100 & SingleVillage Voice

100 & Single: How Adele, Not the Beatles, Is The Music Biz’s 2011 Redeemer

The music business spikes the football over its gradually improving sales the same week a certain U.K. chanteuse completes her conquering of the U.S. pop charts. Coincidence? Maybe not.

The omnipresent Adele takes control of Billboard‘s Hot 100 this week; “Rolling in the Deep” finally evicts Katy Perry and Kanye West’s five-week chart-topper “E.T.” from the penthouse. Digital sales of 294,000 (not her best week, but off only 2% from her prior high), plus big jumps at radio that make “Rolling” the third-most-played song in America, give Adele the Hot 100 win. That’s matched by Adele’s continued dominance on the Billboard 200, where 21 spends its seventh week atop the list. She easily fended off another two weeks of challengers. Her Mother’s Day-week sales total of 155,000 tops the No. 2 debut of the Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee, Part Two by more than 27,000 copies.

No doubt, it’s been a good week for Adele: Her move on the Hot 100 makes her the first British lass to top the premier U.S. song chart since Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” in 2008; her performance on Tuesday’s Dancing with the Stars was widely praised; and Glee covered “Rolling in the Deep.”

But it has been perhaps an even better week for the music business in general. Across the mainstream press, the headline of the week was: “U.S. Music Sales Actually Up for Once (Thanks to Digital Bump).”

Nielsen Soundscan, the music-tallying firm which Billboard uses as the basis for its sales charts, released a report this week trumpeting the fact that through May 8, U.S. music sales are up over the same period in 2010. It’s a modest increase–just 1.6%–and Soundscan only arrives at that number through some mathematical jiu-jitsu that counts groups of 10 digital songs as “track-equivalent albums.” But still: this is the industry’s first posted sales rise of any kind in nearly a decade.

(To summarize the report: sales of physical CDs have kept dropping, but this year a little less than they have been; digital albums have been up, a good amount but not quite enough to make up for the CD loss; and digital songs are up the largest percentage of all, which gives the industry the win when you do the 10-tracks-equals-an-album conversion.)

If this story crossed your news feeder this week, chances are you saw it linked to a vintage photo of the Beatles. How come?

In their effort to explain the latest infusion of new digital-music buyers, Nielsen Soundscan and the mainstream media went looking for an X factor. They collectively landed on an obvious one from six months ago: the Fab Four’s much-trumpeted arrival on iTunes. To be sure, the November debut of buck-a-song downloads of “Here Comes the Sun” and “Norwegian Wood” provided a boost in sales, one that was entirely additive–the Beatles were wholly new to the download market, and they may well have introduced several thousand people to the very concept of buying music digitally.

All that said–and I’m as big a Beatles fan as they come–I have to call bullshit. This is hagiography and, likely, the result of news editors’ usual Boomer-oriented exceptionalism.

A big problem with the Beatles-saved-us theory: The Soundscan report is about sales in 2011, and the vast majority of Beatles sales happened before New Year’s Eve 2010. To be exact, the Fabs sold 2 million songs and 450,000 albums during their first iTunes week last November, and 5 million songs and 1 million albums by the first week in January (note that decreasing sales trajectory–those additional 3 million songs/550,000 albums were sold over about five weeks after the first-week blast).

Since then, no Beatles song or album has consistently ranked among iTunes’ top-sellers. Right now, for example, not one album of theirs ranks among top digital sellers, while such stalwarts as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle continue to sell well enough digitally to consistently make the top 100.

Sure, it could be argued that the Beatles’ late-2010 iTunes debut set the table for the 2011 sales bump by bringing in new digital-music consumers. That’s certainly plausible (if unprovable), but if it is true, do you know what those new 2010 consumers have been buying like crazy in 2011? A whole lot of Adele.

Adele has sold 1.6 million copies of 21 in America since its February release. She has also sold, just this year, a couple hundred thousand copies of her already-platinum 2008 debut 19; with that album back in the Top 20 after a long absence, it’s safe to assume the vast majority of those 19 sales were goosed by her new album’s release and her increased media profile. Let’s say that in 2011, Adele’s album sales to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have bought an album of hers was around 1.8 million, total, to date.

On the digital songs side, Adele has moved about 2.2 million downloads this year across all of her hit tracks (mostly “Rolling in the Deep,” at 1.7 million, plus scattered sales for future singles “Someone Like You,” “Turning Tables” and “Set Fire to the Rain”). Using Soundscan’s shorthand whereby 10 tracks equals a de facto album, that’s another 200,000 album-equivalents, roughly. That’s a grand total of about 2 million Adele albums or album equivalents.

You know what else totals about 2 million? The amount that music sales are up in 2011. According to Soundscan’s report, the 2011 margin of victory, weighing physical albums, digital albums and album equivalents, was 2.3 million.

This may sound like a wild oversimplification–why am I crediting the bulk of that victory margin to Adele? Doesn’t Katy Perry get some of it? Rihanna? Mumford and Sons?

The answer is simple: in recent chart history, Adele’s success is pretty much unprecedented. Yes, the last five years have been great for women on the pop charts, which makes Adele’s success this year seem par for the course. But her pop-chart pattern–crossing from adult-oriented album sales to kid-oriented singles sales, ending with a Hot 100 victory–is nearly unprecedented.

At least, unprecedented on this scale–in 2007, Adele’s countrywoman Amy Winehouse scored a Top Five platinum album and a Top 10 single in the U.S., but Adele’s chart-topping prowess to date crushes Winehouse’s. Every other blockbuster-selling woman on the pop charts recently–from Gaga to Rihanna to Katy–eventually sold piles of albums, but only after they first wooed radio programmers and iTunes visitors. Adele went the other way around.

And yes, we’ve also had adult-oriented albums by big-voiced Brits sell like hotcakes. Well, one Brit in particular: Susan Boyle, whose two TV-and-Christmas-fueled smashes have each gone multiplatinum and likely sold to no one under the age of 30 (hell, 50). But again, the pattern doesn’t fit: even after all that album-chart success, SuBo hasn’t had any high-charting Hot 100 hits, and certainly nothing that has taken over the radio. Point to any other adult-album blockbuster over the past five years–from Robert Plant/Allison Krauss to Mumford and Sons–and you’ll find lots of Starbucks denizens buying, but none of them calling their local pop radio stations to request songs.

The agreed definition of an X-factor is something that, if lifted out of the equation, wouldn’t be replaced by anything else. Sure, some of Adele’s album sales could have been replaced by more Mumford sales, but not 1.7 million of them. Sure, the nonexistence of “Rolling in the Deep” would have meant something else was No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week, but that “something else” would have been “E.T.”

By any rational definition of the term “X-factor,” Adele is the wrinkle in this year’s pop landscape. Whether you’re as big a fan of “Rolling in the Deep” as I am or are just wishing Adele would go away, for this week at least, let’s raise a glass to the big-voiced gal who might have just given a whole industry a shot in the arm.

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