Funny story: My sister-in-law was watching TV with her boyfriend recently when Adele appeared, as she has been wont to do this autumn, and the boyfriend — a twentysomething high school teacher and wrestling coach from rural Ohio — said, “Who’s that?” There’s your proof that at least one person in the Western world remains oblivious to Adele’s existence, but he might be the only one left.
21, the London singer’s 2011 breakout, was the kind of blockbuster rarely seen anymore, spending 24 nonconsecutive weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200, spawning three #1 singles on the Hot 100, and selling 11 million copies in the United States alone (31 million worldwide!). 25, her long-awaited follow-up, is on track to be even bigger. The album emerged two weeks ago and broke records many people long since ruled out as logistically impossible, most notably smashing *NSYNC’s 15-year-old record for most album sales in a week in just four days. By the end of the sales week Adele’s total was up to 3.38 million, and in the week since she’s easily surpassed 4 million.
With stats that make even Taylor Swift’s figures seem quaint — 1989 sold 1.287 million in its first week and has recorded 5.4 million sales to date, a total 25 seems destined to surpass within its first month — Adele’s latest has become the most massive music industry success story in recent memory. And she achieved those old-fashioned sales numbers selling old-fashioned music through old-fashioned means: a release date announced weeks in advance, a heavily promoted lead single with a big-budget video, wall-to-wall TV appearances, a few big magazine features, and, controversially, forcing people to actually buy the album if they wanted to hear it. Other musicians will inevitably try to replicate Adele’s staunchly traditionalist approach in the hopes of repeating her success, but it’s worth wondering whether her tactics would work for anybody else, even her fellow superstars. She may be more of an anachronism than we ever realized.
In a little over a year, we’ve seen two musical behemoths opt to keep their albums off streaming services in an effort to increase sales. For Adele and Taylor Swift, that strategy worked wonders, resulting in the bestselling albums of 2014 (1989) and 2015 (25). But Adele and Swift are outliers. As we’ve heard over and over during endless debates about the merits of streaming, it has some upsides, especially for relative unknowns looking to expose new fans to their music. In a market where fewer and fewer people buy music — and more and more of them are turning to streaming as their default mode of music consumption — the only musicians who can afford not to stream their catalogs are the ones with dedicated fan bases willing to show up every time they release new music.
Even among that superstar class, there are few performers who could feasibly do Adele/Swift numbers, and we have no way of knowing whether keeping their albums off streaming services actually provided them a significant sales bump. And thanks to Billboard’s reconfigured rules, many stars — mostly younger-skewing types like Ariana Grande — might actually cost themselves chart position by denying their audience streaming capabilities.
Consider Justin Bieber, whose Purpose boasted the best first-week sales of 2015 before 25 dropped. Even given his movement toward a more grownup look and sound, his fan base remains young and plugged-in. He landed a record 17 simultaneous singles in the Hot 100 in large part because people streamed his songs so many times. He’s got four of the top six songs on Spotify this week. Depriving his fans of that instant access might drive a few thousand more sales, but it also might defuse the excitement swirling around his comeback.
What about Drake, who scored two #1 albums this year without actually releasing a proper album, and whose “mixtape” If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late boasted the year’s best first-week sales before Bieber’s Purpose came on the scene? Drake is perhaps more closely associated with the internet than any other artist of his generation. His ability to make hits by simply uploading songs to SoundCloud without notice has been heavily documented. His biggest single ever, “Hotline Bling,” is best known for a video that debuted on Apple Music and quickly became a social-media-saturating meme. He might rap that going online isn’t part of his day, but his fans are online constantly, and his ability to constantly saturate the internet is a big part of his brand. Plus, even if he wanted to keep the forthcoming Views From The 6 off streaming services to see what kind of sales boost he might gain, his promotional deal with Apple probably precludes such a move.
Even Swift and Adele’s theoretical peer Katy Perry, whose mainline pop took a turn toward adult contemporary on 2013’s Prism and whose live show veered toward cartoonish family-friendly fun in recent years, might not stand to gain much by withholding her future releases from streaming services. Perry made $135 million this year, rendering her the highest-earning woman in music, but much of that income stems from touring (more than $2 million per show!) and some of it stems from promotional deals with Coty, Claire’s and Covergirl. (Maybe you’ve seen her bouncing around in various costumes for H&M’s new holiday ad campaign?) She is as much a business as a recording artist.
Even if Perry’s team calculates that she could make more money by keeping her album off Spotify, any superstar who attempts that gambit in the next few years will inevitably see their sales figures compared with Adele’s, and that’s never going to be a flattering comparison. If you’re Katy Perry, would you risk not selling as many albums as Adele or Taylor Swift in the first week? (“Not exactly Adele numbers, but she did alright.”) On the other hand, given Perry’s alleged rivalry with Swift, maybe she would risk it. Either way, the point is that only a small class of stars can afford not to stream their albums, and even many of those performers probably have good reason to keep their music online.
After Adele made history using a standard rollout — not to mention the gargantuan sales numbers for Bieber and One Direction’s recent non-surprise LPs — will we see the end of the surprise release tactic that has been a superstar mainstay since Beyoncé? Hard to say. The surprise-release thing works best when your audience is largely internet-based — see: Drake setting the world on fire with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, or even Thom Yorke doing his BitTorrent thing with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. So artists who appeal to the same older, less tech-savvy demographic as Adele were already not likely to go the surprise route. Can you imagine Sam Smith ever surprise-releasing an album?
