The Record
1:54 pm
Fri April 5, 2013

Justin Timberlake And The AC/DC Rule

Originally published on Fri April 5, 2013 4:22 pm

Last week, returning pop hero Justin Timberlake topped the charts with The 20/20 Experience, only his third album in a decade-long post–'N Sync solo career. No one was surprised when he debuted at No. 1.

The shocker for pundits was the number of albums he shifted in seven days: nearly a million. Early estimates had the disc doing roughly half that number. In one week, sales of 968,000 gave Timberlake the top album of 2013 to date; as of this week, the album's second, sales are up to 1.29 million, making 20/20 the only album to sell more than a million copies so far this year.

Clearly, a sizable chunk of pop-loving Americans just had to hear what Timberlake had been up to all this time. Six and a half years after his world-conquering album FutureSex/LoveSounds, people really wanted to hear the follow-up — many, many more people than the industry expected.

Truthfully, though, we shouldn't have been all that surprised. The kind of mad rush for an album we've seen over the last couple of weeks is usually easy to predict — just look for follow-ups to albums that are best-selling, hit-generating or critically acclaimed. Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds was all three.

Like teens on a summer Friday lining up to see such hyped box-office product as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest or The Twilight Saga: New Moon, we tend to over-reward sequels. It's a form of group psychology, a collective overcorrection — the great mass of us saying, "We were slow to pick up on this last time, but we won't make that mistake again." So Russell Crowe wins his Oscar for Gladiator, not The Insider; and the inferior second and third seasons of Downton Abbey wind up with higher Nielsen ratings than the first.

In my writings as an analyst of the Billboard charts, I've coined a term to describe this phenomenon as it applies to music. I call it The AC/DC Rule: Initial sales of an album, particularly a blockbuster, are a referendum on the public's feelings about the act's prior album, not the current one.

What does the puerile Scotch–Australian hard-rock act known for a schoolboy uniform have to do with a former boy-bander's sales? I could have named the rule after any number of chart-topping acts, but AC/DC possesses one of the biggest discrepancies in chart performance between a classic album and a chart-topping follow-up.

Unless you're a big hard-rock fan, chances are you have exactly one AC/DC album on your shelf: 1980's Back in Black. Named by the Rolling Stone brain trust as the 77th greatest album of all time, Back in Black is also a perennial seller, currently ranked fourth on the U.S. all-time list of top albums and certified 22 times platinum. (Two notes on the RIAA's accounting: The Recording Industry uses a quirky certification system that double-counts double albums regardless of LP/CD format and price paid. Back In Black is No. 6 on the RIAA tally, but rises two spots when you eliminate double albums. Second, The RIAA recertifies multiplatinum albums after another million copies are shipped or downloaded; it's not possible to get certified 22.5-times platinum.) That total is just one million shy of AC/DC's next four best-sellers combined.

Black peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard album chart in 1980, in its 18th week on the chart. Its successor, however, peaked higher: For Those About to Rock We Salute You hit No. 1 around Christmas 1981, and it did so remarkably quickly — in its third week on the chart, speedy for the analog era. This despite the fact that, for critics or rock fans, For Those About to Rock is a three-star follow-up to a five-star classic. There's no song on it as immortal as Back in Black's "You Shook Me All Night Long" or the great title track. For Those About to Rock is certified quadruple-platinum, a very respectable number — but it reached that sales mark a dozen years ago and hasn't been recertified since. Black is the long-distance runner, selling tens of thousands of copies to new generations of kids each year.

In short, Black, a No. 4–peaking album, has sold five and a half times as many copies as the No. 1–peaking album that came after it. Hence, my AC/DC Rule.

AC/DC is not alone — this sales gap between an act's all-time biggest or best album and its chart-topping follow-up is a common chart phenomenon. Let's explore some examples. There are literally dozens of albums that debut every year all over the Billboard 200 album chart that are trading on a prior disc's renown and then never quite living up to it. But here, we'll stick with Billboard 200 chart-toppers, which I'll divide into three "eras" based on sales patterns prevalent at the time.

