Adele's Army: How the Singer's Female Fans Catapulted Her to Sell More Than 4 Million Albums

Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU 
Adele during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on November 23, 2015.

How did Adele sell more than 4 million albums in two weeks? By captivating and energizing a "diaper-changing, lunch-packing" female audience that most artists and labels typically ignore

As Adele continues to ­obliterate modern sales records, we need to look outside the music ­business to find ­parallels for her dominance.

To whom should we compare her? Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs, 12 more than the previous record? Squash star Jahangir Khan, who won 555 matches in a row?

 

The out-of-the-gate pace of 25, Adele's third album, has established her as a singer of almost freakish popularity. In her first week, Adele sold 3.38 million copies, according to Nielsen Music, a 40 percent increase from the previous debut sales record of 'N Sync's 2000 album No Strings Attached. (That was the year total album sales for the industry peaked. Adjusted for the constant deflation in CD sales since then, Billboard calculates that her 3.38 ­million copies sold equal 12.1 ­million in 2000.) 25 is also the first album to sell a million copies in consecutive weeks. "No one saw this coming," says Nielsen analyst Dave Bakula. "The highest forecast was a million short of what she sold."

 

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For everyone who hopes Adelemania presents a case study on how to end the record business' 15-year slump, the ­questions are: How did she do it, and can we do it too?

She broke these records the same way Barack Obama and Bill Clinton won two terms as president: with support from women. According to a Nielsen study, 62 percent of Adele fans are women, ­compared with 59 percent for Beyoncé and 54 percent for Taylor Swift.

 

"Adele's music is very feminine," says Meredith Rollins, editor-in-chief of Redbook, a mainstream-leaning women's magazine. "It's passionate, and there's a bit of relatable rage, as well as heightened emotional content -- like a Shonda Rhimes show, there are no dull moments. Adele is beautiful, not teeny-tiny, and talks about her failings. It comes at a perfect moment when women are sick of seeing people who seem perfect or unattainable."

 

According to Nielsen, most female Adele fans are 25 to 44, with children. And because Adele's base is slightly older and significantly more female-skewed, her decision to withhold 25 from ­streaming sites (which skew male) wasn't much of a factor, says Bakula. "Only a small ­percentage of people buy a record if they can't find it streaming -- generally, they move on to something else. She's an outlier of outliers because she brings in people who are not regular music buyers. Maybe they haven't bought a record since Adele's 21," which has sold 11.3 million copies in the United States.

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Because Adele isn't active on social media -- only six tweets in the first half of 2015 -- some observers have concluded that Twitter and Facebook are overrated as marketing tools. But Maria Bailey, author of eight books about marketing to ­mothers, says Adele's success reinforces the ­importance of social media: "Moms share, on average, six times more on social media than any other demographic. By appealing to moms, Adele had a built-in marketing machine in place." She didn't need to tweet because she had an army of ­surrogates who sense a ­kindred set of values in the singer, much as they do, says Bailey, with Etsy sellers or Jessica Alba's Honest Company products. They're happy to buy a record they love, rather than stream it, because it's a treat that's affordable, as opposed to, say, a Coach bag.

 

Adele's fans have "moved into the ­executive function of life -- you change ­diapers and pack lunches," Bailey ­continues. "As a mom, you become a ­functionary, as opposed to a visionary. Thus, you're nostalgic for what could've been. And Adele sings like a middle-aged woman -- her lyrics are the soul of nostalgia."

 

"Lyrics are important to my listeners," says Heidi O'Brien, who programs The Blend, SiriusXM's "bright pop hits" station, where Adele is a core artist. "They want to hear songs they can relate to. Her lyrics reflect my feelings if they were put to song."

 

When mothers discuss Adele, the words "authentic" and "relatable" come up frequently, as do her voice, sense of humor, unfiltered honesty and contentment at being plus size, as well as the dignified way she has kept her 3-year-old son away from paparazzi, while also saying her schedule is now "built around my kid."

 

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"She's a good role model for my ­daughters," says Anastasia Weis, 48, a mother of three in Louisville, Ky., "because she has been successful without antics or wearing weird outfits. She seems like one of my friends from carpool, a normal person who happens to be incredibly successful."

 

Many moms express a distaste for ­current female celebrities -- especially, but not only, Kim Kardashian. "Rihanna's fun but not someone I can relate with," says Jen Rabulan-Bertram, 39, a New Jersey mother of two who bought 25 at Target. ("I had no idea where to even buy a CD anymore!") "We can feel the pain Adele feels. Her songs are cathartic."

 

The family-friendly factor is another part of the appeal. "My children and I can all enjoy Adele's music together," says Susan Pazera, a mother of four from Long Island, N.Y. "You don't get that a lot. When I play Guns N' Roses, my kids are like, 'Turn that off. I can't stand it,' " she says with a laugh.

 

Every day, Dave Bakula, the Nielsen ­analyst, gets phone calls from music ­executives asking him to explain Adele's success. Labels hope her success is ­repeatable; maybe the lessons can be transferred to a new signing or a comeback album. But Adele doesn't work as a case study because she's an anomaly that can't be simulated. The record business loves to sign "nexts" -- the next One Direction, the next Luke Bryan -- but the best-selling ­artists have never been imitators. When The Beatles started, they sounded like no one else. Same with Elvis Presley, Garth Brooks, Metallica, Madonna, U2, Adele and others.

If there's one lesson to be taken from the success of 25, it's this: Success is a lot easier when your previous record sold 11 million copies. And women adore you.

Billboard Year in Music 2015

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of Billboard.