Ahead of new album release after six years, decoding Adele's appeal in an age of accessibility and overexposure
Adele's paradoxical qualities — supreme glamour, salt-of-the-earth approachability — are key to her connection to fans, even after years out of the spotlight. Her new album 30 releases on 19 November.
The last time Adele released new music, six years ago, it became the type of hit many in the music industry thought was no longer possible. Her third album 25 sold nearly 3.4 million copies in a single week in the US, smashing records at a time when CD sales were cratering and streaming had not yet proved itself to be the saviour of the business.
Her newest release, 30, which arrives on Friday, is all but assured to be another blockbuster, though just how big is anybody’s guess.
Adele’s label, Columbia, is keeping mum about commercial projections. But the buzz in the business is that the album’s “equivalent sales” figure — a new metric that reconciles old-fashioned album purchases with song-by-song clicks on streaming services — will easily exceed 1 million in its first week out, and could go far higher.
No album has done so since Taylor Swift’s Reputation, four years ago. In fact, since 25 came out in late 2015, only four other titles (three by Swift, plus Drake’s Views) have had more than half a million full-album sales in a single week. Yet reports in music trade publications — neither confirmed nor denied by Sony Music, Columbia’s corporate parent — suggest that up to 500,000 copies of 30 on vinyl alone may be ready to go.
A wave of extremely high-profile promotion means that Adele’s audience has been fully primed. On Sunday, CBS aired Adele One Night Only, a prime-time concert special, interspersed with interview segments by Oprah Winfrey, which drew 10.3 million viewers — just shy of the total for this year’s Academy Awards. A few weeks ago, Vogue published simultaneous cover stories in its US and British editions.
“Her core fan base is incredibly wide-ranging,” said Hannah Karp, editorial director of Billboard magazine. “They still buy albums, still listen to terrestrial radio. That makes it easier to cut through the noise of the ever-growing amount of new music on streaming services.”
Adele, a 33-year-old North Londoner who has settled in an exclusive enclave in Los Angeles — where she is sometimes spotted courtside at basketball games with her boyfriend, sports agent Rich Paul — is that rarest of music unicorns: One who not only lands headline-grabbing hits but does so after years of inactivity, even near silence, contradicting every unwritten rule of pop star career management, which these days involves a steady stream of songs and near-constant social media activity.
“She defies gravity,” said Tom Poleman, chief programming officer of iHeartMedia, the country’s largest radio chain. “No other artist can release a new album after five, six years, and have this kind of success.”
Part of the appeal of Adele’s music may lie in its consistency. 'Easy on Me,' her latest single, is textbook Adele, with just piano, bass, and a faint bass drum heartbeat supporting her vocal fireworks. Like 'Hello' before it — and 'Someone Like You' before that — it is a classic torch ballad largely removed from the trends of contemporary pop production, yet it easily landed in heavy rotation on pop radio alongside upbeat, electronic hits like the Kid Laroi’s 'Stay' and Dua Lipa’s 'Levitating.' 'Easy on Me' has held at No 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart for the past four weeks.
On her CBS special, Adele sang outside Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, surrounded by a celebrity audience that included Lizzo, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Drake, with postcard-perfect sunset views of the Hollywood Hills. Yet the special seemed to make her relatable even as it rendered her a musical deity. “She’s as real, as down-to-earth, as we all believe she is,” Winfrey said, introducing the performance.
In her interview segments, Adele wore a striking white pantsuit, and spoke with disarming candour about her divorce, her late father’s alcoholism, and her experience losing more than 100 pounds through a vigorous training regimen. At points, her lines could scarcely have been written better by a magazine editor, as when she said that this is the first time she has “loved myself, and been open to loving and being loved by someone else.”
Those paradoxical qualities — supreme glamour, salt-of-the-earth approachability — are key to Adele’s connection to her fans, even after years out of the spotlight.
Since 25, Adele has become a streaming star. Like Swift, she was a notable holdout when the format was newer, keeping her full LP off streaming services for months to help maximise sales. Since then, Swift — whose protest was more rooted in her discomfort with free tiers of some services — has released six studio albums, gradually honing her approach to both streaming and sales (hello, merch bundles and vinyl pre-orders).
Adele, on the other hand, is diving headfirst into a vastly changed music business. Streaming now accounts for about 84 percent of recorded music’s domestic sales revenue, and while vinyl and deluxe CD packages can help push a new album to No 1, online clicks are usually vital to its success in the long run.
So far, Adele seems to have a strong position. 'Easy on Me' has been streamed 134 million times in the US since its release a month ago, according to MRC Data, Billboard’s tracking arm.
After 25, Adele’s songs drew 700 million to 800 million streams in the US each year, even with no new material, according to MRC. Chartmetric, a company that tracks streaming and social media data, found that the playlisting of Adele’s songs, while growing for years, shot up dramatically as anticipation for 30 grew this year. 'Easy on Me' is on almost 300,000 Spotify playlists, reaching nearly 360 million followers there, according to Chartmetric.
That success spreads to nearly every part of the music industry — brick-and-mortar retailers, streaming services, and radio stations. “She’s the Christmas present you look forward to,” Poleman said, “except Christmas only comes every five to six years.”
Adele's 30 releases this Friday on 19 November.
Ben Sisario c.2021 The New York Times Company
Prem Chopra and his wife are admitted to a Mumbai hospital and will likely be discharged in a day or two
Explained: Why Ukraine's culture minister is objecting to Netflix's Emily In Paris Season 2 over an 'offensive' character
Oleksandr Tkachenko has complained to Netflix over the 'insulting' portrayal of a character from Kyiv in Emily In Paris 2
Omarion joked in a video that if people run into him in the streets, they don’t need to isolate for five days