This week Adele broke the first week album sales records in the UK and the US, besting both Oasis and N’Sync, respectively. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this incredible achievement. Oasis set the mark in the UK with their third album, ‘Be Here Now’, back in 1997 — almost 20 years ago and four years before the launch of the iPod. The US high-water mark came just three years later in the summer of 2000. Both are records I never thought I’d see broken in my lifetime, let alone approached. I presumed them to be relics of a pre-online, bygone era, when £16 and $20 CDs were the norm.
Oddly enough, I had a front row seat for N’Sync’s record-breaking feat in 2000. At the time, I was a lowly 19-year-old intern in the promotions department at Jive Records, one of about 20 university-enrolled lackeys across the company. The music industry as a whole was still enjoying a phenomenal run and Jive was the leader of the pack thanks to their unrivalled teen pop roster. Looking back, it seems incredible that Britney Spears, The Backstreet Boys, and N’Sync were all signed to the same label. But they were and, moreover, it only took a few days of delivering the fat stacks of daily sales reports to the execs to realise why: Jive understood teen-pop the way Scorsese understood the mafia. They had access to the songwriters, the right radio relationships, and a direct line to MTV’s Total Request Live. Top it off with the cash reserves necessary to launch an all-out marketing assault and the result was as close as you could get to a sure thing in the music business.
The morning we found out N’Sync’s ‘No Strings Attached’ had broken the record, selling 2.4 million copies in a week, Jive headquarters was abuzz – it was like everyone in the building was already on five cups of coffee by 10am. No one really seemed to care about my sales report. Instead, I noticed a number of expensive-looking goodie baskets arriving and being delivered to various offices, while the rank and file were practically doing cartwheels in the hallways. But in retrospect, the crazy thing about it all is that as excited as everyone was that day, there was no reason to believe that The Backstreet Boys new album (due later that year) wouldn’t exceed ‘No Strings Attached’’s total. Ditto Britney Spears’ next record. There was a feeling that the Jive’s best days were still yet to come.
But of course, that summer turned out to be the summit. While the file-sharing era had technically begun that summer (kickstarted by Napster launching in June 1999), it was still very much in its infancy, and no one yet had an inkling that the entire industry was edging toward a cliff. What followed, as we all know now, was a long, catastrophic slide. Piracy became commonplace. The teen pop bubble burst, eventually taking Jive along with it. And I became increasingly convinced that music itself was losing its cultural relevance. MTV stopped airing music videos. Music publications ceased circulation. People were no longer lining up outside of shops on record release day — if they could even find a shop.
Which brings us to Adele’s improbable, historic bow in 2016, and more importantly, what to make of it. Is Adele just an anomaly – the mere exception that proves the rule? Or are we witnessing something with more far-reaching implications for the industry as a whole? It would be easy enough to dismiss as the former. Aside from shattering the US first week sales record (three million and counting), there are reports, as of press time, that she may have outsold the rest of the top UK 200 combined. And while one might argue that N’Sync and Oasis accomplished their feats with much narrower target demographics, just think of the seismic numbers 25 might’ve racked up had it been released in the late 90s or early 00s. Adele’s seemingly unbounded appeal is almost unheard of in popular music, especially in our present sub-genre saturated era, and I think it’s safe to say that whatever we felt at Jive back in 2000 must have paled in comparison to the elation the employees at XL and Columbia Records experienced this past week after breaking a record that most assumed would stand for an eternity.
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For me, the most fascinating aspect of Adele isn’t her appeal but rather her reach. How many albums can someone buy for their friend and grandma and be equally confident that both will enjoy them? This is where I think there’s something more to Adele’s record than Adele alone. When Oasis and N’Sync reigned supreme, they did so at a time when the music business was a top-down endeavour. It was ruled by the radio, publications, and MTV. Adele, by contrast, is operating a far less controlled environment and yet continues to prove that an artist can be culturally relevant and reach a massive audience without the traditional tools or infrastructure. To be clear here, I’m not suggesting that Adele is without support. I’m saying that an artist today has fewer reliable avenues to break through to a sizeable audience than ever before. It might be a stretch to say that we’ll see other artists reach Adele’s heights any time soon, but I also think it’s fair to say we’ve given the gatekeepers far too much credit all these years — and the audience not nearly enough.