Why Streaming Doesn’t Really Matter For Adele

The outstanding success of Adele’s single ‘Hello’ has stoked up the already eager debate around whether Adele’s forthcoming ‘25’ album is going to be a success.  Indeed some are asking whether it is going to ‘save the industry’. One of the aspects that is getting a lot of attention is whether the album is going to be held back from some or all of the streaming services.  The parallels with Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’ are clear, especially because both Swift and Adele are strong album artists, which is an increasingly rare commodity these days. But the similarities do not go much further.  In fact the two artists have dramatically different audience profiles which is why streaming plays a very different role for Adele than it does for Swift.

Lapsed Music Buyers Were Key To the Success Of ‘21’

Adele’s ’21’ was a stand out success, selling 30 million copies globally.  Core to ‘21’s commercial success was that the album touched so many people and in doing so pulled lapsed and infrequent music buyers out of the woodwork.  The question is whether the feat can be repeated? In many respects it looks a tall ask.  We’re 4 years on since the launch of ‘21’ and the music world has changed.  Music sales revenue (downloads and CDs) have fallen by a quarter while streaming revenues have tripled.  And the problem with pulling lapsed and infrequent buyers out of the woodwork is that they have receded even further 4 years on.  In fact a chunk of them are gone for good as buyers.

buyer streamer overlap

But beneath the headline numbers the picture is more nuanced (see graphic).  Looking at mid-year 2015 consumer data from the US we can see that music buyers (i.e. CD buyers and download buyers) are still a largely distinct group from free streamers (excluding YouTube).  While this may seem counter intuitive it is in fact evidence of the twin speed music consumer landscape that is emerging.  This is why ‘Hello’ was both a streaming success (the 2nd fastest Vevo video to reach 100m views) and a sales success (the first ever song to sell a million downloads in one week in the US).  These are two largely distinct groups of consumers.

Streaming A Non-Issue?

As a reader of this blog you probably live much or most of your music life digitally, but for vast swathes of the population, including many music buyers, this is simply not the case.  Given that the mainstream audience was so key to ‘21’s success we can make a sensible assumption that many of these will also fall into the 27% of consumers that buy music but do not stream.  The implication is thus that being on streaming really is not that big of a deal for ‘25’ one way or the other.  Whereas Taylor Swift’s audience is young and streams avidly, Adele’s is not.  That is not to say there aren’t young Adele fans, of course there are, but they are a far smaller portion of Adele’s fan base than Swift’s.

60% of 16-24 year olds stream while just 20% buy CDs.  Compare that to 40-50 year olds where 34% stream and 43% buy CDs.  These are dramatically different audiences which require dramatically different strategies.  Audio streaming is unlikely to be a major factor either way for Adele, neither in terms of lost sales nor revenue.  Unless of course she ‘does a Jazy-Z‘ or ‘does a U2’ and takes a big fat cheque from Apple to appear exclusively on Apple Music.  But I’d like to think she’d like to think she’d have the confidence of earning sales the real way.

The Importance Of The Digitally Engaged Super Fan

What unites Swift and Adele is that they are both mass market album artists and as such are something of a historical anomaly.  Swift bucked the trend by making an album targeted at Digital Natives shift more than 8 million units.  Adele will likely also buck the trend.  But paradoxically, considering the above data, in some ways it will be a harder task for Adele.  Swift has a very tightly defined, super engaged fan base that identifies itself with her.  Adele’s fanbase is more amorphous and pragmatic.  You don’t get ‘Adelle-ettes’.  Swift was able to mobilise her fanbase into music buying action like a presidential candidate with a passionate grassroots following and big donors.  The importance of digitally engaged super fans is the secret sauce of success for digital era creators.  It is the exact same dynamic that ensured UK YouTuber Joe Sugg was able to leverage his fanbase to give his debut book ‘Codename Evie’ the biggest 1st week sales for graphic novel EVER in the UK this year.

