Senior Moments: Why More Albums by Middle-Aged Artists Like Tom Petty and “Weird Al” Are Hitting No. 1

The news last week that veteran band Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers scored its first No. 1 album—yes, ever—prompted a number of reactions, ranging from “Petty’s still got it…classic rock rules!” to “Man, it’s way too easy to top the charts these days.”

Both reactions are understandable, but the truth lies somewhere in between. Supporting the more cynical view of Petty’s achievement is Billboard’s disclosure that a large chunk of the Heartbreakers’ 131,000 in first-week sales were fueled by a Live Nation promotion that bundled copies of new album Hypnotic Eye with purchases of tickets to the band’s current tour. (How large? HITS claims it was roughly half of the 131K.) Live-plus-CD bundles have been chart aberrations before—a Prince giveaway in 2004 prompted complaining, and a Madonna live/CD bundle in 2012 both helped and hurt her chart performance—but Billboard and SoundScan now have rules in place to account for the bundling tactic. Petty’s concertgoers paid a surcharge for his CD and were given the choice not to buy it, so those sales count.

However this album got to No. 1, what’s more interesting to me about the triumph by Petty and longtime bandmates Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench et al.—average age: 63—is it’s the second topper on the Billboard 200 album chart in under a month by a middle-aged act, improbably scoring its first No. 1. Hypnotic Eye comes just two weeks after 54-year-old “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun, which delighted America by ringing the bell in late July.

Tom and Al stand out in 2014, a year in which the No. 1 spot has been monopolized by youthful stuff ranging from Lana Del Ray to Ed Sheeran to the Frozen soundtrack. But taking a wider view, Petty and Yankovic are in good company—they continue an intermittent but persistent, decade-long string of fiftysomething-or-older chart-toppers: acts either reaching the penthouse for the first time, like Neil Diamond or Black Sabbath; or for the first time in decades, like Bob Dylan or Rod Stewart.

These aging acts, who defy the charts’ reification of youth, resist easy categorization or examination. Normally, when chart analysts like me describe a shift in trends, we refer to the epochal switch Billboard made in 1991, when Nielsen SoundScan data was baked into its charts and changed everything we know about how hit records are made. This is not one of those cases. While SoundScan did make it easier for acts of any age to debut at No. 1, in most instances those debuts were by artists under 40—right through the end of the 1990s, youth still ruled on the Billboard 200. (The age question isn’t worth exploring before SoundScan, either—when John Fogerty made “comeback” headlines in 1985 by topping the chart with Centerfield, he was a ripe old 39.)

In the ’90s, the first decade of the SoundScan era, I count just a handful of aging acts who made a chart-topping debut. And—if this 42-year-old does say so himself—they weren’t all that old: Natalie Cole topping the chart in 1991 with her Grammy-bait tribute to dad Unforgettable…with Love, at age 41; Aerosmith ringing the bell in 1993 with Get a Grip, its members’ ages averaging a still-spry 42; Meat Loaf later that same year with Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell, at a still lung-busting 46. Even the most celebrated oldster blockbuster of the premillennial era, Santana’s Supernatural in 1999, did so when Carlos was a barely AARP-eligible 52 (younger than Weird Al now!), and it wasn’t his first No. 1 album—just his first in 29 years.

No, the increase in No. 1 albums by quinquagenarians and sexagenarians only really began about a decade ago, at the dawn of the digital era—a couple of years after Napster, and around the same time Apple’s iTunes Music Store launched. Since the shift toward downloading and streaming music began to decimate the industry’s album-based sales model, the bar to reach No. 1 on the album chart has gotten lower—a definite factor for the oldster chart-toppers, though not the only one.

Take a look at this list I’ve compiled of No. 1 albums since 2003 by artists over 50—either those scoring their first chart-topper, or their first in a quarter-century. I’m not including consistent superstars who have continued to score No. 1 albums every few years into their fifties and sixties, like Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and George Strait—these folks have solid streaks going and aren’t breaking long dry spells when they top the chart. (I’m also ignoring albums of old material by defunct bands like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin. Or thirtysomethings with old souls, like Jack White.) That leaves 16 acts—included below is their age when they hit the top, and I’ve bolded the ones, seven out of 16, who were making their first-ever trip to the penthouse:

