In the sales tracking week that ends Sunday night, Adele's 21 will top the 11 million mark in U.S. sales. That news is at once not really surprising (the album has been a blockbuster since it was released in 2011) and utterly astounding (in an era when albums are hard-pressed to sell 2 or 3 million copies, how on earth has an album gotten to 11 million?)
And if 21 can sell 11 million in such a challenging sales environment for full-length albums (there’s the understatement of the year), what might it have sold if it had been released around the turn of the millennium, when albums were selling like hotcakes? Between April 1999 and December 2002, 10 albums topped the 10 million mark in U.S. sales, based on Nielsen SoundScan data.
There was little reason to think that 21 would become a blockbuster when it was released in February 2011. Adele’s previous album, 19, had been a solid hit, but it hadn’t even sold 1 million copies. (Its sales on the eve of the release of 21: 930K.) Only one of the songs from 19 made Billboard's Hot 100: “Chasing Pavements,” which peaked at #21 (there's that number again!). 19 had, however, brought Adele two Grammys: Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. (In addition, “Chasing Pavements” was nominated for Grammys for Record and Song of the Year.)
21 logged 24 weeks at #1 on The Billboard 200 and spawned three #1 singles: “Rolling In The Deep,” “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire To The Rain.” 21 was the best-selling album of both 2011 and 2012. This marked the first time in Nielsen SoundScan history (which dates to 1991) that an album was the top-seller two years running.
The album’s biggest sales week came in February 2012, when it sold 730K copies in the first full week following the 54th Grammy Awards. Adele won six Grammys that night, including Album, Record and Song of the Year. (The tune-in was greater than usual due in large part to Whitney Houston's shocking death the day before the show.)
So why did the album become such a blockbuster? The obvious answer is that it had broad appeal to fans of pop, R&B and adult contemporary.
Beyond that, many believe that the album did so well because it stood apart from prevailing musical trends, which emphasize flashy images and bombastic beats. Some even think Adele’s full figure helped set her apart. It reinforced the idea that she’s real and authentic.
The week of the album’s U.S. release, Ethan Smith of The Wall Street Journal wrote, “In more ways than one, Adele is the anti-Lady Gaga. The unapologetically full-figured Adele emphasizes substance over style.”
Writing in The Independent newspaper in the U.K. the following week, Guy Adams expanded on that point. “There are two approaches to the business of being noticed by today’s record-buying public. The first, showcased by Lady Gaga at the recent Grammys, revolves around oodles of hype and ever-more preposterous wardrobe selections. The second, adopted by Adele at this year’s Brit (Awards), is more understated: It requires a simple black dress and the confidence to let your music do the talking.”
In January 2012, Tris McCall of The Star-Ledger in New Jersey came up with an explanation for Adele’s appeal that was almost lyrical. “Adele’s soul-inflected pop appealed to Baby Boomers nostalgic for Etta James, Carole King and ‘Dusty in Memphis.’ It also appealed to teens struggling with the first sting of heartbreak, hipsters who missed Amy Winehouse, traditionalists weary of synthesizers and vocal effects, and non-pop fans who simply found it refreshing to hear a singer belt out her blues with conviction … 21 wasn’t niche-marketed. It was made for everyone and—surprise!—everyone listened.”
At a certain point, the album became a phenomenon. You had to check it out if you wanted to be part of the cultural conversation. As industry pundit Bob Lefsetz put it, “We all gravitate to that which is huge because we want to feel part of society, we want to belong.”
21 took a bit longer to sell the last million copies than it did to sell the first 10 million copies (combined), but that’s to be expected.
Here are the numbers, for you data freaks: 21 topped 1M in U.S. sales in April 2011, 2M that June, 3M that August, 4M that October and 5M that December.
It topped 6M in January 2012, 7M that February, 8M that March, 9M that May and 10M that November.
How can I be so certain that the album will top the 11 million mark this week? The album’s sales stood at 10,999,000 last week, and it is selling about 3K copies a week.
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