How Do 'American Idol' Winners Fare in the Music Industry?


Gabbii Jones competes on the new season of ‘American Idol.’
Photo:

ABC

The new rendition of “American Idol” is being judged primarily on the ratings and buzz it generates for ABC. But can the show, whose 16th-season premiere over the weekend drew 10.3 million viewers, still make good on its stated mission to catapult singers into music-industry stardom?

Based on sales by winners of “Idol” and other music-competition shows in recent years, the launch platform seems shaky. The genre’s most successful acts, including

Carrie Underwood

and

Kelly Clarkson

(now a judge on NBC’s rival series “The Voice”), emerged from the first handful of seasons of “Idol,” when it had an easier time seizing national attention.

‘American Idol’ finalist Clay Aiken, left, and second 2 winner Ruben Studdard, right, present the first season’s winner, Kelly Clarkson, with a platinum record plaque for her debut album.
‘American Idol’ finalist Clay Aiken, left, and second 2 winner Ruben Studdard, right, present the first season’s winner, Kelly Clarkson, with a platinum record plaque for her debut album.
Photo:

Vince Bucci/Getty Images

In addition to the stratospheric, network-television ratings of “Idol,” top contestants rode the last waves of the CD era, as well as the rise of digital downloads.

Apple’s

iTunes store launched in 2003, the year after “Idol” debuted on Fox.

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Judging ‘American Idol’ and Its Stars

The ability for ‘American Idol’ to launch successful music careers was already waning by the time the show’s viewership peaked in season 5.

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Winner’s career album sales*

Average viewers per episode

SEASON

WINNER

30

20

10

0 million

18.9M

1

Kelly Clarkson

2.7 million

2

Ruben Studdard

3.9 million

3

Fantasia Barrino

21.7 M

4

Carrie Underwood

822,178

5

Taylor Hicks

2.6 million

6

Jordin Sparks

2.0 million

7

David Cook

799,856

8

Kris Allen

338,062

9

Lee DeWyze

2.8 million

10

Scotty McCreery

2.7 million

11

Phillip Phillips

67,686

Candice Glover

12

30,695

Caleb Johnson

13

36,279

14

Nick Fradiani

55,479

Trent Harmon

15

*Include albums and ‘album equivalent units’ (10 track sales equal one album; 1,500 streams equal one album).

Source: Nielsen

How Do ‘American Idol’ Winners Fare in the Music Industry?

“The shift to digital is something ‘Idol’ benefited hugely from. Every night they’d release songs to iTunes, and that’s where the instant gratification factored in,” says Nielsen analyst

David Bakula.

The iTunes chart was scrutinized as an indicator of voting results ​that would be revealed on the next episode, and established recording artists like Queen and the Bee Gees received sales bumps when their songs were covered by contestants.

Now music is in an entirely different place. Revenue from streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music surpassed those from digital downloads around the time Fox stopped airing “Idol” in 2016. When Spotify’s Top 50 chart is dominated by hip-hop acts with upward of 2 million daily streams, can aspiring pop stars from TV compete?

This season’s ​“Idol”​ winner receives $​250,000,​plus a recording contract with Hollywood Records.

Disney,

which owns the record label as well as ABC, has an incentive to propel winners to success in both media.

“Idol’s” season premiere on Sunday was down 6% in total viewers compared with the premiere of its previous season. Its second episode on Monday was watched by 8.4 million, going head-to-head with an episode of “The Voice” that drew 11.7 million viewers.

However, when comparing the track record of “Idol” stars to those of “The Voice,” there isn’t any competition. Combined sales for all “Voice” winners and finalists add up to about 7 million albums—less than a third of Ms. Underwood’s sales alone.

The accompanying chart shows ratings for each season of “American Idol” alongside career music sales of that season’s winner. It doesn’t include tallies by other contestants, who in some cases went on to outsell the season’s winner. They include season 2 runner-up

Clay Aiken

(5.2 million albums), season 5 finalist

Chris Daughtry

(9.4 million) and season 8 runner-up

Adam Lambert

(2.3 million).

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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