Since streaming dramatically transformed the way we consume music, the album chart has become practically an irrelevance – of interest to almost no one beyond industry bean-counters and marketeers.
That was, until the pandemic sent shockwaves through the system, suddenly opening the door to rank outsiders fleetingly becoming number one stars in the absence of serious competition.
In the last nine months, partly off the back of fan-powered social media campaigns, we’ve seen unlikely chart toppers from Glasgow post-rock heroes Mogwai (with their self-released 10th studio album)and debutants such as West Lothian indie band The Snuts and Dublin alt-rockers Inhaler (admittedly it will have done the latter no harm that their singer Elijah Hewson is Bono’s son).
We’ve seen the return of honest-to-goodness chart battles, between the likes of Mogwai and London grime MC Ghetts, slugging it out to shift a precious last few records and downloads in the wake of promising midweek positions. We’ve even seen some David-versus-Goliath triumphs, such as Wigan’s The Lathums pipping rap golden boy Drake.
The album chart renaissance has felt refreshing, even exciting at times – a mild throwback, for anyone old enough to remember, to the days of hugging the radio on Sunday evenings to hear the Top 40 singles countdown.
But it’s all over now, for one simple reason. Oh hell, it’s Adele.
With the Tottenham soul-pop titan’s fourth album 30due to make land this week, the music business has prepared as if for a coming storm – the release schedule all but evacuated, five weeks before Christmas, by artists to whom anything short of a number one would look embarrassing (Sting excepted).
Music knows no other commercial force like Adele. If you don’t believe me, ask Ed Sheeran.
In a recent interview with an Australian radio show, the ginger-haired small guitar strummer – sounding, as he often does, more like the CEO of Ed Sheeran Enterprises than an artist concerned only with his craft – spoke of how not only the campaign for his latest album =(set to be surely no commercial slouch itself based on seven million sales worldwide for his previous album ÷), but even its very recording was expedited essentially in order to get out of Adele’s way.
Particularly when it came to pressing vinyl, which only happens at a handful of plants around the world. All of which, Sheeran claimed, Adele had booked months in advance (500,000 copies of 30 will be pressed, making it probably the single biggest-selling vinyl album since the 80s).
“It was me, Coldplay, Adele, Taylor [Swift], ABBA, Elton [John], all of us trying to get our vinyl printed at the same time,” said Sheeran, conjuring strange images of a very star-studded last chopper out of Saigon.
There is speculation that the block-booking of pressing plants by Adele’s record label Columbia may have been significantly responsible for the industry-wide delay in vinyl manufacturing which has clogged up the music business for months now, creating headaches and heartache for independent labels and artists.
Adele’s worldwide sales to date currently total somewhere around 100 million records. Her previous album, 2015’s 25,sold 22 million copies alone and spent 13 weeks at number one.
In October, Easy on Me – the first single from 30 – was streamed 24 million times on Spotify in its first day, smashing the previous total for single-day streams.
You could recite Big Adele Numbers all day long (including eye-watering ticket prices of between £90 and £580 for her Hyde Park shows next summer).
The bottom line is this: she’ll have the number one spot stitched up probably for months. And for good reason: a lot of people self-evidently really love Adele.
Her songs are like diamonds, finely cut by the best writers in all of the lands. She somehow manages to come across as both superhumanly talented and supremely normal, all at once.
But I don’t seek to pass comment on Adele’s merits as an artist here.
Rather, I’d like to briefly ponder whether and how much another, more nebulous factor might be somewhere at play in her success – a curious psychology that surrounds all huge artists, but especially the hugest of artists.
How much has Adele’s whopping success become a self-fulfilling prophecy, based on success breeding success?
Do some people love basking in the glow of a sure winner? Being part of those huge numbers? Egging her on to yet greater heights?
There is all sorts of research around the psychological effects of being physically part of big crowds, and the peculiar sense of comfort, belonging and transcendence of the self that it can bring.
Does something similar happen around a blockbuster album release? I hasten to emphasise that I’m not saying Adele fans don’t genuinely enjoy her music – the vast majority do, I’m sure.
But when Adele inevitably rises to number one again next week, and stays there over Christmas and beyond, will tens of millions of fans in some tiny, intangible way feel like they’ve touched the sky with her?
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