Will the Music Industry Enjoy an “Adele Effect”?

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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.

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  • Taylor Swift’s 1989 has sold 8.6 million globally.

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  • Justin Bieber’s Purpose, considered a comeback critically and commercially for Bieber, has sold 1.2 million copies.

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

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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.

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Adele and Taylor Swift: The Diva and the BFF

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Adele and Taylor Swift succeed by writing and performing personal songs that connect emotionally with a fan base consisting mostly of women. But they have pursued markedly different approaches to building their personal brands, demonstrating that superstars can write their own rules.

Taylor Swift, who turned 26 December 13, is all about accessibility. She saturates the public eye by courting the news media, being open on social media, touring heavily, and doing endorsement deals that keep her face visible. But she’s not only ever present; she also connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Adele cultivates mystique. She is not quite a private diva like Barbra Streisand was in the 1970s, but she’s nowhere near as accessible as Taylor Swift is. She has tweeted a total of 20 times in 2015 (as of December 11), and she vets everything she tweets. Her social posts usually consist of bland news about her career. Adele maintains a private reserve. She does not do commercial endorsements. There is a sense of vulnerability about her, informed by her real-life experience of enduring a career-threatening throat ailment in 2011. She is only 27, but she seems like an old soul.

Taylor Swift creates moments. Adele creates The Moment. In 2008, Adele broke through to U.S. audiences by owning a huge moment: an appearance on Saturday Night Live in which she sang “Chasing Pavements” and “Cold Shoulder” from 19. The appearance triggered a spike in sales for 19 and made her a superstar in the States. She marked the release of 25 with another highly publicized and well-received Saturday Night Live appearance that created a surge in SNL viewership. She followed up SNL with appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and TODAY and will broadcast a one-hour special concert December 14 on NBC (it’s a prolific time for NBC and Adele).

Adele is well suited for engineering giant moments that rely on the reach of mass media such as TV. She can use her powerful voice and commanding physical presence to make an impact through a televised concert. Television is not as kind to Taylor Swift. Her lighter voice and willowy presence seem small when she performs on televised events such as The Grammys. She is better off creating her own moments on social media and in her own well choreographed concerts and videos, where she can surround herself with a stage that plays up her assets. Each stop in her global, 85-show 1989 tour has triggered branding micro moments as fans capture the experience through Instagram, Tumbler, Twitter, and other social platforms. Her tradition of sending personal gifts to fans (moments she has documented on YouTube), dubbed “Swiftmas,” is a brilliant example of Swift at her best (even if she did attract some snarky criticism for attempting to trademark the term).

Both Adele and Taylor Swift are protective of their music, famously withholding their albums from streaming services such as Spotify. In 2014, Swift withdrew all her music from Spotify because she believes Spotify hurts music sales and fails to compensate artists properly (a view that is shared by many, to say the least). Adele restricted 25 from streaming services (and had initially done so for her last album, 21) to protect music sales.

This is not to say that they’ve withheld their music from the digital realm — far from it. On December 13, Swift announced she would stream her 1989 world tour video exclusively on Apple Music December 20 as part of a broader co-branding relationship. Meantime, Adele’s single “Hello” has become the second-fastest video ever to hit 100 million YouTube views ever. Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and “Shake It Off” have more than 2.5 billion views between them as of December 11. “Hello” and “Shake It Off” also express the distinct personas of these two superstars: the moody “Hello” dramatizes Adele’s brooding romanticism while the quirky and playful “Shake It Off” celebrates Swift’s chirpy optimism.

Their strategies are working handsomely. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift its top artist for 2015. 1989 is only the fifth album to spend its first year in the weekly Billboard 200’s top 10. As of December, her 1989 concert tour had grossed $240 million. She is the first and only artist to have three albums sell more than one million copies in the opening release week. 1989 has sold 5.4 million units, and even though the album was released in 2014, it was the top seller of 2014 — until Adele’s 25 became the year’s biggest seller only three days after its November 20 release.

As of December 11, Adele’s 25 has sold 5 million copies, the first album to sell 5 million in a calendar year since her last album, 21, was released in 2011. In its first week of release, 25 sold more than 3 million copies, setting a new record for most album sales in a single week — a feat even more impressive when you consider that the previous record holder, NSYNC, achieved its massive numbers before the era of digital downloading and streaming. At one point, 25 was accounting for nearly half of all music sales.

But most importantly, Adele and Taylor Swift share a commitment to writing personal songs about their lives, oftentimes about the ups and downs of relationships. They have inherited the mantel of heartfelt singer-songwriter from the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Stevie Nicks. By drawing upon universal themes such as the heartbreak of loss, the joy of independence and sexual liberation, and the pleasures of growing up, Adele and Taylor Swift write songs that appeal to a broad audience. Their personal brands extend the reach of their songs even more widely.

What works for Adele and Taylor Swift may not work for lesser-known artists although Swift’s accessibility to fans and brands is a more advisable route for unknowns attempting to build their reputations. It remains to be seen whether lesser artists can afford to avoid streaming like Adele and Taylor Swift have done. Few musicians have the clout they possess. But if the up and comers can make it to their elite level, Adele and Taylor Swift demonstrate that successful artists can still write their own rules even in the fractured music industry.

Bond Is Back

James Bond is back. And he brought his brand with him. Skyfall, the twenty third film in the 007 movie franchise, lands today in movie theaters across the United States after earning £50 million in 10 days in the United Kingdom (a U.K. record). In fact, Skyfall, the third Bond to feature Daniel Craig, began conquering audiences long before the movie opened. Skyfall has generated strong buzz through a masterful mix of PR and marketing that capitalizes on 2012 being Bond’s 50th anniversary on film. By celebrating both 007’s past and his future, Eon Productions, which has reaped $4.9 billion from the Bond movie franchise, has positioned Bond as a brand with timeless appeal.

You Can’t Buy This Kind of Advertising

You know can always tell when a phenomenon enjoys media saturation by walking through a busy airport terminal past the crowded newsstands, which give you a quick snapshot of pop culture from magazine covers vying for your eyeballs. Daniel Craig’s macho face is everywhere, gracing the covers of publications ranging from Entertainment Weekly to Vanity Fair. And the PR explosion has occurred at international, national, and local levels. In London, Bond graces the Continue reading

Is rock dead?

What does the future look like for rock and roll? It’s a question that will surely be on the minds of participants at the 2012 South by Southwest Music festival, which kicks off this week. I believe the future of rock and roll is very bright — if you’re willing to think of rock as the sugar in someone else’s tea.

Rock was, at best, a supporting player at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, with major rock awards such as Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album being relegated to the Grammy pre-telecast. And if Billboard magazine is any indication, rock is actually being assimilated into a more diverse palette of genres ranging from pop to rap. Rock was barely an afterthought in Billboard‘s Year in Music for 2011 issue. Pop acts like Adele and Justin Bieber ruled the year based on sales figures, with club music asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, Billboard’s 2010 Year in Music issue noted that in 2010, only one rock band reached the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 (Train, with “Hey, Soul Sister”).

In fact, no rock act has cracked the Top 10 in the annual Billboard Top 200 in either 2010 or 2011. The list of Top 15 Billboard artists in 2011 says it all: Continue reading