Synthesizers Not Included: How Adele Broke In America

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

This year, Adele became the first artist since the Beatles to have two top five albums and singles simultaneously in the UK. Her album, 21, and the single “Someone Like You,” have remained atop the British charts for weeks.

With dance pop ruling the airwaves, it doesn’t seem like British soul singers in their 20s could sell many records. Somehow, 22-year-old Adele has done it though. Her sophomore album, 21, debuted atop the charts in ten countries, including the United States. In the UK, she became the first artist to have two top five albums and singles in the chart at the same time since the Beatles in 1964.

The secret to her success is her powerful vocals and the heaps of good press and critical acclaim she’s accumulated. Adele won the Critic’s Choice award at the 2008 Brits and followed that with a Best New Artist win at the 2009 Grammys. Although the critical acclaim and commercial success she’s achieved in the UK was deserved, breaking in the US was never a given. Making it big in the States is a difficult feat. For every Coldplay and Leona Lewis, there are dozens of Robbie Williams, Girls Aloud and Dizzee Rascals — artists that are superstars in the UK but can’t crack the American market.

Adele’s big break came thanks to a failed Republican vice presidential candidate. She performed on the October 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin appeared on, the most watched SNL in 14 years. In the weeks after her performance, her debut album, 19, shot to No. 11 on the Billboard album chart. After winning at the Grammys a few months later, it reached a new high of No. 10.

The second time around, however, Adele doesn’t need polarizing politicians to bring attention to her music. 21 debuted at No. 1 in the United States two weeks ago with 352,000 copies sold. What’s impressive about that number is that only 38 percent of her sales came from physical CDs. The other 62 percent were digital downloads, suggesting something most soul singers can’t claim — that she has a young fan base.

“The American market is a world of niches, and Adele didn’t fit perfectly in any of them — certainly not at radio,” said Columbia Records chairman Steve Barnett. “But we knew people had to experience her, so we took an old-fashioned approach. She had to go out and play, and because she’s so captivating, we felt that if we got the right TV opportunities, she’d be able to cut through.”

Her television exposure has included the late night talk show circuit and “Rolling in the Deep” is featured in a Nike ad. Word-of-mouth and blogosphere buzz certainly hasn’t hurt, and considering the wide appeal of her music, expect 21 to be one of the blockbuster albums of 2011.

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