If Adele and her team do pull off a sales success with ‘25’ they will owe a debt of gratitude to that 27% of consumers.  While the odds are against it being quite as big as ‘21’ (simply because the market is smaller) it still has every chance of being a milestone event that will out perform everything else.  But do not mistake that for this being ‘Adele saves the music industry’.  Album sales are declining.  Success from Taylor Swift and Adele are (welcome) throwbacks and they are most certainly not a glimpse into the future.

Why Full Albums Need to Go from YouTube Right Away

YouTube has long been the digital music anomaly: hugely successful, almost free of criticism but with a pitifully small pay-per-stream rate (below half that of Spotify, who does get criticism, and some).  YouTube is now on the verge of launching a subscription product and this will hopefully go some way of addressing the fact it has made the marketing journey the consumption destination.  But the music industry should keep its aspirations in check, not just about the potential impact of the service, but also – and perhaps most importantly – because of YouTube’s intent.

Google is a rights frenemy.  Rights frenemies strike a careful balance between maintaining good relations with rights holders on one side of their business but testing the limits on the other side. They pursue a do first, ask forgiveness later strategy.  Thus all the while Google is launching two music subscription services (Google Play Music All Access and the forthcoming YouTube offering) it is also lobbying for copyright reform and posting a link to chillingeffects.org for every successful copyright takedown.  In other words Google talks the talk but only reluctantly so and it does the absolute minimum of walking the walk.

Nowhere is this approach more apparent in YouTube and the presence of user uploaded ‘full albums’.   A coherent argument can be made that 383 million views of Miley Cyrus’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ Vevo video delivered clear benefits to the artist and her team (both though direct Vevo advertising and the vast exposure).  Full length albums ripped into YouTube by users have no such benefit.  In fact labels in the main do what they can to remove them using YouTube’s takedown process.  If Google was a rights ally rather than a rights frenemy it wouldn’t solely wait to be told to take stuff down, at least for the really obvious and high profile stuff, but it doesn’t.


Take a look at these top search results for Adele, U2, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beatles (see figure 1).  The full album results are high lighted in red, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views each, in the case of Adele’s ‘21’ it is more than 1 million, and some have been live for more than a year.  In the case of the Beatles all of the top results are full albums.  I doubt that the Beatles spent the best part of a decade not licensing to iTunes in order to suddenly throw it all straight up on YouTube.


There are also endless ripped live DVDs and recorded TV broadcasts of live concerts (see figure 2). It’s pretty hard to see why somebody would want to buy a live DVD of a U2 show when they can get the entire show in 1080p HD on YouTube.  And of course because it is a continual 2 hours and 22 minutes of video the viewing experience will be virtually ad free, save for a 30 second pre-roll and the odd pop up which can easily be clicked off.  The only winner here in business terms is YouTube.

Not all the blame can be laid at Google’s feet though: these examples were found immediately, with no effort, so it is inconceivable that someone somewhere in each of the respective labels doesn’t also know about this.  Thus someone has taken the decision in some of these instances to take the benefit of the ‘exposure’ in return for cannibalizing sales of the exact same music the exposure is supposed to drive sales of.  It is this conflicted view of YouTube (i.e. ‘we couldn’t sell as much music without it even though we lose sales because of it) that needs to be fixed.  Google can hardly be blamed for having a schizophrenic approach to the music industry if the industry does exactly the same back.

But relationship issues notwithstanding, full albums need to disappear from YouTube right now. They need to do so if for no other reason than to level the playing field for those music services that pay back at higher rates to rights owners and that actually try to get consumers to pay for music.  Labels and Google, bang your respective heads together!

What are an Artist’s Metrics for Success in the Digital Age?

