Out with the new, in with the old: Nearly two-thirds of the albums on the Billboard 200 are more than a year old! A look at why…

(September 25, 2021).  Whatever happened to what’s new is in?

One glance at this week’s Billboard 200 Albums chart and music fans will notice a growing trend—one that the word “trend” is quickly becoming less accurate a description with each passing week.  

On this week’s list, 127 of the 200 albums listed—or nearly two-thirds—have been on the chart for at least 52 weeks.  Of those 127 albums, 89 have been on the list for a total of 104+ weeks—or at least two years.  

Seventy of the albums have been on the chart for at least three years—or 156 weeks, while 50 of them have been on for the equivalent of four years or more (208+ weeks)!  

For perspective, that’s one out of every four albums on the current Billboard chart that has been on the list for at least four years!

Those are astonishing stats, especially for an industry that releases tens of thousands of new albums each year and whose main goal is to promote new artists and new product.  It’s also notable because the numbers would be even higher if you include albums that have had their cumulative weeks on the chart interrupted by temporary absences.

For instance, several enduring oldies were released three or more decades ago, like Bob Marley’s Legend, Fleetwood Mac’s RumoursJourney’s Greatest Hits, Metallica’s self-titled album, Nirvana’s Nevermind, AC/DC’s Back In Black, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but for various reasons have been on and off the charts during that time, so their current cumulative totals don’t reflect their true ages.

Marley’s Legend is the current chart’s longevity champ with 696 weeks on the list, or the equivalent of 13 years, four months and 2 weeks.  But that hits collection was first released way back in 1984.

Bob Marley’s ‘Legend’ is the longest-charting album on this week’s Billboard 200

Some readers might be inclined to think this phenomenon is nothing new, as they may guess that older albums have always dominated the Billboard charts—at least in terms of percentage share, if not by rank.  

But a look back at comparable same-week charts from previous years would tell a different story altogether.

For example, last year on the September 26-dated Billboard 200, 112 albums had logged more than a year on the chart, with 81 of those above the two-year mark, 61 at three years or more and 41 titles past the four-year threshold.  That compares to 127, 89, 70 and 50, respectively, on this week’s chart. 

Just five years ago on the chart dated September 24, 2016, only 85 albums had more than a year on the list.  Of those, only 46 had as many as two years, 26 had three-plus years and 17 had as many as four years on the list—all significantly fewer than those in the same categories on this week’s chart.

This week in 2011, there were only 37 albums with a year or more cumulative time on the Billboard 200, with only 18 having two or more years, seven having three-plus years and only three accumulating four or more years on the chart.   

Going back even further, it would be inappropriate to include chart data from 1991, 1996, 2001 or 2006 since Billboard chart rules at the time didn’t allow older “Catalog” albums to co-exist with newer product on the Billboard 200—they were reserved for the so-named catalog charts.  

Regarding these catalog albums, chart rules varied over time. But for the most part between 1991 and 2009, “Catalog” albums were defined as those that were more than 18 months old but weren’t selling enough to rank above No. 100 on the main Billboard 200 chart and were therefore excluded altogether.  They were relegated to their own “Top Catalog Albums” chart, which generally meant 20 to 30 of these older titles were excluded from the main chart on a weekly basis.

But in 1986, before the Catalog chart began segregating the old from the new (and before point-of-sale piece-count data began fueling the charts for more accuracy), a somewhat apples-to-apples examination of that year’s September 27 Billboard 200 list would reveal 27 albums with a year or more on the chart, with only nine of those having more than two years on the list (and only three having spent three or more years there).  Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was that survey’s granddaddy with 643 weeks and counting (the iconic 1973 LP has since logged a total of 958 weeks on the Billboard 200–or the equivalent of 18 years and five months—easily the all-time record).

Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ is not currently charting but is still the record holder for chart longevity with 958 weeks

Going further back to 1981, there were only 15 albums with more than a year on the corresponding September chart, with three of those accumulating more than two years and only one, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side, logging more than three years (it was actually at a then-high 382 weeks, or seven years and four months on the list).  It’s worth noting that 21 albums on this week’s chart have accumulated at least as much time as Dark Side had back then.  

So what’s changed?  Why all the oldies now?  There are several likely reasons worth exploring, as djrobblog does below. 

Streaming means more access to older titles

Of the 127 albums with a year or more on the chart this week, many of them were released in the 20th century and therefore pre-dated the digital download and streaming eras, back when brick-and-mortar stores were the main source of album sales in the U.S.  While these older albums still sold decently back then, they clearly took a back seat to newer product, which benefited from prominent store displays and record company marketing in general.  It was mostly a case of out of sight out of mind, and people simply didn’t have as much access to those older albums as they do now.   

