On January, 13th at the Golden Globe Awards, Adele won best song honours for the theme from the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. It continues a remarkable run of success for the UK singer/songwriter, which will likely continue at the Academy Awards next month.
Adele’s 21 album was the highest-selling album of 2012 (with sales of more than seven million units worldwide), just as it was the top-selling album of 2011. It’s the first time since Soundscan began electronically tracking sales data in 1991 that an album has topped the year-end sales charts two years in a row. The album has sold more than 24 million units worldwide to date, making it one of the highest-selling albums in history.
Adele’s extraordinary success has defied conventional wisdom regarding album sales, and harkens back to the pre-Internet glory days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when major album releases frequently produced sales in the multi-millions. A quick scan of the list of the highest-selling albums of all time reveals that eight of the top ten were released in the 1970s or ‘80s. And of those top ten all-time sellers, none were released in the so-called post-Napster era (i.e. since 1998).
Of course, it’s only logical that the ‘70s and ‘80s produced most of the all-time top sellers. It was a time when entertainment options were much more limited. If you were young and had $20 in your pocket, it was either buy a new record or go to the movies. Today, those same young people have a myriad of options before them: Internet downloads, video games, smart phone apps, video-on-demand, etc., etc.
Thus, it’s even more amazing that Adele has managed to stretch beyond our current conventions and produce an album that has likely surpassed even the most enthusiastic expectations at her record label (XL/Columbia/Sony).
She’s done it by producing music that has clearly struck a chord with a wide swath of music buyers. Unlike other current top-40 artists (Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, etc.), Adele’s music seems to have multi-generational appeal, defying demographics. Her album is being purchased not only by teens and young adults, but also by their parents, and perhaps even their grandparents. It’s being purchased by consumers who rarely purchase pre-recorded music, by those who don’t download music illegally, perhaps because they don’t know how to download illegally.
Whether Adele produces another album to match 21 is almost beside the point; her place in music industry history is secure. The question now is what will record companies learn from Adele’s massive crossover success? Will they now focus their A&R efforts on singer/songwriters who don’t necessarily have a video-friendly image? Will we see the development of more artists with cross-generational appeal? Will younger artists like Taylor Swift or Beyonce work at cultivating an appeal with older consumers? Or, will Adele simply remain a unique phenomenon; a once-in-a-generation artist who defies explanation?