Who Is Really Paying for Adele?
The decision to withhold Adele’s new album, “25,” from streaming services seems to have worked out well so far. Not only have her first-week sales broken the previous and seemingly unassailable record, 2.4 million, set by ’N Sync, in 2000, Adele did so at a time when piracy is a simple alternative to buying, which was not the case fifteen years ago.
This is good news for Adele and her label, Columbia, and its parent, Sony. It’s also a boon for the album’s songwriters and producers, who get a much larger royalty rate for album sales than they do for streaming. For the record business as a whole, “25” feels like a welcome, if illusory, return to the glory day of the late nineties, when the industry created the Diamond Award for album sales in excess of ten million. Whether “25” ultimately goes diamond remains to be seen, and achieving those heights will depend in large part on how long the album remains off the streaming services.
Album sales are profitable, but they are not the future of the music business—streaming is. Could it be possible that the record business, pursuing a strategy of inflating sales by keeping an album off Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer, is choosing short-term profits over long-term growth? (Perish the thought!) That would be consistent with the industry’s attitude toward its potential tech partners, going back to its failure to join forces with Napster in 2001 and killing Napster instead.
Will the record business also end up killing streaming, or at least the freemium model that Spotify is based on, by withholding the top acts? Just how many major artist withholdings can Spotify withstand? (The company is rumored to have had trouble raising capital in its last round of financing.) If Adele and Taylor Swift take Spotify down, they’re going to take the industry with it. The very fact that Adele is able to break ’N Sync’s record at all surely has much to do with the fact that streaming has helped to make her so immensely popular in the first place.
If you are an Apple or a Spotify subscriber (I am both), you are faced with a quandary over what to do about “25.” In the old days, you would have just gone out and bought the album. But streaming complicates the picture. You don’t want to buy the record because that would be giving in to what feels like a heavy-handed attempt to make us purchase the music twice—to pay another ten dollars on top of the ten-dollar monthly subscription (I have the Apple family plan, which is fifteen) for an album that will show up on streaming sooner or later. But how long do you have to wait? It could be a couple of weeks, it could be a year, or it might not be until Adele gets her diamond. How long can you wait? At least with DVD rentals, you have a pretty good idea of how long it’s going to be. But Adele and Taylor are making up the sales-to-streaming rules as they go along.
Why not make “25” available to the premium subscribers on streaming services? That would be a great incentive for people on the ad-supported tier to pony up some cash. In this scenario, maybe Adele doesn’t get the record for albums sold, but she would have significantly increased streaming subscriptions, which would benefit many artists. The way things are going now, only Adele wins.