Can Adele save the music industry, or just slow its demise?
Hopes are high for star's comeback album, but analyst calls sales boost 'a muscle spasm of a dying corpse'
News that Adele is launching a new album following a nearly four-year hiatus came with sweeping headlines hailing the British songstress as the music industry's long-awaited saviour.
Hopes are high for 25, the third album from the Grammy-winning artist, due to be released Nov. 20. "Adele is here to save the music industry," pronounced Fortune. "Music industry breathes sigh of relief," said U.K. newspaper the Independent.
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It's a big burden to lay on one woman's shoulders, but the hype is not unjustified. In a changing industry, Adele has consistently bucked the trend and convinced people, en masse, to shell out their hard-earned cash on her music.
Her last album, 2011's 21, sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling album of the decade, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Already her single Hello has surpassed the record for digital downloads, defying the odds in an era where music sales are dwindling as audiophiles turn to subscription streaming services Rdio and Spotify.
The comeback track sold 1.11 million digital songs in its first week, demolishing Flo Rida's previous record of 636,000 for Right Round.
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"It's really incredible. You've got a market that's shifting dramatically to streaming, that is not as robust from a sales standpoint than it was before, and you get something that breaks the record not only by just a little bit, but really crushes it," said David Bakula, spokesman for Nielsen Entertainment, which tracks media consumption across all spectrums.
"I think that just goes to show the pent-up demand for Adele's music."
According Nielsen data, digital downloads have been on the decline for the last three years, and CDs even longer.
In 2013 alone, overall album sales in the U.S. saw an 11.2 per cent drop, CD sales were down 15 per cent, digital album sales declined 9.4 per cent and digital song sales went down 12.5 per cent. Music streaming, on the other hand, was up 54 per cent.
So what's so special about Adele?
Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst for the U.K.-based MIDiA Research, credits her "universal appeal."
Music aficionados and media-savvy youth are among her many listeners, he says, but her fan base is "very much rooted in the mainstream, the mass market."
"Adele is pretty much unlike any other artist out there. Her last album was an anomaly in and of itself. It was an album that managed to transcend different groups of music fans, transcend ages and demographics in a way that most artists don't, particularly to that scale," Mulligan told CBC News.
Her younger fans stream her singles — the video for Hello already beat the record for most single-day views on Vevo — but plenty of other people also download her albums and buy her CDs, a medium not to be discounted, says Mulligan.
"Across the globe, CDs still account for the majority of music sales," he said. "For Adele, it's probably Walmart and Best Buy that are more important, rather than Spotify and Apple Music."
The death of the album?
So can Adele save the music industry, as the headlines suggest?
Don't count on it, says Mulligan, who recently penned a blog post titled, "Will Adele Be The Last Hurrah Of The Album Era?" "I'd be too harsh to call it a stay of execution, but it just delays the inevitable," he says.
"The industry is in this massive transition, and if Adele's album sells incredibly well, that isn't a sign of the health of the industry. It's almost like a muscle spasm of a dying corpse."
A decade ago, it was still the norm for successful musicians to sell millions of copies of their albums, even with the rise of Napster and online piracy, Mulligan says. "Now, that's becoming the exception."
"There might be one or two more, but we're seeing the last days of" the music album, he said. "They're not going to disappear as a creative construct and they're not going to disappear as a consumption format, but as a mainstream sales vehicle, those days are definitely numbered."
There are, of course, other mega-stars who sell millions of albums. Taylor Swift's 1989 has sold a more than 8.9 million copies since its 2014 release. Beyoncé's self-titled 2013 album sold more than five million copies within a year of being released exclusively through iTunes.
But artists with the power to sell albums at these numbers are getting fewer and farther between.
"For me, those are legacy artists," Ani Johnson, a professor of music business and management at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, told CBC News.
Johnson said that, like most people, she casually streams and downloads music regularly, but when she buys an album it has to be something special. Beyoncé and 21 are both in her collection.
"I purchase those albums because of the lyrics. Their music speaks to me. I can connect to where they are in their life to my life, their pain, their joy, and I want to carry that artist with me," she says.
Johnson said she's definitely going to dish out the money for Adele's latest as there is something about the soulful singer that makes her stand out from the pack.
"Pop has its place, but she is more about life and life experiences," Johnson said. "She's legitimate, a star in in her own right. She's basically a fully formed woman standing in her power."