Hamilton, the musical so nice POTUS is seeing it twice, has yet another accolade to add to its ever-growing list of honors. The cast recording debuted at number 12 on the Billboard 200, the highest debut for a cast album since 1963.
Hamilton also debuted at number three on Rap Albums, number five on Digital Albums, and — not a surprise here — number one on Cast Albums. It sold 28,000 copies, almost exclusively in digital downloads, along with about 1,000 CDs, which were only for sale at the theater. (CDs will be available for whoever is still into CDs, which I guess is a nuevo-hipster thing for people young enough to not remember Sam Goody, on October 16.) Including what Billboard counts as “equivalent units” (a.k.a, people streaming it on Spotify and such), Hamilton’s total sales get bumped up to 30,000 copies.
Billboard decides how to categorize songs and albums. A staff of chart managers, along with Nielsen — who provides the sales and streaming data — determine which albums fit into which genres. So why did Hamilton qualify as a rap album but not as R&B;/Hip-Hop?
“We consider their core musicality to determine eligibility on our various genre charts,” said Keith Caulfield, co-director of charts at Billboard, by phone. “As Hamilton’s music is rooted in a traditional Broadway style with rap vocals, it qualifies for both the Cast Albums and Rap Albums charts, but not R&B;/Hip-Hop.” To land on the R&B;/Hip-Hop charts, “the majority of a song (or of an album) must have a core R&B; sound.”
Does that make perfect sense? Has Hamilton not been described, more often than not, as a “hip-hop musical” and, in fact, even Billboard referred to the show as “hip hop heavy”? Could a person argue that genre distinctions only make sense for people who need to market music, not people who produce or consume it? Not to mention that one of the trademarks of Hamilton and of Lin-Manuel Miranda, its officially-a-genius creator, is a unwillingness to stay in any particular musical lane? King George sings in Brit-pop and the Schuyler sisters sound like what might happen if Destiny’s Child consisted of three Beyoncés and Jefferson raps sometimes but also sometimes he has this kinda-jazzy-thing going on, and anyway, you get the idea; judging by these sales numbers, you’ve probably already listened to the album.
How big a deal are these sales that for a cast album? The number one cast album for the past two months sold about one or two thousand copies in a week. A big week for a cast album — which will usually take place right around the Tony Awards, when a lot of cast albums are released — is something like five or six thousand copies. That’s what Something Rotten and Fun Home sold this year, “and those are big shows,” said Caulfield. Sales for cast recordings “used to be enormous, back in the late ’50s and early ‘60s,” said Caulfield, but, with a few notable exceptions, they’ve fallen out of favor since then. “That’s why the Hamilton number sticks out so incredibly.”
“Even the big, big shows, like, say, If/Then, that did 15,000 in its first week. And Idina [Menzel] was coming off the success of Frozen and ‘Let it Go,’ and she was returning to Broadway, so there was a lot of interest behind it,” said Caulfield. “Once in a while, you’ll get a cast album or a musical that breaks through. When all the stars align and the buzz becomes deafening, then you have a Hamilton, or a Book of Mormon, or Rent… because it breaks the mold in some fashion, it gets a younger audience to pay attention… It’s fairly crazy and incredible, how much attention Hamilton has received and will continue to receive, it looks like, for months.”
The best point of comparison for Hamilton is Rent, which was released in 1996 and sold 43,000 CDs in its first week. That’s still the biggest week ever for a cast recording (well, after 1991; Billboard doesn’t have accurate weekly sales data for anything earlier than that). But remember, that was in the heyday of CD sales — we were all but children then — years before iTunes, before Napster, before the internet as we know it.
“At the end of that decade is when everything started to change,” said Caulfield. “It was really the early 2000s when people started to transition away from albums. This was back when the only way to get that music from Rent was to actually buy the album or to go see the show. It sounds so cute to say that now.”
In 2011, Book of Mormon made it to number three on the Billboard 200, the highest-charted cast album debut since Hair held the number one spot for 13 consecutive weeks in 1969. But that success comes with an asterisk: “A lot of the reason why it sold so well and charted so high was because it was deeply discounted that week,” selling for as low as $1.99 on Amazon. “So, yes, it went to number three, yes, it was in the top ten, however, a lot of that was because it was really super cheap. Hamilton is not on sale! It’s the normal price! It’s just red hot and it is selling incredibly well.”
It’s a rare moment in musical theater on Broadway and on our charts.
Hamilton’s sales aren’t just impressive in the context of cast recordings. This is arguably the most competitive time of year to be angling for a high spot on the Billboard 200, as we’re rapidly approaching last call for eligibility for the upcoming Grammy Awards. “No one really says that,” he said, but albums have to be released between October 1, 2014 and September 30, 2015, so “it was a very busy week… There’s always a rush in the last two weeks of September.” Seven of the albums in the top ten debuted this week. (The three returning champions: Drake & Future’s What A Time To Be Alive at number two, The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness at number five, and Taylor Swift’s 1989 at number seven.) This, of course, means Hamilton can be a contender at the next Grammys.
Hamilton was only 3,000 units overall from hitting the top ten. “It’s a rare moment in musical theater on Broadway and on our charts,” Caulfield said.
In an era in which the music industry is so insecure about whether or not anyone cares about albums anymore, Hamilton’s success as a complete package is probably a reassuring one. The biggest-selling track of the week only sold about 1,000 downloads; the overwhelming majority of people who bought Hamilton purchased it in its entirety, not piecemeal. “This is the perfect example of how an album should work: You have a story told through song and you need to listen to the whole thing to get the whole story,” Caulfield said.
Plus, unlike Rent’s push to make “Seasons of Love” a standalone radio single, for Hamilton, “the promotion isn’t behind one specific moment or song in the show… They haven’t focused on one particular song, and maybe that’s working to their advantage to sell the whole package.”
“I love musicals finding success on our charts, because it’s so rare now,” said Caulfield, noting that Hamilton could climb even higher when the CD is released next week. “Who knows what can happen?”
This article previously stated that Hamilton would be eligible for the 2017 Tony Awards. Hamilton opened on Broadway during the 2015–2016 season and is eligible for the 2016 Tony Awards.