It’s the blessing and the curse of being Adele: When it comes to album sales and first-week numbers, you’re really only competing with yourself.
The global pop superstar released her heavily anticipated new album 30 this week — her first since 25 arrived six years ago. With 839,000 equivalent album units moved in its debut frame, the album easily passed Drake’s Certified Lover Boy and Taylor Swift’s Red (Taylor’s Version) for the best single-week number of 2021 so far. However, it’s still about a 75% drop from her most recent LP bow, when 25 opened with a historic 3.38 million copies sold in its first week of release in 2015.
How should Adele feel about her first-week number? And is any artist going to be able to move a million copies in their album’s first week again? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. 30 blows by the competition for this year’s best first-week sales number, with 839,000 units moved in its first week of sale. However, the number is only about a quarter of the historic first week (3.38 million) she experienced for her 25 album in 2015. If you’re Adele, how are you feeling about that first-week performance, on a scale from 1-10?
Rania Aniftos: 9. After a six-year break, I don’t think any artist can know for sure how their return to music will perform – especially if the last album broke multiple records. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. If I were Adele, I’d be thrilled that my fans welcomed me back with open arms with an objectively very impressive number of sales, despite the dip since the last album.
Katie Bain: 8. As we’ll get into below, albums simply don’t sell in the same way they used to, so 839,000 is more a reflection of the major ways music consumption has changed in the last six years than it is on the popularity of Adele — which clearly remains enormous given that 839,000 is the best first week sales number of 2021.
Jason Lipshutz: A 6. If you’re Adele, you’ve transcended the experience of worrying about first-week consumption numbers a long time ago, and can simply enjoy a guaranteed chart-topper whenever you release a lead single or new full-length. The fact that 30 arrives with lower-than-prognosticated equivalent album units may be enough to prevent too much champagne-popping — but when coming up short of commercial expectations still yields the biggest album debut of the year, how upset can you really get?
Jessica Nicholson: 7. Given streaming’s growth over the past six years, it’s expected that sales for this project would be lower.
Andrew Unterberger: A 5. Obviously nobody expected her to approach 3.38 million again — that was the Haley’s Comet of 21st century pop, an achievement that grows more staggering and improbable with each passing year — and even getting half that would have remained a fairly stunning feat. But only a quarter? Sure, you can’t compare eras, but it was only a year and change ago that Taylor Swift’s Folklore — a surprise release with no hit singles, a relatively uncommercial sound, and no physical availability at first — moved 846,000 in its first week. Adele is still unquestionably a superstar, and possibly the very biggest one, but she’s just not a superhero anymore.
2. Obviously there’s a ton of context that goes into 30 only doing a fraction of 25′s first-week number, including much that’s changed about the industry since 2015. What do you think the biggest reason is for the discrepancy between the two sets’ opening performances?
Rania Aniftos: I’m going to say that slow songs just don’t generate as much buzz lately. Over the past two pandemic-filled years, we’ve seen a musical craving for fun, disco-tinged pop with cheeky lyrics and maybe Adele’s ode to heartbreak brings down the mood as we try to heal from our worldwide trauma. It’s hard for me to say because I love a good ballad, but I haven’t heard many slow, emotional songs on the radio recently. But then again, it’s Adele. She could pull a Kanye West “Poopy-di Scoop” and probably still top the Hot 100 and move 839,000 units, so my opinion doesn’t really matter here.
