The Amazing Marketing Machine Behind Adele

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Singer Adele performs onstage during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/WireImage)
Photograph by Mark Davis — WireImage/Getty Images

There hasn’t been a song as powerful as “Hello” in a long, long time.

Since its Oct. 23 debut, the post-breakup ballad has torn through music industry records like an eager child goes through presents on Christmas morning. Among its achievements so far: Most video views in the first 24 hours on Vevo (displacing Taylor Swift), 100 million YouTube views within five days (knocking Miley Cyrus down to number two), the first song to be downloaded 1 million times in its first week, and a debut at the #1 spot on Billboard’s Top 100. “Hello” had the biggest sales week of any tune in 15 years, according to Entertainment Weekly.

It’s a remarkable series of achievements that demonstrably show the popularity of and demand for new material from the British songstress, but it’s also due to some incredibly savvy marketing by Adele and the team behind her.

A Brilliant Beginning

It started with mystery – a 30 second commercial during the U.K.’s X-Factor, that featured the opening lines of the song, but nothing else. There was no confirmation that it was the singer. Nor did it let on that her new album 25 was imminent. And both Adele and her representatives stayed silent for days after the commercial aired and speculation ran wild.

That ad alone was enough to whip social media in a foam-mouthed frenzy and put the singer squarely back in the center of the conversation after a three year hiatus.

“It was the antidote to the complexity of modern music marketing,” says Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst at research firm Midia. “They said ‘we’re not going with something fancy – no bombastic video or things like that’.”

A Song That Spoke to Her Base

The song, too, spoke directly to the legions of fans who fell for Adele’s focus on heartbreak and misery on 21, quickly bringing them back to center. Only this time, the singer’s focus is tweaked – with Adele seemingly turning the blame on herself, not her departed lover.

Reengaging her fan base is critical if Adele hopes to post album sales anywhere close to the 11 million copies 21 sold. Unlike a performer such as Taylor Swift, who has a tight concentration of enthusiasts that can easily be mobilized, Adele’s audience is more fragmented and widely distributed, which will require the marketing of this album to continue to be on point.

“There’s something very different about Adele that makes it a challenge,” he says. “Taylor Swift has a much more ardent fan base. You’ve got Swift-ettes, but not Adele-ettes. Lots of people like Adele and fell in love with her last album, but there’s not a core group of people that identify themselves as Adele fans, like Swift.”

Different Channels

The success of 21, he says, was much like a grass roots presidential campaign – and that seems to be the direction the singer is going with again. It reaches out to fans in the mainstream audience in a variety of different channels (the Facebook post, the mysterious commercial, the simultaneous release of the video and downloadable single).

Later this month, she’ll appear on Saturday Night Live and put on a one night only concert in New York City at Radio City Music Hall.

And the BBC is already teasing the first live performance of the show:

Refuses to Play the Game

Don’t however, expect Adele to radically change her philosophy toward fame. Beyond her big voice and the universal themes of her song, she achieved notoriety by not playing by the typical rules. She doesn’t headline big music festivals or giant arenas, preferring intimate venues. She refuses to associate her music with advertising. And, beyond what she reveals in her songs (and cannot hide, like the birth of her son), she keeps her private life private, restricting interviews – even when there’s a new album to promote.

The Spotify Question

And there’s still the lingering question of whether she’ll allow 25 to be played on streaming music services. Most artists wouldn’t hesitate, as it increases exposure, but top-selling performers like Adele and Swift risk sacrificing sales of physical media or downloads. Swift, last year, pulled her catalog from Spotify and convinced Apple to pay royalties during trials of its streaming service.

The New York Times says Adele is directly involved in the decision, though where she stands is still unclear.

The big risk this time is that while “Hello” is familiar territory for fans, 25 may veer in different directions.

The singer herself has hinted that this outing will be less maudlin. “My last record was a break-up record,” she said on Facebook last month, “and if I had to label this one, I’d call it a make-up record. I’m making up with myself. Making up for lost time. Making up for everything I ever did and never did.”

And given the birth of her son and the tremendous success of her last album, it’s safe to assume Adele’s in a better place – which could either further engage fans who have themselves matured or scare them off, since they expect a certain kind of music from her.

“There’s often this thing with albums for an artist to sing the greatest hits of their adolescence and all the songs they’ve been writing as they’ve gone through that pain on their first album,” says Mulligan. “With some that carries through to the second album and that’s the case with Adele. By the time you get to the third, your life has changed.”

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