Last night I was fortunate enough to be on stage with Talking Head David Byrne and legendary DJ Dave Haslam at the Royal Northern College of Music discussing Byrne’s latest book ‘How Music Works’.  It was a fun event with a lot of thoughtful debate and also insight into Byrne’s approach to making and performing music.  Prior to our discussion I gave a short presentation on the state of the digital music nation to help illustrate how the music market is so dramatically different after the music industry’s first digital decade.

One of the slides I updated for my presentation was that of artist ‘success metrics’ in the digital age (see figure).

Prior to the advent of digital, and more specifically the spread of the contagion of free, the way in which artist’s measured their success was primarily through sales of albums.  But in the digital era, with album sales becoming less and less important to many artists, metrics such as total YouTube views and number of Facebook likes are becoming just as important measures of success.

As we are still in the early days of digital, the shift in success metrics does not apply in a uniform manner.  Some artists’ success metrics still look more like those of artists from the analogue age than they do the digital age.  Take a look at two of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists: Adele and Coldplay.  Both of these artists are still predominately album artists and both have had huge success with their latest albums.  Yet look at their YouTube views and Facebook likes, and they significantly trail more canonically digital-age artists such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga.  This is illustrated even more starkly by the case of Pitbull who has sold a relatively modest 8 million albums but has a staggering 2.95 billion YouTube views.

A key factor that underpins this diversity is the age of the core audiences of the artists.  Coldplay and Adele appeal more to older audiences who are still in the habit of buying albums, or who do not buy many albums anymore but do so on occasion when an album like ‘21’ comes along.

Does this mean that as we progress more deeply into the music industry’s second digital decade that the success metric balance will tilt more firmly in the favour of YouTube and Facebook?  Quite probably.  Which inherently means that album sales will continue to dwindle.  A key reason for this is that the majority of album buyers are still CD buyers, and more of these consumers are stopping buying music entirely rather than going digital.  In the UK the total number of people buying music dropped by 5.1 million between 2008 and 2011.  Against a population of 61 million that is a vast number to lose in such a short period of time.  In the US the numbers are similar but slightly lower on a per capita basis.

Until a clear path is carved for physical album buyers into the digital realm, album sales will continue to dwindle.  And that not only matters in industry revenue terms, it matters from a creative perspective as well.  I am not arguing that we try to turn back the tide of album atomization (many consumers will forever more only want individual tracks from many artists).  But what must happen is the emergence of a new generation of album products that deliver not just as much, but more value to music fans than CD albums currently do.  This means leveraging the principles of DISC (Dynamic, Interactive, Social, Curated) to create a new breed of album experiences.  Because the alternative is swapping albums sales for YouTube views and Facebook likes, neither of which pay the bills.

Why It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether Adele Sells More Albums Than Lady Gaga This Year

You may have noticed the unattractive furore surrounding Adele’s contest with Lady Gaga to become the biggest selling artist of the year.  The momentum appears to be with Adele, with her hugely successful ‘21’ album yesterday becoming the first ever album to sell more than 1 million digital copies on iTunes in Europe.

But the simple fact is that albums are no longer the definitive marker of success that they once were.  The shift from the distribution era of the album to the consumption era of the stream and the download have seen a shift from buying to free, and from albums to singles.  The download store allowed music buyers to deconstruct the album into cherry-picked bite size chunk; file sharing enabled people to stop buying albums altogether; and streaming let fans assemble single tracks into their own personal albums (i.e. playlists).

The digital transition makes a case for new measures of success

Income from live, merchandize and other sources have been becoming increasingly important for artists and yet we still measure an artist’s success in terms of how many units of music they sell.  Live revenues are certainly one measure, and of course radio.  But Facebook likes and YouTube views are becoming an increasingly important indicator of success also. And yet, measuring success is not as simple as choosing between one metric or another.  The music industry is in a transition stage, as is consumer consumption of music.  Thus we have a mixture of artists ranging from those that are clearly of the digital age and those that are transition artists, who are entirely contemporary artists but are more at home on a CD than they are YouTube.  I’d put Lady Gaga in the first camp and Adele in the second:  just as measuring Adele solely on her YouTube views would miss the mark, so measuring Lady Gaga on album sales alone would miss the mark.

