Clive Davis has a message for the music business. In the wake of a historic first week for Adele‘s third album, 25 — 3.38 million units sold, according to Nielsen Music, or 41 percent of all the albums purchased in the United States between Nov. 20 and 26 — the venerable executive and Sony Music chief creative officer declares: “This is a clarion call to everyone in the industry to look for the unique, the special and not reduce music to a formula.”
That sentiment is echoed by retailers coast to coast, from Target’s 1,800 stores to Trans World’s 309 locations, where vp/divisional merchandise manager Ish Cuebas ordered triple the chain’s normal amount on a highly hyped record — “If I run out of stock on this title, I’m a dead man,” he quips. On Dec. 1, 11 days after the record’s release, a buyer for Amoeba Records in Hollywood marveled to Billboard that he “just had to send another 60 down to the floor.”
“It’s exciting for the music business,” says Ryan Seacrest, host of the syndicated radio show On Air With Ryan Seacrest, whose home station, Los Angeles’ KIIS-FM, leads in its embrace of Adele’s “Hello” across the iHeartRadio network with 622 total plays since the single’s release, according to Nielsen Music, or a spin approximately every 90 minutes. “It shows that there’s still a mass, mainstream audience for music. People who want it will go out and get it.”
As 25 trends toward what could be a record-breaking, second consecutive million-selling week, executives and experts alike are analyzing the historic feat: Is this a teachable moment for the music industry or simply a miraculous one-off from a peerless talent? Have XL Recordings and Sony-owned Columbia Records crafted a new playbook for an album rollout, or were they just gifted with an extraordinary opportunity and didn’t bungle it? How did withholding the album from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music affect its out-of-the-gate momentum? As the numbers trickle in — international sales through the first week are in the 7 million range, a source says (Sony would not confirm any data) — industry experts estimate that had 25 been available for streaming, it would have sold 300,000 to 500,000 fewer copies. More than a sizable dent, but history already had been made without those sales.
“If you would have told me five years ago that *NSYNC‘s one-week sales record [of 2.4 million] could be broken, I’d think you were on drugs,” says the head of sales at a competing major label. “Adele’s success with 25 is an outlier in every sense of the word,” adds another senior label executive. “She is an anomaly to the business. She doesn’t abide by any of the rules.”
Indeed, if ever there has been an undersell when it came to marketing what is arguably the most anticipated album of the century (so far), it has been the 25 campaign. After months of secrecy, during which few were privy to such basic information as a projected release date and final song selection, the public, industry and merchants received 30 days’ notice with minimal press exposure for the 27-year-old singer.
“It wasn’t like a Taylor Swift plan where there is three or four months of build-up; it was a month of smart marketing, picking and choosing the right things to do,” says one insider, echoing the thoughts of another senior label executive. “She was around but wasn’t around; she was there but wasn’t over there. You got the impression that Adele was everywhere when in fact she wasn’t.”
That’s thanks to the directive of Adele’s longtime manager Jonathan Dickins, who, along with Columbia chairman Rob Stringer, XL Recordings owner Richard Russell and managing director Ben Beardsworth, and Columbia head of sales Darren Stupak and senior vp marketing Doneen Lombardi, took the reins on the project and opted for a highly selective smattering of outlets. At the top of their list: a network TV “package.” According to a source, Saturday Night Live impresario Lorne Michaels dined with Adele during the summer and the two formulated a plan to tape a Radio City Music Hall concert special for NBC, which Dickins and Stringer were especially keen on. That deal ballooned to include a performance slot on SNL (her episode was the show’s highest rated so far this season) along with appearances on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and a previously locked-down booking on Today.
Less visible but perhaps more crucial to Sony’s out-of-the-gate success: The label managed to avoid the inevitable prerelease leak, a significant accomplishment considering it had shipped 3.6 million physical copies just in the United States. How did Sony do it? By taking on the additional costs of drop-shipping product directly to most stores two days before the release date.
“You usually start shipping product to distribution centers two weeks before street date,” says the major-label sales head. “It’s amazing that they got all that physical product into the marketplace [without issue].”
“The Sony preparation was so well orchestrated that nothing was left to chance,” says Alliance Entertainment senior vp purchasing and marketing Laura Provenzano. “It’s like storm preparedness: We had strict controls in place, and every ship-to point was covered.” In fact, Stringer himself traveled to a store in North Bergen, N.J., on release day to check on the album’s arrival and positioning.
As for who’s on the buying side of the transaction, like everything Adele, her audience defies demos, seemingly spanning all ages (“8 to 80” is a favorite mantra of retailers), genders, races and physical locations (although worth noting: urban areas sold the most copies of 25, with the New York market in the lead, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago). Moreover, says Amoeba buyer Brad Schelden, it didn’t hurt that “there’s nothing embarrassing” about walking into a store to buy an Adele CD. “In fact, people are proud of liking Adele, even if they don’t shop at a record store very often. Someone comes in looking for Justin Bieber, they might say, ‘This is for my kid.'”
Says Seacrest: “My mother, the woman who works at the deli, the young guy who works at reception, they all love her music. That is unique to her because some artists don’t necessarily reach beyond 50-plus, and she does.
What’s ultimately drawing even the casual listener to this collection of music crafted by songwriters and producers such as Bruno Mars, Danger Mouse and Tobias Jesso Jr.? An emotional connection to the material. Legendary singer Aretha Franklin tells Billboard that Adele “reaches the woman of unrequited love, the man-that-got-away woman. There’s a tear in her voice that anyone who has ever been in love and lost is acquainted with. What sets Adele apart is her writing — lyrics women can relate to. But only time will tell where she stands in terms of other great vocalists of the 21st century, not sales.”
Seacrest concurs. “The reaction was the same all around the world,” he says. “Her songs, the lyrics, the melodies — they have layers and depth but are still understandably simple. At the end of the day, it’s great music.”
Curiously quiet are Sony executives, who will soon be able to toast an additional point of market share in 2015 — 8.9 percent projected for Columbia by the end of the year, compared with 6.5 percent for the 46 weeks of the year prior to 25‘s release and 7.8 percent in overall market share in 2014 — preferring to “let the project speak for itself,” says a Columbia representative. “It’s very XL to not be boastful,” adds a source. Speaking to Billboard, Jesso reveals that during the writing sessions, he would tease Adele about what was sure to be a huge first week. “She took it all with a grain of salt,” he says. “I don’t even know if she pays attention to numbers, to be honest.” Davis’ take: “The world was hungry for the real thing. Adele and her team should pop the champagne and enjoy it.”
Sony’s successful grand experiment now begs another question: Will other big stars follow Adele’s lead in windowing, or withholding albums from streaming sites, for an initial period? “The lesson learned here is that windowing will impact sales,” says one label executive, who bets “the industry puts a big microscope on it.” But, cautions another: “There are a handful of artists who can and should withhold from streaming. And we have exhausted that list for the moment.”
This article was originally published in the Dec. 12 issue of Billboard.