To put things simply: These kinds of numbers are unheard of in the modern day recorded music industry.
To go into a bit more detail: Adele’s 25 sold the highest number of albums in its first week since Nielsen Soundscan began tracking point-of-sale information in 1991. The previous number one slot in 1st week album sales was held by *NYSYNC’s album No Strings Attached in 2000. Adele’s 25 shattered *NSYNC’s record by nearly a million copies. Adele’s 25 sold more albums in one week than any other album has over the past 24 years, and potentially even longer.
So what is it? How was Adele able to sell a record breaking number of albums in 2015?
Theories floating: Industry executives around the world have been arguing back and forth about how she did it. Notorious music industry contrarian extraordinaire Bob Lefsetz offered up his theory that her success is due at its core to the quality of the music. Many agree and I’ve heard the “she’s in a league of her own” argument thrown around. Others have referenced her digital marketing and social media campaigns which relied on a mysteriously brooding aesthetic to get people talking about Adele everywhere you looked for weeks leading up to the release. Some go so far as to say point blank it’s because she kept her music off streaming and video-sharing services like Spotify and YouTube.
All of these theories are valid and probably contributed in some way or another to her success. But none of these theories asses the key part of my question above: how was she able to do this all specifically in the year 2015? There have been other albums as great as 25. There have been as good if not better marketed albums than 25. Other artists have kept their music off of streaming and haven’t seen these kinds of results (remember last year’s Taylor Swift vs. Spotify drama)…
Here’s my theory: It’s not just that Adele was able to sell this many albums in 2015. It’s that only Adele could sell this many albums in 2015.
Here’s why: In 2015, streaming has become a major player and is helping to defeat illegal downloading as a preferred method of digital music consumption (as reported by digital music news). Streaming is more convenient than piracy, as you can do it immediately from your mobile device without taking up storage space. Plus it is free with services like YouTube and Spotify’s “freemium” tier.
Whether streaming is a good or bad thing for artists in terms of both short-term and long-term revenue is up for debate, with good reason. However, it is hard to argue with the fact that as streaming becomes more and more popular, illegal downloading will eventually become obsolete.
So when it was announced that Adele’s 25 was not going to be on streaming and video-sharing sites, one would think digital music fans would flock to illegal downloading sites. Instead, nearly 1 million fans went to the iTunes store on release day to buy the album. It’s a lot easier to justify spending $9.99 on an album that you really want when the majority of your music consumption is free!
Adele’s fans and music fans alike were willing to spend the money on her album because streaming has made most music accessible for little to no cost. 25 became a one-time splurge, a small purchase you had to make if you wanted to hear the album because it was going to be a pain in the ass to do it the hard (and illegal) way of piracy.
Sure, there are plenty more reasons that Adele’s 25 was able to sell as much as it did: the songwriting, the power of her voice, the quality of the music, the social media impact, the targeted advertising driving to physical retail, the late night performances, the Radio City Music Hall etc. But by many standards, 21 released in 2011 had a much stronger commercial appeal than 25 with mega-hits like “Rolling in the Deep,” “Someone Like You,” “Set Fire to the Rain,” and “Rumour Has It.”
The difference between 2011 and 2015: streaming.
Adele withholding her album from streaming did not cause people to download it illegally. Instead, they bought it. They kicked it old school. They got in their cars and drove to the nearest Target or Indie record store. Or they went on their phones and pressed the “buy” button on iTunes. They spent the $9.99 because they thought it was worth it. They thought she was worth it.
In conclusion: Adele’s album didn’t sell as much as it did despite the fact that it’s 2015, she did so because it’s 2015.