What if Napster never happened?

What if Napster never happened?

  • Post category:Features

On the morning of October 14, 1997, I sat in a mall food court across from Music World, one of the many music store chains at the time, waiting for the store to open up so I could purchase a copy of Green Day’s latest album Nimrod. I never would have guessed it then, but it would be the last time I would have to wait for a store to open to buy a new Green Day album on release day.

RIP Music World

The year 1999 is when physical album sales hit their peak and the following year the decline began as digital music in the form of illegal downloads on sites like Napster began to cut into sales. By the year 2000 when Green Day’s Warning was released, the album was readily available for free on file-sharing sites long before fans could purchase it legally in stores.

Nana gives her review of Warning, which she downloaded illegally

Napster only existed for about two years, launching in June of 1999 before shutting down due to legal challenges in July of 2001, but its impact on the music industry is still felt today. Instead of music store chains, we now have music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music competing for our business.

Napster founder Shawn Fanning

In the era of streaming, “Album-equivalent units” are meant to represent how many albums have been sold based on everything from music streaming to watching music videos on YouTube.

The problem when trying to compare eras is that before illegal downloads and streaming services, people often bought albums just to own the one or two singles that they heard on the radio or watched on MTV. The only way you could listen to the songs any time you wanted was to buy the entire album.

That doesn’t happen anymore. I think we’re all guilty of liking a song and just hitting the plus sign to add it to our digital music library rather than taking the time to explore what the rest of the album offered.

For the sake of this exercise, we’ll pretend Napster never ushered in a new era of music consumption and fans are still buying cassettes, CDs and vinyl in the same numbers they did back in 1999 – but we will also include paid digital purchases of albums (when applicable) to their totals since that is still a full-price purchase of the album. We will not include album-equivalent sales from music streaming.

To get an estimate of what the sales would have been for each album in 1999, the American sales figures for each Green Day album (total sales of Cassette/CD/LP/Digitial Download) was divided by the total number of American album sales in its release year and then multiplied by 1.1 billion to era adjust the sales total to 1999 numbers.


Warning (2000)

Album Sales:1,400,000
Industry Sales:1.0 billion
Era Adjusted Album Sales:1,540,000
Increase:10%

Warning gets only a small bump in numbers since it was released in the infancy of file sharing but the effect on the industry is beginning to show with 100 million fewer album sales than the previous year.


American Idiot (2004)

Album Sales:6,600,000
Industry Sales:778.2 million
Era Adjusted Album Sales:9,329,221
Increase:41%

American Idiot was already a monster release but when adjusted for era you can see just how close it might have come to becoming Green Day’s second Diamond record (representing 10 million sold). Only 22 artists have achieved two or more Diamond records.


21st Century Breakdown (2009)

Album Sales:1,200,000
Industry Sales:374.6 million
Era Adjusted Album Sales:3,523,758
Increase:194%

This was the album that inspired the idea to write this article. It always felt strange that 21st Century Breakdown barely hit Platinum sales status (representing 1 million sold) given how popular the band was at the time.

With era adjusted album sales, the album goes from being Green Day’s sixth biggest selling album to their third biggest behind Dookie and American Idiot.

Industry sales are now down 725 million since 1999.


¡UNO! (2012)

Album Sales:330,000
Industry Sales:321.8 million
Era Adjusted Album Sales:1,128,029
Increase:242%

While Green Day’s trilogy of 2012 albums is often looked back on as a huge failure, era adjusted sales for ¡UNO! paint a rosier picture for the album and it manages to crack Platinum status in our hypothetical world.

It’s unfortunate that Billie’s struggles at the time have overshadowed this release, but these figures show that the album ranks right up there with 39/Smooth, Kerplunk and Warning when adjusted by era.


¡DOS! (2012)

Album Sales:190,000
Industry Sales:321.8 million
Era Adjusted Album Sales:649,471
Increase: 242%

¡DOS! also gets a nice bump up to Gold record status (representing 500,000 sold), but that wouldn’t save it from being the lowest-selling album of the bands’ career to that point. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t hold that record for very long, however.


¡TRE! (2012)

Album Sales:170,000
Industry Sales:321.8 million
Era Adjusted Album Sales:581,106
Increase:242%

¡TRE! also gets bumped up to an era adjusted Gold record but takes over from ¡DOS! as the bands’ lowest-selling record to date.

It makes you wonder what might have been had the band released only the best of the three albums onto one album, but overall the trilogy as a whole sells a very respectable era adjusted 2.35 million albums.


At this point, the numbers get a bit more difficult to accurately project as music streaming services become the predominant way music is consumed and physical sales are down almost a billion dollars since 1999.

We do know that album-equivalent units have accounted for around 20% of first-week sales for the bands’ most recent two albums, so their overall sales totals on the following have been reduced by 20% to more accurately compare against the industry sales we’re using below.


Revolution Radio (2016)

Album Sales (minus streaming):184,000*
Industry Sales:197.5 million
Era Adjusted Album Sales:1,024,810
Increase:457%

Seen as a return to form by some after the disappointing trilogy period, Revolution Radio bumps up to a Platinum record with era adjusted sales figures.

* 230,000 known sales reduced by 20%


Father Of All… (2020)

Album Sales (minus streaming):48,000*
Industry Sales:105.8 million**
Era Adjusted Album Sales:499,055
Increase: 940%

We have the least amount of data on this one with only the first two weeks of sales numbers to work with so I’ve given it a bump of 7,000 to account for any additional sales over the past 6 months.

This album was doomed from the start sales-wise though after polarizing fans and being released weeks prior to Coronavirus shutting the country down. With the band unable to properly promote or tour the album, it goes down as the lowest-selling album of their career and the only album to not hit at least Gold status with era adjusted sales.

* 53,000 known sales increased by 7,000 estimated sales since February and then decreased by 20%. **2019 industry sales data.


In conclusion

Like other 90s and 00s bands that retain popularity today, it’s easy to compare their past high water mark sales numbers to their current sales totals and think their glory days are long behind them.

But Green Day has shown rather remarkable sales consistency (FOAM aside), in spite of the music industry being turned upside down in the middle of their career and rock music struggling to find radio airplay since the early 2000s.

Only albums released after 1999 were era adjusted.

The problem with evaluating Green Day’s album sales is that with two landmark albums in Dookie and American Idiot, the sales for the rest of their catalogue can look rather pedestrian.

But I think we can all agree that that’s a pretty good problem to have.

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