Would Adele have been as successful if she was signed to a major label?
Adele is an exceptional artist, but she has also been nurtured by her indie label. It's doubtful a major would have done the same
guardian.co.uk, Wed 4 Jan 2012
Record label trade organisation BPI has published its end of year sales statistics and, unsurprisingly, Adele tops both the singles (Someone Like You) and album charts (21). But what the stats also reveal is some of the majors' ineptitude to develop proper album-artist careers. Sony Music doesn't have a single album in the top 10, despite the fact it usually accounts for more than 20% of record sales. And in the singles charts it only has one entry, at No 6: Give Me Everything by Pitbull, Ne-Yo, Afrojack and Nayer.
EMI doesn't fare much better. None of its acts features in the singles chart and only Coldplay's Mylo Xyloto made the album top 10, in fifth place. Compare this to Adele's label, XL Recordings (part of independent label group Beggars), which has two records in each top 10 (they're all by Adele, but still). Meanwhile, Warner, whose market share is often less than half of Sony's has three albums in the top 10: Michael Bublé (2), Bruno Mars (3) and Ed Sheeran (9). Universal – the biggest company – has four albums in the chart: Rihanna (6 and 10), Lady Gaga (7) and Jessie J (8).
So what's gone wrong? In the UK it appears Sony has put all its eggs in The X Factor basket (Simon Cowell's Syco label is a Sony imprint and is partnered with the talent show), possibly arguing the number of votes an act gets is ample enough consumer research to make a signing a sure bet. It can also leave you stuck with a roster of old contestants no one is interested in. As Universal has partnered with new talent show The Voice it seems short-term thinking is alive and well, and it remains to be seen if that talent show is able to create artists with long-term careers. I have my doubts.
But the problem runs deeper. The BPI spins the chart results as a triumph for British artists, as they take up half of the top 10, but 40% of the Brits are Adele. As her albums are at No 1 and No 4, she's outsold the others by a mile with 21 selling 3.8m ahead of Bublé with 1.3m.
It's not just that Adele is an exceptional artist – she's been supported and developed by her label. Would she have been as successful if she'd been signed to a major? Would she have been asked to lose weight and get some media training to be more polished when dealing with journalists? Would she have been put together with younger and "hipper" songwriter/producers than the former lead singer of Semisonic and Rick Rubin to make sure she'd succeed? Probably.
Yet labels are now all looking to sign "the next Adele". Maybe they should instead heed the advice of Richard Russell, CEO of XL Recordings: "The problem in this business is that too many records are put out. There can only be one great artist in every scene. Scenes tend to create a lot of mediocrity."
Instead of signing loads of acts, hoping that one of them sticks, Russell keeps his roster small. The label usually doesn't release more than six albums a year. Like all indies, it can't give huge advances to artists, instead it attracts new artists owing to who is already signed. Its current roster includes the Horrors, Friendly Fires, Tyler the Creator, MIA, Beck, the White Stripes, the xx and Radiohead.
The more money spent on artists, the bigger the pressure to deliver as quickly as possible, as shareholders want to see a return on their investment. The knee-jerk reaction has been to focus on singles, catering to music fans who cherry-pick tracks on iTunes. But hit singles do not equal long-term careers and album sales – connection with the artist does. Black Eyed Peas, for example, have had some of the biggest singles in the last decade, but they're really only as popular as their latest, as they don't inspire anywhere near the devotion Adele does (her album 21 sold more than three times as many copies as the single Someone Like You).
Some believe Adele has been successful because her music is aimed at older people who still buy CDs, but I'd argue more young girls identify with her than with, for example, Pixie Lott or Leona Lewis. And in 10 years' time, more people will pay to see Adele live than either of those acts.
The good news to take from the BPI and Official Charts Company report is people have not completely stopped buying albums – the fact Adele broke the record for selling the most albums in a calendar year ever proves as much. There is no way of guaranteeing long-term success in the record industry, and that's what makes it such an exciting place. But one thing does seem predictable: the more you try to go for a perceived "sure bet", the more likely you are to lose in the long run.