We walked in through the door of the food court of the complex, edging up to the pizza vendor. Her face crinkled with disdain. “Not again,” my friend said.
“What’s the problem?” I didn’t need her to verbalize the answer. It was evident the moment I heard the music playing over the P.A. It was Adele’s “Hello”…again. Now — mind you — only a month prior, my friend loved this song, and “loved” is not used lightly here.
And she was not alone. Arriving at the tail-end of November 2015, the 25 album did something few albums do anymore. It broke sales records all around the world. It closed out that year as the number 1 album, and that’s significant. It did in roughly a month what other albums had a year to accomplish (and still didn’t come close to in terms of sheer unit volume). It outsold Taylor Swift’s 1989 in the United States, the monolith that towered over everything since the fall of 2014.
A lot of this had been stoked by the fervor for the previous album 21 (from 2011), and a self-imposed hiatus broken slightly by the contribution of the theme for the James Bond movie Skyfall. That song, which hearkened back to the grandiose themes of the earliest Bond adventures, was a massive hit and so the audience was well primed to respond when, or if, Adele returned. She didn’t have to. She could probably live off of residuals from “Rolling In The Deep” for the rest of her life.
When “Hello” launched, and subsequently when 25 came out, the response from the public was immediate and outsized. The response from Adele’s record company and broadcast media, however, has been embarrassing and flat-footed. They are selling the release with all the marketing napalm they usually apply to a brand-new and unknown pop artist, cramming every edge of your life with the suddenly obtrusive statement, “Hello?”
I think everyone beyond the most unaware among media consumers recognize the business model as it stands today, and it shows just how powerful the old-guard record labels still are in this day and age of supposed democratized music distribution. The label sinks a lot of money into making an album, not so much for the artist herself (and in many cases we are talking about a woman in this starmaker machinery), but in the celebrity producer/beatmaker they will pair her with. That investment cannot idly wait for people to find her, and so the deals are struck, the agreements made, and soon that new track is being played twice hourly for weeks wherever it can be pumped out. You were not imagining it — you actually were being beaten into submission musically.
The problem that “Hello” posed was that there was no need to create demand. The demand was already there, and in great quantities, but the machine is so manipulated into this force-feeding supply protocol it cannot be retracted. It’s as if someone is in the backroom of the factory shouting to the production floor, “You can let up! It’s making too much! You’re going to burn out the gears!” But the reply back from the floor is, “We want to, but this machine wasn’t built that way! We can’t stop the thing!” And so the machine keeps churning out, over and over, until eventually the whole thing blows up.
We’re kind of witnessing the blow-up right now, as committed Adele fans are continually punished for their ardor by having “Hello” shoved down their earholes for the thousandth time. It won’t really affect the numbers. After all, the albums have already been sold, but it will affect the relationship between the artist and the fans who, at this point, have had more than their fair share.
You might be saying at this point, “That’s all reasonable thinking, except Taylor Swift had that same level of commitment from her fanbase. So she didn’t need the push 1989 got either.” Perhaps. I will say that, because of her decision to fully embrace pop and leave the country scene, Swift was taking a considerable risk. Country fans are known to be some of the most loyal music consumers. They will ride out the good times with the bad in an artist’s career, provided they don’t feel like they’ve been disrespected (cough, Chris Gaines, cough). 1989 was treated like a debut. In order to make an amicable break with the most loyal country fans who probably saw the writing on the wall with the Red album anyway, Swift had to shore up the fanbase she was moving toward. Positioning “Shake It Off” as the first single was savvy in that it was almost a declaration: “You’re either for me or against me, but if you’re against me, I’m not sweating over that loss. See you around.”
Adele never had any of these deficiencies. 25, while not being the retro-pop powerhouse that 21 was, sounds thoroughly of-a-piece with her body of work. She was not ripping up her personal playbook. Further, her fanbase is much broader than Swift’s. She is respected by older and younger listeners alike, across genres. Those who find Lady Gaga or Rihanna too polarizing can easily accept Adele’s musical approach. The clunky analogy would be to Barbara Streisand in the 1970s, who built her career on showtunes, musicals and standards, and yet still had hugely popular pop tunes on the charts, and old as well as young consumers accepting them. Adele has that broad appeal that makes record executives drool with dreams of avarice. She’s the perfect exemplar of a crossover success…
…Making their usual promotional steroids all the more obvious and irritating. I’ll be interested in seeing how this affects Adele’s successes throughout the rest of the year. It hasn’t harmed ticket sales for her concerts which, although obscenely priced, are highly sought-after. But you have to wonder if the audiences will be waving their smartphones in unison when she eventually belts out “Hello”, or whether they will surf Twitter instead, patiently waiting for that song to be over again.