), 75 were albums by an artist (not a soundtrack or various artists compilation). Of those artist-albums, 36 (48%) were by acts who had earned a top 40 Hot 100 hit (as a lead act), while 39 (52%) had not.
More impressive, depending on how you look at it, is that among that group of 39, 18 of them (46% of the 39) hadn’t had a Hot 100 hit at all.
That latter hitless group includes No. 1-debuting acts the Decemberists and Amos Lee, along with Social Distortion, Hollywood Undead, Asking Alexandra, Il Volo, Jackie Evancho and Ledisi. What those 39 acts have in common — aside from a lack of Hot 100 hits — is that they’re all non-mainstream (read: pop) acts, and all of them have a strong following with a core demographic.
The vast majority are rock acts that never crossed over to pop, but still have a solid fan base. And for most of the rest that aren’t rockers (like Il Volo or Evancho), their still-young careers were built through TV and word-of-mouth, not a hit single.
At this point last year, things weren’t much different.
There were 71 artist-album debuts between Jan. 16 and July 10, 2010, and of those, 41 (58%) were by acts that had placed a single in the top 40 of the Hot 100, while 30 (42%) had not. And, of the 30, 18 (60%) were lacking a Hot 100 hit entirely. (The no-hitters included, at that point: Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Broken Bells, Bullet for My Valentine, the National and LCD Soundsystem.)
However, if we scroll back five years to 2006, the story changes a bit.
On the Billboard 200 dated Jan. 21 through July 8, 2006, there were 65 artist albums that bowed in the top 10. Of those, a handsome 41 (63%) were by acts with a Hot 100 top 40 hit, while just 24 (37%) lacked one. And, of the 24, only nine (38%) had never scored a Hot 100 single. (Among them, Il Divo, Ben Harper, Atreyu and Underoath.)
So, just five years ago, of the top 10-debuting acts on the Billboard 200, a full 63% of them had at least one top 40 Hot 100 hit single. This year, that share has shrunk all the way down to just 48%.
So what’s going on?
Well, first, it’s easier to get a big debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart in 2011 than it has ever been — especially for quirky under-the-radar acts. Why is that? As album sales have fallen off a cliff over the past decade — and as more focus has been placed on first-week sales — those acts with a core, dedicated fan base can propel an unlikely act straight into the top 10.
Truly, did anyone expect Cake or Amos Lee to debut at No. 1 this year after never having had a top 10 album before? Likely not. Yet, there they were — bowing at No. 1 in January with their latest albums.
But it’s not just a core fan base and soft album sales that are helping the weird hitless-top-10-album debuters — it’s also how albums can’t sustain any sales momentum past their first week. Albums fall off the Billboard 200 must faster now, despite high debuts — therefore leaving room at the top of the list for new entries.
We’re seeing more and more unlikely acts chart — and at even higher rank — but at the same time, they fall mighty fast, too. Again, it’s because they have a core fan base that turns out to buy an album in its first week — generating a high chart rank — yet, after that, there is no one left to purchase the set and it tumbles down the list.
One can not also discount the effect the digital age has had on the increase in non-hit acts reaching the upper tier of the Billboard 200 over the past five years. A non-superstar pop artist enjoying a radio hit will probably be sampled by today’s digital-savvy consumer on a track level or via a free streaming service before one would plunk down some cash on a full-length album. Conversely, those acts garnering attention outside the radio sphere are building or already have a following based on something more than a radio hit, making their albums a more appealing purchase than any one track from the set.
Nothing seems to indicate that we’re going to suddenly see a shift in how the charts are behaving at this point. Who knows what kind of disparate acts will be showcased on the Billboard 200 versus the Hot 100 in a year — or five years.