Record label executives rub their eyes in amazement. Old hands wonder if they’ve woken from a nightmare to return to the golden age of private jets, affordable cocaine habits and fat profits. Younger colleagues gawp, struck by an apparition from the analogue era.
The object of their awe is the singer Adele, whose album 21 is now a sales phenomenon of a type record labels feared had disappeared for good. This week the Londoner notched up her 10th week at the top of the UK album charts, breaking Madonna’s 21-year record for a female performer. Since January, 21 has sold 2.2m copies in the UK, with the most recent data showing weekly sales going up. At the current rate every Briton will own a copy by Christmas.
A grand, swooping, soulful vocalist, she was initially marketed as the new Amy Winehouse; the bee-hived original’s descent into drug addiction and tabloid scandal having left a vacuum for a singer with a big retro-soul voice and a less volcanic personality. The bubbly, down-to-earth, cockney-accented Adele filled it perfectly.
21 is an international hit too, topping charts in the US, and nine other countries. With songs on mass radio and TV rotation, her singles have also stormed the UK top 10, while her debut 19 has re-entered the charts in 21’s slipstream. In February she became the first act since The Beatles to have two singles and two albums in the UK top five. Adele is, in short, a one-woman gold rush.
Her success is all the more remarkable for coming against a backdrop of industry gloom. Global music sales fell by an estimated 8.4 per cent last year, or $1.45bn, as internet piracy, music streaming services and MP3 players wreaked havoc on album sales, traditionally the industry’s main money-spinner. Big names also now shift fewer albums. Lady Gaga is no less a star than Britney Spears at her commercial peak. But with sales of 13m, Lady Gaga’s 2008 debut trails by half the 26m sales clocked up by Ms Spears’ first release in 1999.
Record labels’ revenues are being squeezed by newcomers invading their turf, from concert promoters such as Live Nation to retailers such as Apple’s iTunes. Adele is therefore a double blessing. Not only is she selling albums at a rate that went out of fashion with Madonna’s conical bra, she also offers some proof that an industry beset by falling profits, menaced by rivals, and buffeted by technological change can still nurture world-conquering talent.
Adele Adkins was born on May 21 1988 in Tottenham, north London, the only child of an 18-year-old single mother. An Etta James CD, purchased because the young Adele wanted to copy the singer’s haircut on the cover, first inspired her to sing.
At 14 she enrolled at the BRIT school, a south London stage school whose alumni occupy much the same elite position in UK pop as énarques in the French civil service. Ms Winehouse was a few years above Adele; Leona Lewis was a classmate.
19, named after the age when she made it, was launched with heavyweight music industry backing. With it the singer went on to win the BBC’s Sound of 2008 poll, and picked up a Brit award for new talent. Success duly followed: 19 sold almost 2.4m copies worldwide.
Adele’s debut was an effective vehicle for her handsome voice, but its songs were also anodyne. When she sang the lines “You’re so provocative, I’m so conservative/You’re so adventurous, I’m so very cautious,” it was as if she was addressing the ghost at the feast, Ms Winehouse; the volatile id to Adele’s sensible superego. But today there is no mention of Ms Winehouse. 21 – made when Adele was 21: she’s not one for fancy album titles – has made her a superstar in her own right.
Something crucial therefore happened between 19 and 21. Old media muscle played a part. Adele reintroduced herself to the UK public last year by singing on The X Factor. She also performed at February’s Brit Awards, broadcast on primetime television.
A clip of her show-stealing performance was uploaded to YouTube where it has been seen more than 5.5m times. Nonetheless, just as last year’s UK general election was dominated by televised leadership debates, 21 shows that the internet continues to play second fiddle to television as a driver of mass popularity. Adele, it should be noted, does not Tweet. “I … don’t want to write, ‘Oh, I’m on the toilet – last night’s dinner was really spicy,’’’ she said recently. “That’s just gross.”
But there’s another reason for 21’s success, equally traditional in its way: Adele grew up. Signed to an independent label, the London-based XL Recordings, she has been given the space to develop that a more hands-on major label would have been unlikely to grant her. Able to pick who she works with, she succeeded with 21 in finding the songs to match her rich vocal style.
The subjects are pop’s great themes: love and heartbreak. Adele has batted away the question of who they’re about. “Who cares? Nobody famous, just old boyfriends.” The specifics are vague but the sentiments are universal. 21’s appeal boils down to the simplest of elements: a young woman taking a deep breath and singing, “Will he still remember me?” in a voice whose power suggests it’s he who should worry about her forgetting him. An old story, as captivating in the digital age as any other: perhaps more so.
Adele is at the centre of a perfect storm of talent, promotional nous and good timing. With technology altering modern life at a dizzying rate, the counter-attraction of old-fashioned values grows stronger. There is a desire for music with heart and soul, a flesh-and-blood music based on sternum and lungs, majestic piano chords and rolling drums. Adele has answered that, and is reaping a spectacular reward. Ironically the music industry, not much noted for its heart or soul, also stands to profit from a return to older, album-based ways of consuming music. There’s life yet in the record business.