Pop quiz: which catalogue album sold the most copies in the past decade? Was it Bob Marley's Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers? Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon? Number Ones by Michael Jackson, perhaps, or maybe The Beatles' 1? Those are good guesses, but they're all wrong. The Noughties' biggest selling catalogue record (an album that is more than 18 months old and has fallen below No 100 on the Billboard 200 chart) was Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band's Greatest Hits, which has sold a staggering nine million copies since its release in 1994 and spent 660 weeks on the catalogue chart.
The recent announcement took many observers by surprise. The reason? Most people outside the US or aged under 45 don't have the faintest idea who Seger is. If you are not from America and of a certain age, you may have never heard a single song by the blue-collar rocker, who is best known in the US for hits such as Night Moves and Rock 'n' Roll Never Forgets. Even among the rocknoscenti, Seger's name rarely crops up. In fact, his influence hardly extends beyond a few grizzled hard-rockin' bands from his Detroit hometown and Kid Rock, who released a version of Seger's Turn the Page in the 1990s. So what on earth is going on? How did this 64-year-old gravelly baritone become the most successful back-catalogue artist in the first 10 years of the 21st century? Is it because, as Kid Rock said in 2004, Seger is "the voice of the working man and living proof of the American dream"? Or is there more to it?
Critics have pointed to certain structural reasons for the quiet triumph of Seger. "The chart is based on all album sales, physical and digital, while that album appeared on Billboard's weekly 50-position catalogue albums chart," says Silvio Pietroluongo, Billboard's director of charts. Because Seger's music is not available online, you have to buy it if you want to listen to it. Seger also enjoyed his first hit more than five decades ago and remains a core artist on commercial rock radio, particularly in the American Midwest.
But the key driver of his success is the use of his music in television advertisements. Chevrolet trucks used his song Like a Rock in a US commercial that ran for 13 years, the longest-running automotive advertising campaign in history. "A lot of money was invested in that song and people's attachment to it," says Howard Kramer, the chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, who helped induct Seger in 2004, 11 years after he became eligible.
For Kramer, Seger's success is about more than just massive TV exposure and radio support. It's about the idea of the Midwest as rock n' roll's heartland. "I grew up in Detroit so Seger is an integral part of my childhood," says Kramer. "He made pump-your-fist in the air rock 'n' roll and his songs told good stories." Seger's greatest 1970s hits were about memories of being young, including Night Moves and Turn the Page, which also proved a big 1988 hit for the heavy metal band Metallica. He penned songs for other bands too, including Heartache Tonight, the hit he co-wrote for The Eagles.
Seger took pains to present himself as a rock 'n' roll everyman. "Bob never surrounded himself with myth," says Kramer. "If you saw him in Michigan at a football game, he would stop and talk to you. He was completely unaffected. When he did his 2007 tour, his first for 10 years, people came." But Seger could sometimes be a little too American Midwest in his outlook. He last toured the UK in 1984 and allowed his most recent album, Early Seger Volume 1, to be available only at Meijer, an obscure Walmart-style megastore.
"He's a big artist," says Kramer. "I think that decision gives you some idea of how provincial he can be." Despite the occasional album release, Seger has spent the bulk of the past decade quietly, a devoted family man in his beloved Michigan. "He decided to stay home to be with his children," says Kramer. "But then with his money, I guess he can afford to."