Adele performs in front of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
Adele performs in front of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Photographer: Cliff Lipson/CBS via Getty Images

Adele’s Worst Selling-Album Is Still the Year’s Biggest Record

The music industry is getting bigger, but the hits are getting smaller.

Adele’s new album “30” was the best-selling record of 2021, and its success is a testament to her enduring popularity. The British singer finished December at the top of Bloomberg’s Pop Star Power Rankings and was one of the 10 biggest artists on both Spotify and YouTube.

But “30” is also a modest hit by Adele’s standards. It’s on pace to be her worst-selling album since her debut (and maybe ever).

The sales for “30” reflect a collapse of album sales industrywide over the last decade. Adele was the only artist to exceed 1 million copies last year. “30,” her fourth studio album, sold twice as many copies as any other despite its mid-November debut.

When Adele released “21” in 2011, at least 10 albums sold more than 1 million copies. The list included Lady Gaga, Michael Buble and Lil Wayne. Over the past few years, the number of artists who sell albums in volume has dwindled to two: Adele and Taylor Swift. They are the only musicians to sell more than 1 million albums in the U.S. since 2018. (Sales for Swift, as for Adele, pale to her peak in the first half of the 2010s.)

The obvious culprit is streaming. Sales refers to an individual purchase of an album (CD, vinyl or digital), data provider MRC also ranks the year’s biggest albums based on overall consumption. That includes album sales, song sales, on-demand audio streams and video streams. As more people stream, traditional sales have declined.

Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous” was last year’s biggest release, even though the country singer sold fewer than 300,000 albums. Listeners streamed “Dangerous” 3.65 billion times in the U.S. this past year. The Kid Laroi’s “F*ck Love” was the seventh biggest album of the year, even though he sold just 13,000 copies.

This collapse in traditional sales means the biggest artists aren’t making as much money from their recorded music. While music fans are streaming the equivalent of millions of albums, online listening doesn’t pay musicians as much as a vinyl record, CD or digital purchase from Apple Music.

But streaming has also reduced the impact and audience for an individual artist’s work.

Streaming has created an era of abundance. Platforms like Spotify and YouTube reduced the barrier to entry for any aspiring artist, which has led to a surge in new music (as well as podcasts, videos and all manner of media). These platforms now host bottomless catalogs of music, allowing users to access songs from more artists than they could listen to in a lifetime.

With abundance comes fragmentation. Even with the boom in streaming, the audience for the biggest albums is shrinking. Including the new metrics, the average consumption of the year’s 10 biggest albums has slumped almost 27% since 2015, the year Adele released “25.”

The overall music industry is growing, which is good for major music companies and all rightsholders. It has led to record sales of old catalog. But this fragmentation forces record labels to sign more acts and release more music to compete for their share of Spotify’s sales. (Their revenue is dictated by their market share.) It also forces musicians to release music more often to stay relevant.

“There’s a mentality with a lot of artists of always being ‘on,’” Interscope Records chairman John Janick said in a recent interview. Or, as his predecessor Jimmy Iovine said. “Nobody wants to go away.”

Adele has thus far resisted these trends and embraced an old school approach.

Read more: Tearful Adele Postpones Vegas Residency Over Covid Infections

When Adele released “25” in 2015, she withheld the record from streaming services at first to boost sales, and that album still holds the mark for the single biggest debut. Adele sold more albums in one week of 2015 than Morgan Wallen, Olivia Rodrigo, Drake, Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa sold combined in this year.

She then didn’t release new music for six years, an eternity in modern culture. In the lead-up to the release of “30,”Adele sat for an interview with Oprah in a TV special and released a special edition just for shoppers at Target. She also secured placement on the biggest radio playlists (not a substitute for sales), and lined up vinyl production. Adele was the only act to release actual records at the same time as new music.

Does the performance of “30” make her reconsider? Or is this what a smash hit looks like in 2022? When it comes to streaming, Adele’s performance didn’t outpace her peers.

Both Adele and her record label declined to comment.