Clearly there were exceptions, like Pink Floyd’s juggernaut, or when older albums would occasionally return to the charts because of renewed interest due to an artist’s newer product.

A famous example was when all eight of Led Zeppelin’s earlier albums returned to the list in the autumn of 1979 after the release of their In Through The Out Door.  Interestingly, all eight of those predecessors were more than a year old, but only four of them (Led ZeppelinLed Zeppelin IILed Zeppelin IV, and Houses of the Holy) had logged more than 52 weeks on the chart in the first week that all eight had reappeared.  That same week—October 27, 1979–only 20 of the albums charting overall had logged a year or more on the list.

Nowadays, older albums are just as likely to be clicked or downloaded as newer titles, as it doesn’t require consumers to dig through stores’ oldies bins, or even leave their couches, to access them. 

Vital reissues introduce older albums to newer audiences

Over the years, many older titles have benefitted from deluxe reissues, remastered versions, or re-releases in the digital market.  A very recent example is Aaliyah’s self-titled third album, which re-enters this week’s chart at No. 13 after being released to digital and streaming services for the first time earlier this month.  This return marks the 20-year-old album’s 69th week on the Billboard 200.

Aaliyah’s 2000 self-titled album is finally available on streaming platforms after 20 years

Metallica’s self-titled 1991 album (a/k/a The Black Album) has been reissued several times, but its most recent remastered edition—released on September 10–prompted a 149-position pole-vault from No. 158 to No. 9 on this week’s list.  The title—now in its 625th week on the chart—was not on the corresponding Billboard 200 a year ago. 

Other currently charting classics that benefited from anniversary reissues in recent years include ThrillerRumours, and the Beatles’ Abbey Road, and The Eagles’ Hotel California.  In most cases, these albums have added previously unreleased bonus tracks, live performances and alternate takes on beloved hits, all of which have sparked renewed interest from even longtime fans, many of whom owned earlier versions of the same titles.

Greatest hits compilations attract fans old and new (and Billboard’s methodology helps too)

Of the 40 longest-charting albums on the September 25, 2021 chart, 16 of them are greatest hits compilations.  All but one of these are by artists who’ve been charting for more than 20 years (Zac Brown Band being the lone exception).

Most older artists have a wider repertoire of hits to choose from than younger acts.  As younger fans are introduced to older artists from their parents’ or grandparents’ generations, they join an already large fan base in downloading or streaming these timeless classics, which in turn increases their chart endurance.  Additionally, it’s probably much easier for fans to flock to a greatest hits set than to go to a specific album from an artist’s deep catalog.  

Hits compilations also benefit from Billboard’s current chart methodology, which assigns streaming points from any of an artist’s songs to the album containing it that happens to be selling the most.  So, for example, if a song like Billy Joel’s “My Life” is streamed from any number of album sources on Spotify, all of its chart points are assigned to his The Essential Billy Joel (and none to its original parent LP 52nd Street), if the compilation happens to be the one selling the most.  If this scenario plays out for enough of Joel’s songs contained on Essential, then that album will likely accumulate enough points to chart, even if most of the songs are being streamed from other source albums.  

Classics get new lives thanks to the Internet, ad and movie placement, and more.

You’d have to live on Mars to not know that Journey’s 40-year-old hit “Don’t Stop Believin’” has become their signature tune in the digital age.  Thanks to ‘00s exposure in TV shows like “The Sopranos” and “Glee,” the former top-10 hit from 1981 has become not only Journey’s biggest-selling hit, but one of the two most downloaded songs from the 20th century.

The other would be Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” their 1975 classic that has had about three or four chart lives, including most recently in 2018 after the Freddie Mercury biopic bearing the song’s title.  

Both Journey’s and Queen’s hits compilation albums have been mainstays on the Billboard 200 as a result.  Journey’s Greatest Hits—first released in 1988–is the second-longest charting album on this week’s list (at No. 73) with 686 weeks.  Queen’s Greatest Hits sits at No. 31 with 456 weeks on the chart.

Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ is one of the biggest selling albums of all time

Another album to recently benefit from a viral TikTok moment was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.  The album and its No. 1 single “Dreams” experienced a resurgence last year after the song soundtracked a video of Nathan Apodaca (a/k/a 420doggface208) skateboarding down a street while lip-syncing to the track.  The viral video brought “Dreams” and Fleetwood Mac to a whole new (younger) audience.  Rumours sits at No. 39 on this week’s chart (in its 442nd week!).

