There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching within the music world in the wake of Adele’s blockbuster 25 debut, which crushed every first-week sales record… and then crushed every second-week sales record. Here are the facts: Adele’s third album scored the biggest U.S. album debut since such stats started getting tracked in 1991, and it did so without appearing on any streaming services. Now, the industry must parse through what that means. Is this a one-time example of a transcendent artist doing what literally no other artist can do? Or is it indicative of a profound sea change in the way music is marketed—i.e., a huge blow to streaming as a necessary component to how artists will make money in the future? Is this a (very big) uptick in a downward spiral, or a sign of hope in a constantly shrinking industry?
Either way, one thing is clear as we approach the end of 2015: music fans—specifically, fans of the art form known as the “album”—have won, big time. Those proclaiming that the album is dead as a viable commercial entity have watched their arguments die, as the biggest music story of the year is one revolving around a full-length. Sorry, EP advocates; the LP is still the champ. And 25 is not the only rebuttal in the debate.
Consider the numbers of Adele’s latest era of dominance. “Hello,” the lead single from 25, sold 1.11 million downloads in its first week of release following its Oct. 23 debut, per Nielsen Music. That was a record sales week for a digital single, and “Hello” debuted at the top of the Hot 100 chart (where it remains). A month later, Adele’s 25 album sold a whopping 3.38 million copies in its first week of release, leaping over the previous high set by *NSYNC’s No String Attached in 2000. Quantitatively, more people bought 25 than “Hello” in their respective first week—three times as many people, in fact.
Granted, a large part of that difference has to do with the availability of each product. “Hello,” posted on streaming platforms like Spotify and with its official video uploaded to YouTube, was essentially unlocked to the world for free. Meanwhile, people who wanted to hear 25 had to buy it, since it’s been held from streaming services.
However, the numbers also underline the collective desire to hear Adele’s first full album in nearly five years, not just its lead single or a few new songs. After all, casual listeners could have gone the a la carte method of purchasing individual tracks from 25 on iTunes, or simply waited for new singles to hit radio in the coming months before dropping any coin. Nope: People had to hear the whole thing, own the entire experience, and talk about 25 with their friends and family (and many, many strangers on social media) immediately.
The triumph of Adele’s 25 as a hot-selling album has nothing to do with gimmickry: its marketing campaign was straightforward, its pricing was standard, and there were no big surprises or guest features on the track list. Adele simply figured out how to make a full-length statement that people of all demographics needed to hear in its entirety. There’s a standard edition and a deluxe edition, a Max Martin song and a Danger Mouse song, songs for young men and songs for older women; in the center of everything is one of our finest modern voices swiveling through different styles and exploring her post-heartbreak psyche. It’s also worth noting that Adele is an artist who adheres to the album-as-artwork formula. Her non-album cuts are rare (it’s basically just “Skyfall”), and she doesn’t do featured appearances. She bottles her soul into 11 songs at a clip, and soars.
Adele is the biggest artist to have done this in 2015, but she wasn’t the only one. One of the largest debut sales weeks of the year came from a rapper who released an experimental jazz-funk project that was 78 minutes long and had no radio support prior to its release.
Kendrick Lamar is a mainstream star at this point, but it’s difficult to imagine the Compton MC releasing a project more offbeat than his sophomore LP, To Pimp A Butterfly. Featuring spoken-word interludes, a posthumous interview with Tupac Shakur and zero A-list guests, To Pimp A Butterfly still notched one of the biggest sales weeks of the year with 324,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen Music.
Unlike Adele, Lamar is active outside of his own albums as a guest artist; like Adele, he respects the album as art form above all else. To Pimp A Butterfly is a work that cannot be digested piece-meal; there are standout tracks, but it’s packaged as a complete production. Lamar demonstrated a capability for recording a front-to-back classic with his 2012 debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and that project helped the rapper gain a level of trust with his fan base; when King Kendrick was coming back with a new full-length, people knew it was worth the $13.99 price tag.
Again, Adele and Kendrick Lamar are big names, but 2015 also proved you can move albums without them. Two 2015 soundtracks, for Fifty Shades of Grey and Furious 7, are among the year’s Top 20 biggest-selling albums; Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” were enormous, but fans of the films were interested in buying an entire product, not just one digital track. Elsewhere, relative newcomers like Meghan Trainor, Sam Hunt and Hozier translated radio hits into convincing arguments to invest in their respective artistries, while the biggest non-Adele album of the past 12 months, Taylor Swift’s 1989, was a full-length showcase of a paradigm shift that needed to be owned to be appreciated. Why else would an artist give fans personalized Polaroids with each album copy? Sure, you can watch the “Shake It Off” video a thousand times for free, but why wouldn’t you want the full-fledged experience?
Make no mistake: Album sales are still shrinking, even with these recent wins, and digital sales continue to erode as more music consumers turn to streaming. As the numbers change, however, the importance of the album remains the same. We may live in a singles-driven music universe, but artists like Adele and Kendrick Lamar are doubling down on the album as their means of expression, and winning. As much as the industry has shifted in the 15 years between No Strings Attached and 25, the album steadfastly remains, and isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.