Before Soundscan

Albums rarely debuted at No. 1 prior to 1991, when Nielsen Soundscan technology was added to the Billboard charts, making them remarkably more accurate. But there are still numerous examples of the AC/DC Rule from the analog-era charts (besides, duh, For Those About to Rock itself). In the '50s and '60s, hit albums were closely tied to hit singles; but starting in the '70s we began to see chart-topping albums that were unconnected with an act's biggest radio songs. Here are seven prime examples — less-than-classic albums that rode a wave of affection for an adored predecessor:

Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick (1972)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: Gold (500,000 shipped)
Previous album: Aqualung (1971)
Peaked at No. 7, 3x platinum (3 million shipped)

Cat Stevens, Catch Bull at Four (1972)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: Platinum
Previous album: Teaser and the Firecat (1971)
Peaked at No. 2, 3x platinum

Boston, Don't Look Back (1978)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: 7x platinum
Previous album: Boston (1976)
Peaked at No. 3, 17x platinum

Billy Joel, 52nd Street (1978)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: 7x platinum
Previous album: The Stranger (1977)
Peaked at No. 2, 10x platinum

Jackson Browne, Hold Out (1980)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: 2x platinum
Previous album: Running on Empty (1977)
Peaked at No. 3, 7x platinum

Pat Benatar, Precious Time (1981)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: 2x platinum
Previous album:Crimes of Passion (1980)
Peaked at No. 2, 4x platinum

Van Halen, 5150 (1986)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: 6x platinum
Previous album: 1984 (1984)
Peaked at No. 2, 10x platinum

All of these albums live in the shadow of their better-loved antecedents, and all sold less in the long run. To be fair, nearly half of them were no slouches when it came to generating hit songs: Boston's, Joel's and Van Halen's discs all produced Top 10 singles. Joel's album was even a Grammy-winner for Album of the Year. All seven albums rose to No. 1 in short order, getting there in as little as three weeks (Jethro Tull, Boston, Van Halen) and no longer than nine weeks (Browne). That's about as fast as albums could reach the penthouse before Soundscan.

In short, each was fueled by brand-name fan loyalty, regardless of commercial potential. Take Jethro Tull — its Thick as a Brick doesn't even contain traditional songs, just a pair of roughly 22-minute, vinyl-side-filling suites. Nothing on Brick was as accessible as rock-radio staples "Aqualung" or "Locomotive Breath" from Tull's preceding album. Tull apparently learned from this experience that mere songs weren't necessary — they scored one more No. 1 album after Thick as a Brick, 1973's A Passion Play, that like its predecessor consists of two side-blanketing suites.

The Cat Stevens and Pat Benatar albums were actually momentum-ruiners, each lacking in Top 10 singles after recent successes. Stevens had just racked up a pair of big hits in 1971–72 ("Peace Train" and "Morning Has Broken") from Teaser and the Firecat; and Benatar had scored her first Top 10 in 1980 ("Hit Me with Your Best Shot") from Crimes of Passion. Cat's and Pat's chart-topping follow-ups were weaker albums on the whole — and people noticed. It took each artist two more albums to return to generating Top 10 singles.

Perhaps the best example of the AC/DC Rule in the above list is Van Halen. For old-school fans, it's a bitter pill that VH has never scored a chart-topping studio album with David Lee Roth fronting the band. (Only a 1996 greatest-hits album featuring Roth-vocalized songs has ever led the Billboard chart.) In total, the 'Halen scored four No. 1 studio albums — and all four were fronted by Sammy Hagar. When the inaugural "Van Hagar" disc 5150 rang the bell in 1986, it was fairly obvious record-buyers were belatedly rewarding the band for the epic success of Diamond Dave's swan song 1984. Even now that Roth has returned to the fold and recorded a new studio album, last year's A Different Kind of Truth couldn't get past No. 2.

