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.