Where to begin? Atlantic Monthly associate editor and blogger Matthew Yglesias posts a Nirvana video yesterday in the midst of his political coverage, mentioning that he doesn’t think many people actually listen to the band, despite their influence. So, if you’re an economic blogger for Portfolio, why not write out an extensive rebuttal to that assertion?
Zubin Jelveh simply won’t stand for this sort of nonsense. After all, Nirvana sold a bunch of records.
I’ll start by referring to sales data. That’s not a perfect match for “listened-to,” but I’ll go on the assumption that if you buy the album, there’s a really good chance that you’re going to listen to it.
I think anyone who has actually purchased a disc knows that assumption isn’t entirely true (example: the Ed Harcourt best-of still sitting unwrapped on my desk), but let’s let that slide.
Nirvana’s most best-known album, Nevermind, has sold 27 million copies world-wide. The first 10 million of those sold in the U.S. have earned it the coveted(?) Diamond certification issued by the Recording Industry Association of America, one of only 102 albums released in the U.S. to sell at least that many. It’s also one of 40 albums since it was released in September 1991 to reach the Diamond level and the 84th best-selling album of all time.
But that’s just Nevermind. Two other albums, In Utero and Unplugged, have both sold 5 million copies each in the U.S. A 1997 concert video, Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!, has sold 3 million copies.
Thankfully, Jelveh acknowledges that past sales success doesn’t really add up to much as far as current listening habits go, but why mention it then? I doubt anyone would argue Kenny G as a relevant musical act today, but Breathless went platinum twelve times. Hootie and the Blowfish’s 14x platinum album doesn’t help that argument either.
On Last.fm, a MySpace for music lovers, Nirvana has been scrobbled, or listened to, 42 million times. The service started in 2002, so perhaps it was just catching the tail-end of the Nirvana interest.
On MySpace, the Nirvana page, up since 2005 it says, has some 89,000 friends. On Last.fm’s competitor site iLike, up since 2006, Nirvana has over 1 million fans. That’s more than Metallica, Madonna, and Dr. Dre, but not as many as Radiohead, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West. (Interestingly, the most popular Nirvana song on both iLike and Last.fm is “Come As Your Are” — not “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” although that’s the #2 song.)
The Last.fm “scrobble” count holds some water, but still only counts the sort of person that would be likely to download the spin tracking application. However, counting “friends” on any service, especially MSspace is about the worst methodology possible for trying to discern fame. After all, MySpace is the service that brought us Tila Tequila, and that’s something that can never be forgiven. Still, music blogging, even when done by those outside the sainted inner circle, has such a low quality bar to clear that Jelveh’s misguided retort can be partially forgiven.
However, the question still is out there: Do people actually listen to Nirvana? Well, if they listen to alternative radio, they don’t have much choice, since Nirvana is the fifth-most-spun artist in the genre this year (slightly ahead of Seether, if you can get your head around that). If all radio formats are taken into consideration, Nirvana slides into the 50th spot overall, ahead of Brooks & Dunn and matchbox twenty, but below J. Holiday, Webbie, and Lifehouse. So, it’s largely a matter of perspective. Do people listen to Nirvana? Sure, but apparently they’re the same people who enjoy Seether and Three Days Grace. Take that how you wish.