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 how you may view her music, the appeal of Adele to her audience and the sales she continues to generate cannot be disputed.
Built For A Niche Audience Yet 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 toward writing the songs for the album that came to be known as “19”.
Today, “19” is easily identifiable as a definitive British retro blue-eyed soul album that appealed to the singer’s British roots. The album also had a voice that was somewhat in line with similar retro-esque soul singers of the time, such as Amy Winehouse, Duffy, and others.
Part of the reason why “19” worked commercially, selling more than 7 million copies worldwide, was that it did not abandon Adele’s roots and actually worked to zero in on appealing to her British base. 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 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 themes of feminism and pride, “21”’s themes of heartbreak and forgiveness proved to have a universal message to women across the globe. “21” did not abandon the aesthetics of “19”, either, 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.
“21” would go on to sell over 31 million copies worldwide and still sells an impressive amount every year.
“21” is considered the most successful album in the United States of the last 30 years, holding the #1 Billboard album position for 24 weeks. It 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), and “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 the 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 hit 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.
Adele broke in different markets at staggered times and in different ways, sustaining a wave of popularity that only built with time.
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.
This further highlights what can happen when pursuing music on TV as a marketing strategy.
If You Disappear, Every Album Is A Comeback Album – “25” (2015) & “30” (2021)
Adele has established a pattern of ‘hit album and break’, then returning years later with another readymade classic Adele-sounding record.
This first occurred between “21” and “25”. Adele disappeared from the spotlight. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a new single dropped. Within months, she was in another album cycle.
The content of “25” largely was built around some of the most mainstream-appealing music Adele has ever written, exploring nostalgia and what some may consider to be ‘safe’ themes relating to the passing of time.
Adele capitalized on the success of its predecessor, debuting “25” at #1 in over 25 countries and breaking first-week sales records nearly everywhere.
Today, “25” has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide and continues to pass copies with every week that passes.
Despite the massive first-week success of “25”, 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), and “Water Under The Bridge” (US #26).
A similar pattern of success occurred with “30” released five years later. It sold only 6 million copies worldwide which is admittedly quite a drop from “25”. However, it also produced several hit singles with “Easy On Me” (US #1), “Oh My God (US #2), and “I Drink Wine” (US #4).
The fact that Adele has been able to disappear for several years prior to these short couple of releases heightens the success of what she puts out there. It makes these albums feel like comeback albums, 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, the rule is that an artist must disappear before they can make their return.
What Is Next For Adele?
To many people, Adele is not the kind of artist that they can put on her discography and see much variance.
That said, she knows how to succeed in the music business. Do releases wisely and let the audience miss you a bit.
If she continues to establish a pattern of ‘disappear and re-emerge a few years later’, it is likely that Adele could settle into a pattern of extended international commercial success in perpetuity.
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 learned 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 the true ‘Adele sound’ which carried over into the mainstream with “25” and “30”.