Katie Bain: It has to be the proliferation of streaming, and particularly the eradication of streaming windows, a now antiquated-seeming model in which Adele and other superstars like Taylor Swift held new albums from streaming services for a period after the release to drive album sales. As noted in the article linked to above, “Adele’s 25 wasn’t on streaming services at all (besides the lead single “Hello”) until June 2016, over seven months after the album became available for purchase.” With 30, the most obvious answer seems that hardcore fans who would have bought the album during a circa 2015 streaming window are now just playing it via their DSP of choice.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s easy to forget that 25’s record-setting debut was caused primarily by what preceded it: one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. Thanks to the world-conquering success of Adele’s 2011 sophomore album, 21, interest in its follow-up when it arrived four years later could not have been higher, and that fever pitch produced what will likely stand as the biggest debut week for an album for a long time. Although 25 enjoyed its own successful run, its follow-up was never going to be as feverishly anticipated as the sequel to 21; combined with diminished album sales across the board, 30’s debut number was never realistically going to threaten that of its predecessor.
Jessica Nicholson: The lack of streaming windows. 25 was unavailable on streaming for seven months after its release in 2015, bolstering sales for the album. Adele had not released music in nearly five years by the time 25 came along, and was largely absent from the media spotlight for much of that time, further heightening music lovers’ anticipation for new music leading up to the LP.
Andrew Unterberger: Being two albums and a full decade away from the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon that was 21 — the last time Adele was truly at the very center of both pop music and pop culture — certainly has its impact. And while streaming availability is likely a necessary concession for every pop star to make in 2021, Adele is just never going to have the outsized impact on those services that she did in retail at her very peak — particularly not when many younger listeners now view her as music for their parents.
3. “Easy on Me” returns to No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week for its fifth week atop the chart — the third straight Adele lead single to reign for that long, following “Rolling in the Deep” and “Hello.” In your opinion, has the song proven itself worthy of being held alongside those two classics?
Rania Aniftos: Oh, yes. It has all the key ingredients for an Adele hit single: heartbreaking lyrics, a stunning piano melody and, of course, her once-in-a-generation voice. Adele gave her fans what they know and love about her with “Easy on Me,” layered with the comforting, mature perspective of a now-adult woman. It feels right at home with “Rolling in the Deep” and “Hello,” and it’s no surprise that “Easy on Me” has done this well.
Katie Bain: In October I mentioned that “Easy On Me” wasn’t my favorite Adele mega-hit, and my feelings haven’t warmed since then. That said, there are many, many people who feel differently, as proven by the song’s return to No. 1 this week. In terms of worthiness, the vocal run on “go eeeeeeeeeassy on me baby” is an earworm and certainly the song is absorbing into the collective consciousness through sonic osmosis even for those who aren’t big Adele fans, just like “Rolling In the Deep” and “Hello” did. While this one doesn’t pack as big of a punch for me as those aforementioned No. 1s, that doesn’t mean it won’t join them in the Adele canon.
Jason Lipshutz: “Easy on Me” has grown on me: when I first heard the lead single and doubted its staying power, I was just a child, as Adele might say, and didn’t yet get the chance to let its piano-ballad charms seep into my brain. Much like “Hello,” the song’s simplicity works in its favor, with a chorus designed to immediately be grasped and belted out on car rides with the volume turned way up. If “Easy on Me” isn’t quite on the “Hello,” “Rolling In The Deep” or “Someone Like You” level, it’s gotten closer for me than I anticipated.
Jessica Nicholson: Absolutely. It’s classic Adele — a raw, heart-on-your-sleeve style vocal comparative to “Someone Like You.” It’s pleading, elegant and intimate.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s not particularly close for me. Its commercial legs have certainly proven impressive, and many of the songs around it on 30 have grown on me since their release — but “Easy” has just never left a lasting impression on me: It’s nowhere near as emotionally visceral or bloody as “Deep,” or as overpoweringly dramatic and massive-sounding as “Hello.”
4. Of the non-“Easy” tracks on the set, “Oh My God” has the best Hot 100 debut this week with its No. 5 bow. Do you think it has the best shot of following “Easy” to smash status, or do you have your eye on another track on the set as having the most commercial potential?
