Last week, I was interviewed by Wall Street Journal’s Neil Shah for his latest article on Adele’s upcoming album and how the streaming has evolved since her last album. Adele’s not hip-hop, but her upcoming release highlights an issue with how the music industry measures success.
The industry changed since 25. When Adele released 25 in 2015, she broke all sorts of sales records. In its first week, she sold 3.4 million albums in the U.S. and 5.7 million worldwide. She chose not to release her album on streaming and her fans rewarded her for it. All those copies sold were physical purchases or digital downloads.
But today, many of those fans pay for music streaming and will gladly stream her music since she plans to debut her next album, 30, on streaming as well as other mediums.
30 won’t match the record-breaking success of 25. But as I said in the WSJ article, that says more about the industry than it does about Adele.
Music industry analyst and MIDiA managing director Mark Mulligan wrote that Adele’s success should be measured in cultural impact, not sales:
“Success may be more about whether, two months down the line, we still have memes flooding TikTok and James Corden doing skits. This will say as much about how the world is responding to her music than how many streams she clocks up.”
It’s a fair point that highlights the underlying challenge: The music industry is stuck on album sales as its key performance indicator. From digital downloads to streaming, each tech evolution moves us farther away from physical sales. But the industry creates formulas to back new tech formats into album sales.
Comparing apples and oranges. Imagine if the film industry created a metric called “ticket equivalent sales” that totaled box office ticket sales, streams, plus DVD and VHS sales in one metric? It’s impossible to do in a way that makes sense, and honestly, I felt ridiculous even typing that sentence.
It’s OK for the music industry to have multiple performance stats across mediums, even if they don’t line up. It highlights the many ways that artists can monetize music via streams, vinyls, digital downloads, NFTs, tokens, and more. But we don’t need a single metric to transform them into one unit.
For what it’s worth, I shared with the Wall Street Journal that I expect Adele’s 30 to sell 800,000+ album-equivalent units in its first week in the U.S. My prediction somewhat validates the methodology itself, but it still offers us a snapshot in time. It can tell us how Adele’s 30 compares to other superstar releases of 2021 like Drake’s Certified Lover Boy and Ed Sheeran’s “=.” But beyond that time frame, it gets tougher and tougher to compare.
Read more about Adele in the Wall Street Journal.