The major international success of Adele is unparalleled in the landscape of the current music business. Throughout the past decade, the singer has developed from a BBC-supported up and coming British artist to a Grammy-award winning star, a James Bond songstress, and a symbol of peak international sales success. No matter what one thinks of her music, the appeal to her audience and the sales she continues to generate cannot be disputed.

Built for a Niche Audience, with a Voice Suited to a Mainstream Genre – “19” (2008)

Following her graduation from the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology, Adele began a two-year journey towards writing the songs to this record. Today, 19 is easily identifiable as a British retro blue-eyed soul album that not only appealed to the singer’s British roots but that also had a voice that was somewhat in line with similar retro soul singers of that time period including Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and others.

Part of the reason why 19 worked, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide, was that it did not abandon Adele’s roots and actually worked to appeal to them. This goes entirely against the advice that many artists seeking international success receive, which is to break in the United States and to appeal to the widest audience possible. By choosing to go with a more authentic approach, combined with the already-established collection of female soul singers from Britain, 19 was an easy way to insert Adele in amongst a group of artists already generating much success in Europe and somewhat internationally as well.

19 had four singles and the only one to chart internationally in any significant way was Chasing Pavements (US #21).

Write Big Choruses, Follow American Influences – “21” (2011)

With 21, Adele left her British roots behind to combine her soul sound with more American-inspired country, southern blues, and pop influences, ultimately growing her fan base to international acclaim. Capitalizing on the growing feminist trends, 21’s themes of heartbreak and forgiveness proved to be universal to women across the globe. 21 did not abandon the aesthetics of 19 but they broadened it in the sense that this is a collection of songs aiming to go big with louder choruses, stronger pop-oriented melodies, and the courage to be true about what was going on in the life of the artist during this time period. 21 would go on to sell over 31 million copies worldwide and counting, and is the most successful album in the United States of the last thirty years, holding the #1 Billboard album position for 24 weeks.

21 was elevated by a number of major singles including the hits Rolling in the Deep (US #1), Someone Like You (US #1), Set Fire to the Rain (US #1), Rumour Has It (US #16), Turning Tables (US #63)

“Skyfall” (2012) and the Willingness to Chase Exposure Opportunities

Skyfall (US #8) came on the tail end of the 21 promotional campaign and helped, in combination with a series of Grammy awards, bring her brand to new audiences who were still getting to know her. Part of the reason why 21 was such a massive success for such an extended period of time was that it was an unexpected success and it took a longer than average time for general audiences across the world to become aware of her.

Though Skyfall merely added to her collection of major American hit singles, it also represents a willingness to collaborate with other artists and to entertain commercial opportunities, if there exists the possibility that it creates more awareness in the mainstream marketplace.

If You Disappear, Every Album is a Comeback Album – “25”(2015)

For multiple years, Adele disappeared from the spotlight, returning with her first new material in some time with 25. The content of 25 largely was built around some of the most general music Adele has ever written, exploring nostalgia and ‘safe’ themes relating to the passing of time, and capitalized on the success of its predecessor, debuting at #1 on album charts in over twenty-five countries and breaking first-week sales records nearly everywhere. Today, 25 has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and continues to pass copies with every week that passes.

Despite the massive first week success of 25, in all likelihood, the first few weeks following its release is potentially as popular as Adele is ever going to be. This is evident in how the album’s individual singles performed, compared to its predecessor. After the massive, initial success of Hello (US #1), subsequent singles included When We Were Young (US #14), Send My Love to Your New Lover (US #8), Water Under the Bridge (US #26). The fact that Adele was able to disappear for several years prior to this album’s release made this feel like a comeback album, giving her the opportunity to rebrand and strike a new popularity peak. This marks an important theme in contemporary music publishing. When there is massive success achieved by an artist, if it is a level of success that the artist cannot repeat or top, an artist must disappear before they can make their return. Everybody loves a comeback. Though it may have not been done intentionally, 25 continues to support this theory.

Where Does She Go Next?

To many people, Adele is not the kind of artist that they can put on her discography and see much variance.

If she continues to establish a pattern of ‘disappear and re-emerge a couple years later’, it is likely that Adele could settle into a pattern of extended international commercial success. Though it might not be as strong as 21 or 25, the commercial potential of Adele to continue in this pattern is very strong.

What can be learnt from Adele’s journey thus far is, paying attention to her release patterns, she built a niche audience from her roots with 19, went mainstream and grew that audience with 21, continued to grow that audience in non-music circles with her soundtrack contribution to Skyfall, and then established a characteristic Adele sound in general, mainstream marketplaces with 25.