Rania Aniftos: Since my first 30 listening, I knew right away that “Oh My God” would be the standout track after “Easy.” With an album all about “divorce, babe, divorce,” and two other albums filled to the brim with the more devastating aspects of heartbreak, it’s refreshing to see Adele be a little flirty as she navigates the dating scene again in “Oh My God,” which is an equally relatable part of moving on — and that’s likely why it’s connecting with so many people.
Katie Bain: If “Easy On Me” is the box of Kleenex your best friends passes you during the dregs of your breakup, “Oh My God” is the shot of tequila they encourage you to down on the night they finally get you out of the house. Saucy, singable and just really sophisticated pop music (and also the most R&B-oriented song on 30) “Oh My God” seems like it has potential to hit with younger audiences in a way “Easy on Me” might not be. There’s no reason this song shouldn’t be a major smash.
Jason Lipshutz: I’m still all in on “Can I Get It,” the lone Max Martin contribution to 30 that sports a kicky pop-rock setup, a whistle hook and Adele at her most unabashedly seductive. Whenever top 40 radio gets a hold of it, “Can I Get It” is going to linger in heavy rotation… and if Adele ever gives it a showy awards performance, the sky will be the limit for its commercial potential.
Jessica Nicholson: “Oh My God” has a great shot at becoming an official smash. Adele lets loose with these feather-light vocal runs, supported by a captivating R&B groove and an irrepressible melody. The song is already resonating with fans around the world, as evidenced by its No. 3 slot on Billboard’s Global 200 chart. Although, the stomping “Can I Get It” could set up a formidable challenge as a hit.
Andrew Unterberger: “Can I Get It” would absolutely have slayed late in the 21 rollout, when whistle hooks and drop-style instrumental hooks were thoroughly unavoidable on top 40 radio. It still could in 2021 — this is Max Martin we’re talking about, and he’ll keep scoring huge hits well into his second decade of cryogenic deep freeze — but “Oh My God” has the early advantage, and is probably the odds-on favorite at this point.
5. With 30 falling a little bit short of a seven-digit first week, the four-year gap since the most recent million-selling week for a new album (Taylor Swift’s Reputation in 2017) remains. Which current artist do you think is most likely to break the streak — or will it be one whose name we’re not all that familiar with yet?
Rania Aniftos: Rihanna! The Navy’s been desperately waiting for years, and that devoted fanbase will surely ride over on their battleships at the stroke of midnight on release day to buy those albums.
Katie Bain: If Taylor couldn’t do it with Folklore or Evermore and Adele can’t do with 30, I’m not sure who can. We know hip-hop fans typically consume music more through streaming than album sales, which makes Drake unlikely. With Beyoncé due for a new album and The Weeknd’s fifth studio LP forthcoming, both stars seems like strong possibilities. If neither of them achieves it, it’ll likely be some white-hot upstart we haven’t even heard of yet.
Jason Lipshutz: I’d guess it’s someone who’s not yet a mega-star. Perhaps under the exact right circumstances — a surprise, radio-friendly Beyoncé project? Frank Ocean’s pivot to commercial pop-R&B? A 60-song Drake album that puts streaming services in a chokehold? — a current superstar could get close to seven figures. But I’d guess that the next million-seller comes in a future iteration of the music industry, with an artist not yet on the mainstream’s radar. And in many ways, that’s a more exciting event to anticipate.
Jessica Nicholson: Possibly an artist who is not that familiar to music listeners yet—although, never rule out Beyoncé or Taylor.
Andrew Unterberger: Gotta give Rihanna heavy consideration here: She’s never put up numbers that massive during her recording career, but she spent most of it as one of the most prolific recording artists in pop, and was considered more of a singles artist than an albums one. Now it’s been over a half-decade since she released ANTI, the most beloved album of her career, and we’ve gotten barely anything new from her since. A new Rihanna album — especially one that arrived without much advance notice — would be an absolute game-changer, and would certainly be the most-streamed album in ages. (I wouldn’t count out Swift trying to get her ducks in a row to make this feat possible again for her next time out, either.)