After Soundscan

Once Soundscan data was introduced to the Billboard 200 in May 1991, chart-topping debuts became commonplace. For the last 22 years, most No. 1 albums have begun their chart lives in that position. What we've seen time and again, however, are massive debuts that followed sleeper hits: A breakthrough album grows gradually into a Top 10 or even No. 1 success, and then it spawns a follow-up that explodes into the No. 1 spot but fades quickly — the AC/DC Rule in full effect.

Here are another nine albums with varying degrees of follow-up aftertaste. In a few cases, where the better-loved predecessor album actually did manage to top the chart, I'm listing the number of weeks it took to get there (hint: many).

N.W.A, Efil4zaggin (1991)
Peaked at No. 1
RIAA certification: Platinum
Previous album: Straight Outta Compton (1988)
Peaked at No. 37, 2x platinum

Skid Row, Slave to the Grind (1991)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: 2x platinum
Previous album: Skid Row (1989)
Peaked at No. 6, 5x platinum

Garth Brooks, Ropin' the Wind (1992)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: 14x platinum
Previous album: No Fences (1990)
Peaked at No. 3, 17x platinum

Depeche Mode, Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: Platinum
Previous album: Violator (1990)
Peaked at No. 7, 3x platinum

Pearl Jam, Vs. (1993)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: 7x platinum
Previous album: Ten (1991)
Peaked at No. 2, 13x platinum

Hootie & the Blowfish, Fairweather Johnson (1996)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: 3x platinum
Previous album: Cracked Rear View (1994)
Peaked at No. 1 (in week 44), 16x platinum

Live, Secret Samadhi (1997)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: 2x platinum
Previous album: Throwing Copper (1994)
Peaked at No. 1 (in week 52), 8x platinum

Alanis Morrisette, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: 3x platinum
Previous album: Jagged Little Pill (1995)
Peaked at No. 1 (in week 15), 16x platinum

Radiohead, Kid A (2000)
No. 1 debut
RIAA certification: Platinum
Previous album: OK Computer (1997)
Peaked at No. 21, 2x platinum

None of these follow-up albums could be considered commercial flops — they are all certified for at least a million in shipments. But it's fair to say a lot of them are clogging up used-CD bins as we speak — when's the last time a Depeche Mode fan told you her favorite album was Songs of Faith and Devotion, not Violator? And Radiohead's Kid A may now be regarded as one of the greatest albums of the 21st century, but it's still not as beloved by the public (or indie fans) as the slower-growing, classic-rockier OK Computer.

The first two discs listed above topped the chart in the weeks immediately after the Soundscan conversion in 1991, and each showed what a difference accurate data makes. N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton was badly disadvantaged under Billboard's old reporting system, which underrepresented rap sales; it couldn't break into the Top 30. After Soundscan, the crew's second full-length album managed a No. 2 debut, and it rose into the penthouse the following week. Skid Row did even better, scoring the first No. 1 debut of the Soundscan era. In each case, however, sales were front-loaded, as each disc stopped selling between the one and two million mark and failed to match its slower-selling, lower-charting predecessor.

A couple more of these examples are actually all-out megablockbusters: Brooks's third album, the 14-times-platinum Ropin' the Wind, was his first pop chart-topper and the best-selling album of 1992; and Pearl Jam's sophomore disc Vs., their first No. 1, is septuple-platinum and generated the huge radio hit "Daughter," among others. The latter debuted with a then-record 950,000 in first-week sales, a positively Timberlakean number. But all these stats are afterthoughts coming after Brooks's No Fences, the second-best-selling country album of all time, featuring the bar-and-wedding perennial "Friends in Low Places"; and Pearl Jam's Ten, the top-selling album of the grunge era ("Alive," "Evenflow," "Jeremy"). Sure, neither of those predecessor discs ever topped the album chart, but talk about long-distance runners: No Fences was recertified in the mid-2000s at 17 million; and Ten was bumped to the 13-million mark just four years ago. Ropin' and Vs., meanwhile, were last mined for platinum more than a dozen years ago.

Perhaps the best examples above are the mid-'90s sleepers of the late-alternative era by Hootie, Live and Morrisette. Each act actually did manage to reach the top of the chart with both a breakthrough album and the follow-up — but the differences in legacy between each act's pair of No. 1 albums is stark.

