I’m always fascinated to see real concrete sales numbers attached to pop-culture artifacts that you actually pay for—books, movies, video games, music. So I thought the most interesting part of this NYT piece on Cee-Lo Green was this graf:
“Forget You,” released in August 2010, reached No. 2 and has sold 5.3 million downloads in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, making it the 12th most downloaded track of all time. (By comparison, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the top song of 2011, has sold 5.7 million.)
If you had asked me to guess how many times the top-selling track of 2011 had been downloaded—and remember, this is bigger than any of Lady Gaga’s songs—I would have guessed at least 10 million, maybe 20. Really, 5.7 million downloads for the top song—a song supported by a basically unfathomable media monsoon, by omnipresent playback on the radio, on TV, in real places like coffee shops and car dealerships—that ain’t so many.
So on one hand, it just makes me realize how truly fragmented music is these days.
On the other hand, it makes me realize how many of a pop song’s plays aren’t paid for by listeners like us. Rather, the song gets licensed, soundtracked, muzacked, and just generally rolled out across the walls of the world. That all drives downloads, sure, but I’ll bet it also accounts for a huge fraction of the total lifetime listens. And it distorts our instincts—it makes pop songs seem bigger than they are.
And on the third mutant hand, it makes me hopeful that we might build that bridge between Kickstarter and Louis CK-level success after all. If the absolute top of the scale—the speed of light and commerce—is 5.7 million, then suddenly the number of purchases and plays a musician might get through a smash-hit Kickstarter campaign (50,000? 0.01 RITDs?) seems pretty meaningful.