There are several other examples of this phenomenon, but the above three are probably the most noteworthy cases.

Some newer artists (and classics) from the current millennium are also contributing 

While it would be easy to give all the credit to heritage acts like Journey, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, a number of newer artists have also contributed to this oldies trend, and for different reasons.  

First there’s Drake, the millennial chart king whose older albums have been a chart mainstay the past eleven years.  With every new release, his older albums see a sales jump.  In the weeks and months leading up to the release of Certified Lover Boy earlier this month, anywhere between four and seven of his previous sets saw regular improvement on the Billboard 200.  On the September 25 list, six of Drake’s older albums are among the 127 that have charted for more than a year, with four of them (Take CareNothing Was the SameViews and More Life) each having logged four or more years on the chart.

Similarly, acts like Taylor Swift and Post Malone fall into this category.  Swift has six albums on the current chart, five of which have been around for a year or longer, including Folklore, which marked its first chart anniversary in August.

Post Malone’s most recent album, Hollywood’s Bleeding, just celebrated its second year on the chart while its two predecessors, beerbongs and bentleys and Stoney, have remained on the list for three and four years, respectively.

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Damn’ is among this week’s charting oldies, along with his other albums

Then there are other current artists like Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, SZA, and Frank Ocean who’ve each gone more than four years since their last releases.  As anticipation builds for any news of pending new product from these stars, fans continue to lap up their most recent albums.

Lamar’s classic good kid, m.A.A.d city—currently at No. 52–has been on the chart for 464 weeks, or the equivalent of nearly nine years.  Rihanna’s Anti has been buoyed by continued buzz around the pop superstar’s Fenty fashion line as well as anticipation of a new album release.  Anti sits at No. 133 in its 286th week on the chart.

And then there are the young artists whose lives were tragically cut short and who, as a result, have become folk legends—particularly in hip-hop.

Rappers like the late Pop Smoke, whose posthumous classic Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon recently celebrated its first anniversary, and the late Juice WRLD, whose Legends Never Die recently did the same, both remain in the top 30 of the Billboard 200 with no signs of a pending exit.

The late rappers Mac Miller and XXXTentacion also have long-running albums on the list with at least three years and counting.  

Newer artists or new releases by older acts are finding it harder to sustain interest.

Here’s probably the biggest indicator of how hard it is to market new artists or products in the music business today.  

Of the 117 new albums that debuted on the Billboard 200 this quarter between the charts dated July 3 and September 18, only 22 remain on this week’s list (dated September 25).  And that includes new releases that debuted in the top ten this summer by big names like Prince (Welcome 2 America, entered the chart at No. 4), John Mayer (Sob Rock, No. 2), Nas (King’s Disease, No. 3), and The Killers (Pressure Machine, No. 9).  None of those four albums are on the current Top 200 list.

Just two of the eleven albums that debuted four weeks ago remain on the list. One of those eleven—Jennifer Hudson’s companion album to the high-profile “Respect” motion picture in which she starred—debuted and peaked at No. 151 and exited the chart the following week.

Furthermore, only four of last week’s ten debuts remain on this week’s list, and Drake’s Certified Lover Boy is the only one of those four that didn’t drop by more than 25 spots (it maintained its No. 1 rank for a second week). 

This is perhaps the most discouraging news for those up-and-coming artists who have a notion that it’s easy to make it big in this industry.   When 95 of 117 new albums entering the chart during a calendar quarter are gone by the end of that period, while those older albums continue to dominate, the industry may need to figure out different ways of breaking new artists and sustaining fans’ interest in newer product.

No incentive for the industry to change

Or, then again, maybe the industry doesn’t have much incentive for pushing new material.  Labels have pretty much recouped their recording and promotional costs for these older albums.  Any revenue from sales—or, more accurately, streams—at this point is the proverbial icing on the cake, especially if some of it is the result of the free publicity that comes from hit-generating social media platforms like TikTok and others. 

Label brass could take the profits from catalog album sales to sign and develop newer acts, or they could simply keep profiting from the older ones. 

The passage of time means the most popular albums are just naturally older

It stands to reason that, with the passage of time, enduring albums just continue to get older.  With more such albums out there now than there were forty years ago, it just makes sense that there are more oldies on the chart now than there were in 1981.  Back then, there simply weren’t as many older albums to choose from as there are today.

At the current rate, it’s possible that in five or ten years from now, there could be an even higher percentage of older releases on the chart, including many of the titles from decades past that are still there today.

Old music is just better

Nah, I won’t go there…

DJRob

DJRob (2021)

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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