When Forbes publishes its annual list of highest-earning musicians in December, Adele’s name will surely be on it. Her astronomical album sales, even surpassing the standards of the pre-digital era, will be a large part of the story. Within its first seven weeks of release, 25 had sold 15 million copies worldwide, including about 8 million in the United States. 25 set a new record for most album sales in one week, an incredible feat given that 25 was released in the digital age. She also made headlines for refusing to stream 25, joining Taylor Swift and other artists who have protested that streaming services fail to compensate artists fairly and cannibalize music sales. Adele’s success has also raised the possibility that record albums, after experiencing years of declining sales, might come back in 2016, with the rising tide of 25 lifting all boats. Will the music industry enjoy an “Adele effect,” or is Adele’s success an anomaly?
Are Record Albums Coming Back?
Without question, 25 refocused attention on the album,. As journalist Chris Willman wrote in Billboard, “[W]hat 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 . . . Voices matter. Albums, against all odds, 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.”
In other words, great music delivered in album-length form matters. And Willman has a point. Adele is not the only one making critically acclaimed received record albums that also sell. For example:
- Ed Sheeran’s X, released in 2014, has sold 10 million copies globally.
- Taylor Swift’s 1989 has sold 8.6 million globally.
- Justin Bieber’s Purpose, considered a comeback critically and commercially for Bieber, has sold 1.2 million copies.
- Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, released in February 2015, has sold 1.1 million units (even though Drake claimed it wasn’t an album proper).
- Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, while not achieving the coveted 1-million-selling platinum status, went gold and then some, selling close to 800,000 units.
There are more big albums to come: Drake (again), Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Katy Perry, and Kanye West are among the megastars dropping albums in 2016. All of them are capable of moving big numbers, too. Meantime, Rihanna’s Anti, released on January 28, went platinum in 15 hours — thanks to Samsung, which bought 1 million copies and gave them away as part of a promotion.
Even more promising is that younger artists who came of age in the digital era still make record albums even though they have every reason to venerate the power of singles. As Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic noted in 2015, millennial-era artists, such as Tyler, the Creator, and Kendrick Lamar, have made it a point to release major musical statements intended to be enjoyed as albums. And musicians continue to rely on striking album cover art to express their personal visions and market their music.
Not So Fast
But despite some high-profile examples of albums selling like crazy, the numbers don’t lie: album sales continue to slide. According to the 2015 Nielsen Music U.S. Report, total album sales (including compact discs, digital, and LP/vinyl) fell 6.1 percent in 2015, from 257 million units sold to 241 million units sold. (One bright spot: vinyl sales actually increased, from 9.2 million to 11.9 million.) Another telling statistic: sales of catalog albums (18 months or older) outperformed new albums, meaning that consumers were not buying what artists were selling in 2015. On the other hand, the rate of decline slowed — in 2014, album sales fell 11.2 percent.
Moreover, the success of 25 may very well be a fluke. According to Nielsen analyst Dave Bakula, people who bought 25 are not typical music buyers and therefore do not reflect a larger trend in the way we buy music. “[Adele is] an outlier of outliers because she brings in people who are not regular music buyers,” he told Billboard. “Maybe they haven’t bought a record since Adele’s 21” — the implication being that Adele is appealing to people who will not buy more albums until she releases another one.
Journalist Robert Levin concurs. As he wrote in Billboard,
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.
Interestingly, according to Nielsen, withholding 25 from streaming services probably made no difference to the albums sales. Why? Because most of her female fans consist of 25-to-44 years old women, with children, whereas streaming services are more popular with males.
I suspect album sales will continue to decline. If there is an Adele effect, it will slow the rate of decline. But the industry numbers don’t mean albums are dead. As an art form that builds a musician’s career they certainly are. But I agree with The Atlantic that the album retains its allure as an artistic statement just as creating full-length books does for writers. What’s changed is the role of the album. Albums remain important for these reasons:
- They create tent pole moments upon which artists can create enormous visibility. Kanye West isn’t performing Saturday Night Live on February 13 because he’s releasing a new YouTube video. He’s building momentum for his new album, Wave.
- They support tours. Taylor Swift’s 1989, released in October 2014, sold millions, which is just gravy for her. Commercially speaking, the real value of 1989 was to pave the way for her 1989 world tour, which made $251 million during its 85-show run from May to December 2015. Ironically, artists such as David Gilmour and Robert Plant give you free copies of their albums when you buy tickets to their shows, even though arguably they appeal to an older fan base that still buys albums.
- Album cover art retains power as a visual totem, distributed across a musician’s website, social spaces, offline advertising, and merchandising. For instance, Lady Gaga did a masterful job telling visual stories through the cover for her latest album, ARTPOP, and her fans used the album as inspiration to create fan art.
Katy Perry, who topped the Forbes list of highest-earning musicians for 2015, put it best: ““The record is that launching pad for all kinds of other creative branches.”
The days when record albums ruled are long over. And they’re not coming back. But record albums still matter.
This post is the final in a series that explores the Forbes list of the highest-earning musicians in 2015. Here are the others in the series:
“Millennials and Old People Rule the Music World,” January 25, 2016.
“Will the Women of Country Music Flourish in 2016?” January 18, 2016.
“Meet the New Music Moguls,” January 4, 2016.