The chart directly below illustrates the point further.  Here artists are mapped according to their total YouTube views and total Facebook ‘Likes’, with the bubble size representing the total number of albums sold globally.  I have picked a sample of artists that are, or have been, top tier and that represent a range of different artist career models.

A number of trends become apparent:

  • A new generation of artist is emerging. Lady Gaga may be the poster girl for the YouTube generation but she also shifts a good number of album units too.    Artists like Cuban American rapper Pitbull are the sharp end of digital age artists. With 1.5 billion YouTube views to his name and tens of millions of singles sold PitBull is a mainstream success story of the highest order, and yet he has sold fewer than 10 million albums.
  • Target audience counts. Coldplay and Adele are both top tier contemporary artists, and yet their YouTube views pale compared to Pitbull.  What they have instead are big album sales (50 million for Coldplay, 15 million for Adele).  Why the difference? Because Coldplay and Adele appeal most strongly to people in the their late 20’s and upwards i.e. the people who still buy albums. While Pitbull is much more youth focused.
  • The 100 million selling album artist is a dying breed.  Just in case you were wondering why Sir Cliff is in the chart, he achieved the not insignificant feat of selling 100 million albums. He was at his peak during the album’s apogee and although his digital stats are pretty modest, it is hard to see the likes of Pitbull or, perhaps, even Lady Gaga ever matching Cliff’s album sales.  That is not a reflection on those artists but instead on the changing dynamics of the music market.
  • The exceptional success stories break the rules.  Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson break the rules.  Lady Gaga is – by contemporary measures at least – a strong album artist as well being in a different league in YouTube and Facebook.  Michael Jackson was firmly an artist of the album apogee era and yet his unique profile has ensured that his success continued into the digital age, and by the rules of the digital age.
  • Facebook is the better measure of sustained, organic success.  The problem with YouTube is that it is susceptible to the impact of flashes in the pan.  An artist can have one or two massive YouTube hits and then disappear, or simply be early on in their career.  Facebook ‘Likes’ however are a better measure of longer term, organic popularity.  Take the example of Dev who has close to 300 million YouTube views  – which is nearly as many views as Coldplay.  Yet take a look at Dev’s Facebook ‘Likes’ and you find that she has just 256,00 compared to Coldplay’s 15 million.  YouTube is the key digital popularity measure but needs to be blended with other measures to be truly effective.

Many, rightly, think of YouTube and other free streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora as promotional and discovery vehicles, a digital equivalent for radio.  And yet they are also much more than that: they are increasingly the ends as well as the means.  The chart below shows the number of albums sold per YouTube view.  Cliff Richard’s rate dwarves the rest because his peak was in the album era and his remaining fans aren’t exactly widespread among millennials. But the overall trend is nonetheless compelling: for the true ‘YouTube Generation’ artists, the ratio is dramatically weaker than for album artists.

6 years ago Paul Myers – then CEO of Mp3 download store Wippit – told me that “rock n’ roll was dead”, that the last great album was ‘Thriller’ and that we would never see an album that successful ever again. I was sceptical at the time, but those words are appearing ever more accurate as each year passes.  Looking at the first chart above it is clear that no artist is ever going to come close to selling the amount of albums Michael Jackson did.  But artists will still be successful: we will see artists break the 2 billion YouTube views and we will see artists break the 100 million Facebook ‘Likes’.  As this transition phase continues to play out, artists will evolve how their careers work and the industry will increasingly have to change how it measures their success.  Companies like Music Metric are already starting along this path and the traditional sources of measurement such as Nielsen and the Official Charts Company are also evolving their approaches.  These shifts are crucial, because measuring an artist’s success isn’t just a marketing trick, it is the litmus test with which their fans relate and by which history will remember them.