Adele's Streaming Decision: Not Unexpected, Not Easily Copied

adele, when we were young, video, 2015
Courtesy Photo

A still from Adele's 2015 "When We Were Young" music video.

Adele's much-anticipated album 25 will not be available on streaming services on Friday, but it's not the kind of news that would shock Vegas oddsmakers.

"I don't think it's a surprise. She didn't do it with 21," says Tyler Goldman, CEO of North America at Deezer, one of the streaming services that won't have 25 on Friday.

Adele '25' Won't Be On Streaming Services

The streaming services were said to be uncertain about 25 until Thursday (Nov. 19). Whether Adele made a last-minute decision or the label wanted to wait as long as possible to transfer the files -- a common tactic for preventing leaks -- one service was ready to ingest the songs on very short notice, according to a person with knowledge of the process.

Fortunately for streaming services, few big artists either delay or hold back releases from streaming services. The most well-known case, Taylor Swift, pulled her catalog from Spotify last November out of concern for the royalties paid from the service's ad-supported listening, according to the singer. That prompted a defense from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and propelled an existing debate about streaming business models beyond music-industry circles.

There have been many streaming holdouts over the years: Coldplay, the Black Keys, Radiohead and frontman Thom Yorke, Bjork, metal label Century Media back in 2011 and distributor STHoldings three years ago, among many others. Some have pursued a windowing strategy by releasing an album first to retail and later to streaming services. Jason Aldean pulled his catalog just days after Swift but, citing fan complaints, returned his music to Spotify on Nov. 6.

Adele arguably needs streaming services less than any previous holdouts. Most artists would risk career suicide by following the success of her breakthrough album 21 with a prolonged media silence, but her stature only grew. "Adele is a music-industry anomaly. She could release her album on cassette only and it would still be the biggest-selling album of the year," an industry source tells Billboard.

Spotify Hopes Adele 'Will Give Those Fans the Opportunity Very Soon' to Stream '25'

Not that 25 hasn't benefited from streaming. The video for "Hello" racked up a record 50 million views in its first 48 hours of release and became the second-fastest video to reach 100 million views. On Tuesday, she released through her Vevo channel a video of a live performance of the new song "When We Were Young." The video had been viewed 12.6 million times through late Thursday afternoon.

But Adele has created a clear demarcation between promotion and sales that could help her have the biggest sales week going back to 1991, the year Nielsen Music launched. Sources revealed to Billboard the album will ship 3.6 million physical copies in the United States, and based on current projections for both physical and digital sales, 25 could sell 2.5 million units in the United States in its first week.

Streaming services that helped create this demand may have reason to feel shunned. After all, they have raised the profiles of some of the very artists who later bypass their platforms. "It's the law of the commons problem," says Goldman, referring to the theory that individual pursuits can harm the well-being of a collective group. "She's benefiting at the expense of others."

The artist-service relationship is a tricky one. Streaming services have built themselves, at great expense and with much failure, into popular distribution channels with hundreds of millions of users -- billions for YouTube -- around the world. Many artists seek to win their favor in hopes of a career boost. At the very least they gladly use them as a promotional tool while complaining about their royalty rates. On the other hand, streaming services rely on creators and rights owners to supply them with their content. The result has been an uncomfortable co-dependence. Occasionally there's an exception like 25 that doesn't need streaming services when launching an album.

25 could be the end of an era. Pent-up demand and a frenzied reaction to first single "Hello" -- not to mention stellar reviews -- has put 25 in a rare position of succeeding despite being unavailable where many fans want to hear it. But with CD and download sales declining, and subscription services pushing hard for mainstream acceptance, 25 might be one of the last major albums to choose digital scarcity over ubiquity.