  • The Isley Brothers: Body Kiss, 2003 – average age 57; first No. 1 in 27 years
  • Jimmy Buffett: License to Chill, 2004 – age 57; recording career began 1970
  • Rod Stewart: Stardust: The Great American Songbook, Volume III, 2004 – age 59; first No. 1 in 26 years
  • Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company, 2005 – age 73 [deceased]; first No. 1 in 42 years
  • Barry Manilow: The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, 2006 – age 62; first No. 1 in 28 years
  • Johnny Cash: American V: A Hundred Highways, 2006 – age 71 [deceased]; first No. 1 in 36 years
  • Bob Dylan: Modern Times, 2006 – age 65; first No. 1 in 30 years
  • Reba McEntire: Reba: Duets, 2007 – age 52; recording career began 1977
  • Neil Diamond: Home Before Dark, 2008 – age 67; recording career began 1966
  • AC/DC: Black Ice, 2008 – average age 55; first No. 1 in 26 years
  • Sade: Soldier of Love, 2010 – age 51; first No. 1 in 24 years
  • Tony Bennett: Duets II, 2011 – age 85; recording career began 1951
  • Lionel Richie: Tuskegee, 2012 – age 63; first No. 1 in 25 years
  • Black Sabbath: 13, 2013 – average age 64; recording career began 1970
  • “Weird Al” Yankovic: Mandatory Fun, 2014 – age 54; recording career began 1979
  • Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Hypnotic Eye, 2014 – average age 63; recording career began 1976

It’s an odd assortment of artists. What patterns can we glean from the above list? Well, nobody’s going to threaten octogenarian Tony Bennett’s record for oldest living artist to hit No. 1 anytime soon. Throwing outlier Bennett out of the pool and averaging the rest, it seems 60 is the ideal age to try to release a late-career No. 1 album. Also, if you’re an oldster, it helps to have an album series with a number in it: Duets II, Stardust Volume III, American V…hell, even Sabbath’s discography-minded 13. A string of numbered albums is smart marketing, especially when your target audience has mortgages, kids or even Victrolas. (Although Manilow deserves bonus points for hitting No. 1 with his Fifties album, the first in a series.)

More seriously, what must be kept in mind is that the Billboard 200 only measures album sales one week at a time, and scoring a No. 1 album is often a confluence of timing and lucky competition. Among the seven first-time chart-toppers, three had albums peak at No. 2 decades earlier: In late 1973, if Diamond’s album Jonathan Livingston Seagull hadn’t been up against Elton John’s monster Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, he’d have hit No. 1 early in his career. Same goes for Petty and the Heartbreakers’ classic Damn the Torpedoes, which in early 1980 had the misfortune to get stuck behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall for seven weeks. Finally, McEntire dropped her smash Read My Mind in May 1994 and was held at No. 2 by younger country star Tim McGraw, whose Not a Moment Too Soon happened to rise to the top the week she surged. On our current, sales-diminished charts, timing is even more important; a skew of one week in either direction can mean the difference between success and shortfall. This year, if Weird Al had dropped his album one week later or Petty one week earlier, each would have gotten swamped by the chart-topping Australian boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, whose eponymous debut album launched with two to two and a half times more sales than Al or Tom.

The temptation, then, is to diminish the above 16 artists’ accomplishments and call them all flukes—the product of a vastly diminished album sales climate making it easy for some lucky old farts. To be sure, the fact that albums can now top the chart selling in the neighborhood of 50,000 copies or less makes the competition much easier. I don’t think it’s an accident that nobody as old as Diamond, Dylan or Bennett topped the album chart before Napster and iTunes lowered the bar for everyone.

But the reason the “fluke” tag is unfair and dismissive is it doesn’t take into account how well many of these albums sold in their chart-topping weeks—or how hard these geezers worked the angles in their quest to top the chart. Of the 16 albums, only two hit the top with sales weeks below 100,000 copies: Johnny Cash’s posthumous American V (88,000) and Lionel Richie’s genre-crossing Tuskegee (92,000). All the rest topped six figures.

Some were outright blockbusters, with sales totals that could’ve hit No. 1 in the industry’s ’90s heyday. AC/DC teamed with Wal-mart for a promotion that pushed 2008’s Black Ice to 784,000 copies in its first week. Sade came back from a decade-long hiatus with 2010’s Soldier of Love to find 502,000 fans lying in wait. And McEntire’s first week of 301,000 with 2007’s Reba: Duets was her best sales week in SoundScan history. Reba wasn’t alone—10 artists on this list rang the bell with career-best sales weeks: the three mentioned above, plus Jimmy Buffett, Ray Charles, Barry Manilow, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Black Sabbath, Weird Al and Tom Petty.