Hootie and Live took the better part of a year to reach the Billboard 200 penthouse with their respective breakthroughs, Cracked Rear View and Throwing Copper; Alanis took about four months to ring the bell with Jagged Little Pill. Once these albums hit, they really hit: Cracked and Jagged sold 16 million apiece and were the No. 1 sellers of 1995 and 1996, respectively; Live's Copper spun off five radio hits and rode the charts for more than two years. Once it came time in 1996–98 for these acts to follow themselves up, each probably could have released a disc of Bavarian throat singing and debuted at No. 1. (In the case of Live's quirky Secret Samadhi, that's not far off from what happened.) All three debuted in the penthouse with sales ranging from 227,000 (Live's Samadhi) to 496,000 (Morrisette's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie) — the first No. 1 debut for each, and their biggest sales weeks ever. But each album fizzled quickly, spent one-third as many weeks on the chart as its predecessor and generated a fraction of the radio hits.

The Million-Weeker Era

Album sales in the digital era are way off from their late-'90s high, with typical No. 1 albums debuting with less than 200,000 copies in a typical week, or even less than 100,000. In a case of "the rich get richer," however, the 2000s has also been the peak of the million-weeker — an elite club of megastar acts able to generate massive cross-media promotion to score seven-figure sales weeks. Justin Timberlake, with his recent near-million in sales, fits neatly into this elite group, having leveraged two months of television-blanketing promotion.

In many cases, a million-weeker album is an artist's career high-water mark. 'N Sync's No Strings Attached, for example, still holds the record for history's single biggest sales week with 2.4 million copies in its 2000 debut — and it remains their highest-seller. Usher's Confessions, which arrived to 1.1 million in sales in 2004, is his disc for the vault, now over 10 million in sales. Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, which led off with just over a million in sales in 2008, is still his top album, both critically and commercially (triple-platinum).

But whether history redeems it or not, an album doesn't roll a million in a week without some form of the AC/DC Rule fueling it — fans don't rush to record stores in those quantities unless they've developed an intimate relationship with the acts' prior work. Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, Backstreet Boys' Black and Blue, Norah Jones's Feels Like Home — each debuted to seven figures, but each followed a slower-breaking No. 1 album that ultimately sold millions more and is better-remembered.

This trend continues right up to the present day. I first coined the term "AC/DC Rule" less than two years ago in my "100 & Single" column, in reference to Lady Gaga. The dance-pop superstar's 2008 debut The Fame never rose higher than No. 2, but it rode the album chart for two years and spun off four Top 10 smashes plus a follow-up bonus mini-album (The Fame Monster, her all-around best disc, featuring pop classic "Bad Romance"). When her 2011 album Born This Way debuted at No. 1 in 2011 with more than a million in first-week sales, it was Gaga's biggest chart week ever — but a signal example of the AC/DC Rule, as the disc spent far less time on the charts, spun off fewer major hits and sold roughly half as much as The Fame.

Time will tell if Timberlake's latest sees the same middling fate as Born This Way. Back in 2006, when FutureSex/LoveSounds became his first solo No. 1 after an underestimated debut (Justified, No. 2, 2002), Justin avoided the AC/DC Rule by producing a hits-deep, all-around better album. As for The 20/20 Experience, so far it has spun off two hits, "Suit & Tie" (No. 3 peak to date on Billboard's Hot 100) and "Mirrors" (No. 11) — but neither is performing as well as the string of smashes from FutureSex (six Top 20 hits, led off by three No. 1's: "SexyBack," "My Love" and "What Goes Around ... Comes Around"). And the early reviews of 20/20 range from respectful to underwhelmed.

The AC/DC Rule is meant to define a trend — it isn't a curse and it isn't destiny. If Timberlake's latest continues to dominate the Billboard 200 through the spring and summer and keeps minting platinum, it will escape the shadow of FutureSex and the Rule. But with Justin reportedly planning to hedge his bets with a second volume of The 20/20 Experience before Christmas, the current album's destiny may be written already.

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