Still, I don’t see surprise releases going away when even semi-traditionalists like Eric Church are doing it. The country star nicely reinforced his homespun brand by mailing his recent surprise LP Mr. Misunderstood to fan club members, then put the music online as an Apple Music exclusive, all of which kept him in the good graces of his core audience and the music press. And even though the album didn’t sell as well as last year’s The Outsiders, that’s partially because it was only available for two days of Billboard’s sales frame. If we see the death of the surprise album, it will more likely be because surprise releases cease to be effective.
SOCIAL MEDIA BLACKOUT?
Much has been made about Adele’s disappearance from public life during the years between 21 and 25, including an almost total absence from social media (partially because her management curtailed her access to Twitter due to her affinity for drunk-tweeting). Adele herself has argued that by going away, she gave the public a chance to miss her, which makes sense yet feels counterintuitive in an age when maintaining a strong social media presence has helped more than a few performers gain an audience. I’m not ready to posit Drake as the anti-Adele, but he again serves as a fine comparison point: The guy maintains a stranglehold on hip-hop by never going away, and that includes his constant Instagram uploads.
Drake uses social media smartly, in a way that maintains his mystique, but he uses it all the time. Swift’s social media presence could be the subject of a college course. Smith, whose music has drawn Adele comparisons his entire career, stays tweeting. Even Justin Timberlake — whose gap between albums was even longer than Adele’s, and who made a pronounced move toward conservative retro sounds — posts to his accounts regularly, albeit in a way that reflects his jovial Fallon-buddy persona. On the other hand, Kanye West has significantly curtailed his Twitter presence, and I’m not sure that’s really been a positive for him. If anything, I’d expect to see social media playing a more prevalent role for musicians going forward; even Adele’s gravitational pull isn’t strong enough to turn that tide.
SOCCER MOMS: THE HOT NEW TARGET DEMO?
Lastly, will we see the world’s superstars vying for the soccer-mom crowd that comprises Adele’s core fan base? Well, we’ve already been seeing that, long before 25 went supernova. Note Perry and Timberlake’s aforementioned conservative reinventions, or Smith’s carefully manicured balladry, or John Legend’s post-“All Of Me” ascendance, or even Meghan Trainor’s retro tomfoolery. Maybe the titanic success of Adele’s previous album threw some fuel on the fire, but soccer moms have always been a huge demographic — it’s what Jimmy Iovine was trying to get at with his bumbling comments about helping women find music. Why do you think American Idol skews the way it does? Make no mistake: Adele is the result of labels targeting soccer moms, not the other way around.
Of course any attempts to replicate Adele’s success will almost certainly fall short — which is precisely why Adele’s success is so impressive. This wasn’t just a carefully and deliberately calibrated rollout. This was a carefully and deliberately calibrated rollout that paid off because Adele is a once-in-a-generation star. Remember: Two weeks ago, my sister-in-law’s boyfriend didn’t know who Adele was. Now? He knows exactly who she is.
Psy – “Daddy” (Feat. CL)
It’s sad so many people poured so much time, effort, and money into this. It will be even sadder if it works.
Who Is Fancy – “Boys Like You” (Feat. Ariana Grande & Meghan Trainor)
Who is Who Is Fancy, you ask? He’s Scooter Braun signee Jake Hagood, and that affiliation is probably how he got two of the world’s biggest rising stars on a track with him. Too bad it’s not very good!
Ciara – “Oh Baby” & “Special Edition”
Ciara shared these two fairly traditional R&B tracks before Thanksgiving, and they’re both tremendous. “Oh Baby” gets the nod between the two of them because “Special Edition” severely rips off R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).”
Christina Milian – “Do It” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
Weird to see Milian and Wayne on a track together when their failed romance is all over the tabloids, but “Do It” is the kind of sub-excellent single I will always blast when it comes on the radio. For some reason this lyric is hilarious to me: “Baby I don’t usually do this/ I’m usually a virtuous woman.”
Plain White T’s – “American Nights”
These guys again.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Lionel Richie is trying to make that Adele collab happen for real. [E!]
- All the old judges will return throughout American Idol’s final season. [Access Hollywood]
- Sean Kingston was kidnapped in a weird jewelry trade. [TMZ]
- Jay Z and Beyoncé went to see Britney Spears in Vegas. [Billboard]
- Fetty Wap made it rain in a New Jersey mall. [NJ.com]
- Ed Sheeran filmed a cameo in new Bridget Jones movie because of course he did. [Instagram]
- Gwen Stefani, Pharrell, Nick Jonas, and Fifth Harmony are among next season’s Sesame Street guests. [EW]
- Stefani also performed her latest single on The Voice. [YouTube]
- Over Thanksgiving, Justin Bieber went to a college town bar and bought everyone shots. [E!]
- Drake is Spotify’s most streamed artist of 2015. (So far, I guess?) [Spotify]
- Luke Bryan, Demi Lovato, Wiz Khalifa, and Charlie Puth will play Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest. [ABC]
- Lady Gaga got another diamond certification, this time for “Poker Face.” [Billboard]
- Chris Brown canceled his Australia/New Zealand tour because he is not allowed to be there. [BBC]
- Selena Gomez cameos as herself in The Big Short, explaining how C.D.O.s work. [NYTimes]
- Taylor Swift might be flying her squad to Australia for her birthday. [Daily Telegraph]
- Iggy Azalea responded to Erykah Badu’s diss at the Soul Train Awards. [Twitter]