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Does Adele’s Historic Sales Performance Mark a Turning Point for the Music Industry? A Debate

Chris Willman and Robert Levine square off to argue whether Adele's boffo sales performance marks some sort of turning point for the long-depressed music industry.

Chris Willman

A is for Adele. It also stands for anomaly, if you listen to the quiet ­rationalizing coming out of some record-label circles about why the jaw-dropping success of 25 is an essentially unrepeatable phenomenon. Every few years, the ­thinking goes, we get a coffee-table album — an outlier disc that the grown-up, generally non-record-buying population has to have — and Adele’s album is just a Come Away With Me or O Brother, Where Art Thou? writ particularly large and front-loaded.

Maybe we could better rationalize away the Adele explosion if the case for a real sea change hadn’t also been signaled by the album that 25 replaced at the top of the Billboard 200: Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller, which had a startling two-week run at No. 1 after the little-known Southern ­powerhouse captivated the public in a TV duet with Justin Timberlake. (Adele and Stapleton have a rarely mentioned connection: She released a song of his four years ago, on her Live at the Royal Albert Hall set.) The message is clear: Soul never goes out of style — as a genre influence, a vocal character reference or a state of being. Likewise, neither Adele nor Stapleton fulfill anyone’s idea of what a pop star should look like in 2015, and you could see each sale as a protest, of sorts, against pop music’s ­hypersexualized, hard-body, youth-obsessed ideal. But crucially, Adele, like Stapleton, has more in common with the Taylor Swifts and Beyoncés of the world than many top 40 haters would care to admit: 25 counts just as many splashy, A-list ­songwriters as did, say, 1989. By seamlessly blending the auteur and hit-factory approaches to music-making, 25 became the rare record that everyone in the carpool could agree upon.

Adele’s ’25’ Set to Surpass 5 Million Sold in First Three Weeks in U.S.

Also not passe as rumored: buying albums. The fact that roughly half of Adele’s first-week sales were in physical form led to some comical jousts, like a BuzzFeed visual tutorial “For Those Who Bought Adele’s CD and Don’t Know How to Play It.” But what Adele has really revived, more than any style, is the primacy of the album as an ­emotional experience that a single digital track is not equipped to provide. Fans essentially got “Hello” for free on YouTube, but when the option came to download another track or two on release day, the vast majority wanted all 11 (or 14, deluxe). Because who ever thought they were due for a good cry and then wanted that cry wrapped up in five ­minutes? That most fans aren’t content to compartmentalize their ­bawling into 99-cent installments may be the best news the industry has had all year.

Voices matter. Albums, against all odds, still matter. Honestly jerked tears still matter. And when you can give a parched populace all these things, we’ve now learned, they will follow you to the ends of the earth … which we now know to be the downsized CD section at Target. If an entire nation is listening, the bonus good news is that the recorded-music business has to be too.

Robert Levine

When Elvis Presley died, the critic Lester Bangs wrote, “We will never again agree on ­anything as we agreed on Elvis.” In a more demographically diverse country, in an era of pop culture supposedly fragmented by the “long tail,” how could we?

Then again, The King likely never commanded a 42 percent share of all albums sold in the United States, as Adele did the week she released 25, according to Nielsen Music. In its second week, the album again sold more than a million copies, the only release to do so since at least 1991 (when sales figures were first officially recorded).

Adele performing onstage at Radio City Much Hall for NBC’s Adele Live In New York City in Nov. 2015. (Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

It’s tempting to see the success of 25 as great news for a ­business that still needs some — a sign that even casual music fans will still buy albums, not just stream or download individual songs. But while Adele’s success is champagne-popping news for her labels, XL Recordings and Columbia Records, it’s unlikely to change any of the business’ ­underlying problems. In decades past, a hit big enough to draw ­consumers into stores — think Thriller or even Born in the U.S.A. — would boost the entire business if enough record buyers walked out with another album as well. But that was when buying albums meant walking into a record store — and when there were far more record stores to walk into. Adele? She just leads to more Adele sales.

What labels need more than anything is a way to get casual music fans to pay for ­streaming ­services — but for now, 25 isn’t on them. Keeping new releases from certain services makes ­economic sense for megastars like Adele and Taylor Swift, although this will become harder as physical retail and download sales decline. In this case, what’s good for Adele may actually be bad for the music business.

Adele’s Best 8 Moments of 2015

It’s not clear what lessons labels could learn from Adele. The extraordinary success of 25 seems to defy explanation, let alone repetition. Labels have signed other retro-leaning British singers, with mixed results. Sony Music and XL deserve credit for their minimalist-marketing campaign, but it’s hard to imagine any CEO, no less a manager, doing minimal advance promotion or social media marketing for other artists.

Recently, labels haven’t had much success selling music to anyone besides teenagers, 20-somethings and dedicated fans. Adele’s success shows that grown-ups and casual music fans buy albums too. When two out of four music buyers purchase a single album, the audience for it is everyone. It’s hard to think of any precedent for this — Elvis and The Beatles became iconic at least partly because they alienated older ­generations, whereas Adele tugs at their heartstrings and then hands them a tissue. Success like hers is difficult to predict, and — ominously for the music business — almost impossible to repeat.

Billboard Year in Music 2015

This article was originally published in the year-end issue of Billboard.