Moreover, what most of these albums have in common is the artists weren’t phoning it in. In several cases, they refreshed their sound by teaming with younger artists or producers—and it worked. Body Kiss was the Isley Brothers’ second straight album produced and cowritten by R&B megastar R. Kelly, who created a mack daddy “Mr. Biggs” persona for singer Ron Isley. The Isleys’ Kelly-produced predecessor, 2001’s Eternal, had gone double-platinum and generated radio hits, so it stood to reason that Body Kiss would hit the top. For two other artists on the list, career-reviver Rick Rubin is a factor—not just Johnny Cash, whose last in his celebrated American series with Rubin hit the top posthumously, but also Diamond’s back-to-basics disc Home Before Dark. A team-up with Rubin gave Neil his biggest buzz in decades and a chart-topper.

A more shopworn but commercially potent tactic is the all-standards album, a la Rod Stewart; or the all-duets album, in which a veteran teams with singers decades younger. Frank Sinatra set the template in the ’90s with a pair of critically panned hit albums that fell just shy of the No. 1 spot. In the last decade, Bennett, McEntire and the late Charles have all bettered Sinatra, hitting the top with discs loaded with mostly younger guests.

Even the albums on the list that didn’t fit into the above categories used some promotional X-factor to capture the public’s fancy. For decades, the market-savvy Jimmy Buffett had been calling his laid-back brand of tropical rock “gulf and western.” In 2004, he decided to stop half-assing the country connection—License to Chill was a full-on country-crossover album; it led off with a Hank Williams cover backed by no less than five Nashville superstars. The result for Buffett was a blockbuster 239,000 in first-week sales, largely to country loyalists. Or take Bob Dylan: After two critically adored albums that returned ol’ Zimmy to the Top 10 in 1997 and 2001, he bettered himself in 2006 by teaming with a longtime acolyte named Steve Jobs. Modern Times was promoted during release week by one of Apple’s iconic iPod “silhouette” commercials, giving Bob his best debut sales week ever.

Perhaps the best trick for an aging artist looking to move tonnage is to change the venue of sale. AC/DC took a page from the Eagles (who themselves made a comeback in 2007) and gave Wal-mart exclusive North American retail rights on Black Ice. Both Barry Manilow and Lionel Richie took to TV—the former flogged his Greatest Songs series on QVC, and the latter pushed Tuskegee hard on the Home Shopping Network. Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company—the last album he recorded before his death in 2004—was released by Concord, a hybrid record label that partnered with Starbucks to release the disc; they moved truckloads of Brother Ray to folks picking up a latte.

All this brings us back to 2014’s surprise oldster chart-toppers, both of which fall squarely into this anything-for-a-sale pattern. The eternally youthful Weird Al faced challenges bigger than his age: an Internet already awash in song parodies, and the fact that comedy albums generally don’t open big—none had ever debuted on top, and in the SoundScan era only a Dane Cook album and a Beavis and Butt-head TV tie-in had scraped the Top Five. Al’s solution was an unprecedented Internet-blanketing promotional blitz: eight straight days of new music videos. The celebrated tactic is now being held up as a digital-era marketing case study.

As for Petty, Hypnotic Eye is his second straight album to get a boost from a live bundle. The Heartbreakers’ 2010 disc Mojo, which peaked at No. 2, was similarly packaged with a tour and sold nearly as well in its first week (125,000) as Hypnotic Eye just did (131,000). Those weekly sales figures rank as Petty’s largest since the peak of his 1994 solo album Wildflowers.

So, sure—Petty is squeezing every ounce of juice out of a quirky but chart-legal sales tactic, and maybe his No. 1 album should get a small asterisk. But so what? Is Petty’s concert-bundle move really that different from artists teaming with Wal-mart or Starbucks, pitching on QVC or HSN, or shooting an Apple commercial?

It’s clear that senior artists have had their chart stats boosted by a music business where fewer acts sell albums, period. And it’s also true that older stars are more likely to have fans who still buy music. But guys like Tom Petty, Tony Bennett or Neil Diamond aren’t topping the album chart just because their buyers are loyal or because “the classics” will never die. They’re pulling it off because they’re not afraid to work a little for a hit. What’s true for millennial artists is true for the old guys: Can’t knock the hustle.


Content retrieved from: https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/418-senior-moments-why-more-albums-by-middle-aged-artists-like-tom-petty-and-weird-al-are-hitting-no-1/.