In case you’re not previously aware, Mumford & Sons are a folk-rock quartet from the UK, though just about everything about them would suggest that they’re actually Irish. They dress in vests and suspenders and tend to stand all in a row when performing. They had a couple minor crossover hits around the turn of the decade, which followed the same banjo-heavy, heart-rending confessional formula, featuring similar gradual swells in volume and drama. The group’s individual members are not particularly famous for anything (minus the guy whose last name is actually “Mumford”), and the band is not part of any particularly pop-notable scene, either musically or geographically.
Mumford & Sons are about to sell 600,000 copies of their second album Babel in one week.
That’s a lot of albums by any standard, but it’s absolutely unthinkable by 2012 standards. It’s over 200,000 copies more than any other album has sold in its first week this year, including major releases by Justin Bieber, Madonna, Nicki Minaj and other pop megastars with about 100 times the Q rating of Mumford and Sons. It’s about 12 times more than Our Girl Carly Rae Jepsen sold with the biggest pop hit of the decade on her side. (By contrast, Babel lead single “I Will Wait” has peaked at #23, supported almost entirely by sales, with very little pop airplay.)
All that said, it’s not a completely unexpected number. Mumford proved to be surprisingly commercially viable with their debut album Sigh No More, which sold significantly less than Babel in its first week, but proved a stealth sales juggernaut, lingering on the charts for years (thanks to a couple well-timed award show performances) and eventually peaking at #2, selling nearly 2.5 million copies in the U.S. alone. Sigh was one of the five best-selling albums of 2011, despite actually being released back in 2009, giving you a pretty good idea of the album’s impressive staying power.
Still, given the fact that the group hasn’t done much to raise their profile or change up their sound in the years since Sigh No More‘s release, you’d think the chances would be pretty good that Sigh would represent the peak of the group’s performance, and that it would be diminishing returns from there. But it appears instead that Mumford and Sons are just entering their pop peak, and that Babel might end up cementing the group as one of the country’s biggest, with a surge of Grammy nominations and general acclaim seemingly inevitable to follow.
How is this happening? How did a folk quartet with seemingly no relation to the rest of popular music become the year’s best-selling act? Well, you could have asked the same questions last year about Adele, whose 21 ended up far outselling the likes of Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and Rihanna despite falling into few (if any) of the modern trends in pop music. The same could have been said about such other surprise blockbuster acts over the course of the 21st century as Norah Jones, Susan Boyle, even the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, all of whom went super-multi-platinum without much in the way of hit singles or pop currency.
But why Mumford and Sons specifically? Well, the group does hit a lot of the same demographic tics as some of those previous surprise-blockbusters—they’ve got a sort of retro sound and sensibility that appeals to older music listeners, they sound very serious (which also helps them sound “important”) and their music is very emotionally rousing. Their appeal is very similar to that of the first few Coldplay albums, before they started hanging with both Brian Eno and Jay-Z and getting simultaneously a little too weird and a little too pop for NPR-type audiences, and left a sort of void in their market.
And to be fair, their first few songs were very good. “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave” packed some of the best melodies and vocal harmonies of any popular songs of their era, with lyrics that felt personal and complex without coming off as pretentious or alienating. It’s partly to their credit that success hasn’t inspired them to change their sound any, but that consistency is almost to a fault, where it becomes slightly exhausting—at least for us here at Popdust, if not the 600,000 served—to listen to the entirety of Babel, since so many of the songs seem to have the same sort of instrumentation, structuring and dynamics.
Still, that occasionally overbearing consistency at least allows them to have a coherent brand, so that when you buy a Mumford and Sons album, you pretty much know exactly what you’re getting—a factor that can’t really be undervalued these days when it comes to album sales. (Just ask the Dave Matthews Band, owner of 2012′s then-third-biggest sales week, despite the fact that non-fans probably had no idea they even had an album coming out.) Mumford might not be gaining a huge number of new fans with their new album, but few of their already-extant fans are gonna be disappointed with their purchase of Babel.
Big pop hits, big-name guest stars, big music videos…it looks like these things are all far less important when it comes to record sales these days than having an identifiable sound, an identifiable audience, and a solid, consistent product. Too bad nobody told Carly Rae.