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Will Adele Be The Last Hurrah Of The Album Era?

Photo of Mark Mulligan
by Mark Mulligan

The much anticipated Adele album ‘25’ will go on sale on November 20th and its lead single ‘Hello’ hit the airwaves and Vevo today, with Adele doing an impressive number of near-simultaneous radio interviews in support. With ’21’ having been such an event culturally and commercially (it has sold 30 million copies) expectations are understandably high for ‘25’. While the odds are in favour of it being a success the world has changed a lot since ‘21’s release in 2011.   While we are a long, long way from music sales being a thing of the past (they’ll still represent 50% of recorded music revenue in 2020) there is no doubt that the glory days of blockbuster albums are on their way. Could it just be that ‘25’ will be one of the last greats of the album era?

Subscriptions Leave A Gap In The Album Buyer Customer Base

By the end of 2015 music sales revenue (i.e. downloads and physical sales) will be more than a quarter down on 2011 levels. Streaming revenue will have tripled over the same period, adding close to the same revenue that sales lost. That’s good news at a market level but problematic for album sales. Given that music subscribers are the industry’s super fans that shift leaves a big gap in album sales.

The industry’s attempt to compensate with ‘album equivalent sales’ in charts is a fudge that does more to make charts a reflection of streaming era ‘airplay’ than it does sales. The growing focus on genetically modified pop music by major labels is another temporary work around that will also ultimately fail to address the underlying issues.

Adele’s Mainstream Fan Base Insulates Her From Streaming Disruption

But for Adele’s ‘25’ many of these concerns will probably be relegated to the fringes. Why? Because so much of her music buying audience are not your average Spotify subscriber. Part of ‘21’ being such an event was that it touched so many people that it brought infrequent music buyers out of the woodwork. These passive music buyers are the ones still buying CDs and downloads. And before you dismiss CD buyers, they accounted for nearly half of global music retail sales in 2014 and generated three times more revenue than streaming.

But these passive music buyers are steadily seeping out of the market. CD players are disappearing from the living room, the car and laptops, let alone the high street.  Meanwhile download stores are getting steadily downgraded as their corporate parents pursue streaming dollars. The problem with pulling infrequent buyers out of the woodwork is that they are less likely to still be even infrequent buyers 4 years later. The music industry of course needs a transition path for these consumers (and 9.99 subscriptions are not it)…but that’s another story entirely…

Streaming Will Likely Strike Only A Flesh Wound To 25's Sales

Even with these caveats ‘25’ has the potential to be another huge hit that drives sales at scale across the mainstream. In doing so it might just be the last really big success of the album era because there aren’t many other artists with Adele’s ability to transcend diverse demographics and fan bases and that do not rely upon music aficionados or young teens as their core music buying fan bases.

Will ’25’ sales be affected by the new streaming world order? Of course, but – assuming the album is good enough - the likelihood is that issues keeping music industry execs awake at night will deal a flesh wound rather than a mortal blow to its success.

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Great post. Adele is definitely an interesting case for how to album sales are still critical for those handful of fan insulated artists at the very top. I've also noticed a trend at the other end of the spectrum, the very small artists sell as much or more from vinyl than downloads and streaming.