“Picture it” (catch the Sophia Petrillo reference from The Golden Girls), the upcoming Billboard albums chart. Coldplay is expected to slaughter the competition somewhere in the ballpark of 400,000 copies sold of latest LP, Ghost Stories. Country artist Brantley Gilbert might move 200,000 copies or so. Former American Idol victor Phillip Phillips looks to get the short end of the commercial stick: Billboard prognosticates that Behind the Light, the artist’s sophomore album, may sell 35,000 copies. SMH! Look back to Phillips’ debut effort, and The World From the Side of the Moon sold a respectable 169,000 copies, good for a no. 4 bow on the Billboard 200. While Phillips may achieve a top five peak, 35,000 copies is a far cry from the 169,000 that graced his debut. This is nothing new – it’s the new normal of the American Idol franchise.
Mediocrity might be the best way to describe the translation of a TV star into a consistently commercially successful music artist. Why mediocrity – well because just because you have been featured on a television show and showed musical abilities doesn’t mean that the same people who watched and even those that voted will buy the album. Furthermore, the issue raised here, is that after you have had that successful or semi-successful first album, can you consistently keep folks coming back for more? After album number one, it seems as if interest (aka sales) dwindle. Popular youthful country winner Scotty McCreery had a platinum hit on his hands with debut album Clear As Day (no. 1, 197,000 copies sold the first week), while sophomore album See You Tonight was greeted less enthusiastically (no. 6, 52,000 copies sold its first week). Similarly, Jordin Sparks achieved platinum status with Jordin Sparks despite a slower start, but fell short on sophomore effort Battlefield. For these idols, it seems as if the second album is ‘telling’.
There have been commercial successes, but most of the artists who have done so from Idol have been able to establish a distinctive artistic presence. Namely, it’s been the girls. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are the crowning achievements of the show commercially, having released several platinum and multiplatinum albums aside from their debut. Fantasia too has been able to get past the hump of album number two, even if her three albums since her debut have been unable to match the near double-platinum status that was Free Yourself (2004). One successful male with some consistency, Chris Daughtry (Daughtry), has had success across more than one album, proving some staying power beyond a fourth-place finish. Still, examine the aforementioned, and they hail from earlier seasons of the show when the popularity was at its peak.
Sure, Phillip Phillips isn’t in a much different boat than many of his contemporaries from the show (or even any number of artists experiencing the new normal of album sales), but the commercial viability of a career courtesy of American Idol does come into question. The gap for any artist who has been manufactured to succeed from this juggernaut that continues to wane in popularity is how can the artist develop into just that – a true, commercially successful artist? In seasons as of late, as Shakespeare penned, “That is the question.”