…or, Why I Rather Fancy Adele

It’s late, and right now I’m listening to Spotify. I am rediscovering songs from my teen years that are too obscure for my 11-year-old daughter’s “mix from every decade” radio station but were still hits in their day. Quietly I hustle them one by one into a grouping self-consciously christened, “OMFG I Can’t Believe I’m Listening To This Again” or something like that.

These songs were hugely influential to me then but today they feel…small. Every tasty lick and moment of musical hesitation is there, but the music feels restrained by the massive compression imposed at the time to accommodate the physical vagaries of a stylus cavorting through grooves cut into vinyl. Even so, this music was created by stoned people who played instruments through amplifiers that were miked and captured on magnetic tape. The way God intended it.

But this is not a diatribe against “that crap the kids are listening to today”; I happen to like a lot of that crap.

No, actually it is an appreciation of a very contemporary musician and singer named Adele. Having sold well over 1 million downloaded copies of her album ’21’, she has beaten Eminem to the title of having the most downloaded album ever. As none other than Billboard itself reported, “[Adele’s album] ’21’ continues to reign as the year’s best selling album overall, too, with 2.6 million copies sold in the U.S. It has spent 10 non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and has yet to see a week where it has ranked lower than No. 3.”

What is lovely about Adele is that she plays an instrument – her Silk-Cut voice – into a microphone. She does not sing dance-driven repetitive trance-thems; when she says “baby” (which is rarely) you feel like she means it. She stands out among most if not all other artists in the “Top 40” (if that really exists anymore) for being…well, a musician. But don’t take my word for it; her previous record ’19’ (named for her age at the time) was nominated for the Mercury Prize in the UK, a juried non-commercial award for the finest musical release of any UK artist. Side by side with any the virtuosi of my distant youth, Adele is the real deal.

Adele’s route to well-earned pop-star success takes its route no doubt through social media, and therefore leads us to some marketing-oriented questions: Do the demographic studies that show social media skewing older than originally imagined have anything to do with the success of “real musicians” like Adele? Will popular music charts become increasingly driven by the Facebook generation – moms who watch Glee? With the demise of MySpace will the online music charts start favoring artists that appeal to an older crowd?

And – as I type this I’m adding another nugget from 1983 to my playlist – could this mean a revival for marketing-savvy bands that were popular between 1980 and 1986?

How Many Friends Did You Have In High School?
The CEO of a medium-sized company recounted a story to me that I think speaks volumes about the way social media is regarded today, as well as being highly relevant to Adele’s success. The CEO had been asked by another agency how many Facebook friends his brand had. As he told me about this exchange he threw up his hands and asked, “Who cares? Should I care about that? Why would I or anyone in business care about the number of Facebook friends my company has?”

In fact many brands do care, and many social media practitioners counsel about the value of a Facebook friend. While an absolute value of a Facebook Like cannot be determined across the board, across industries or even across product lines, certain types of products are better suited to the casual endorsement of a Like than others. The key is to separate interest between individuals and the convenience of a group. Two hunting buddies may not plan their next animal killing spree on Facebook the way two grandmothers share pictures of their offsprings’ newborn offspring, but an entire hunting club might well have a very popular Facebook presence from which it can broadcast the next get-together or post pictures from their last.

Consider the same issue in another context: It is certain that BMW US spent more to market their new X3 Build-to-Order program (USD 5 million) than XL Records did to market Adele’s new release. BMW also has more Facebook Likes than does Adele by a long shot: 6,160,937 to Adele’s 3,992,562. But between BMW and Adele which is able to more effectively leverage Facebook to move units?

That is not an apples-to-apples comparison, one would correctly argue, and that’s the point: The absolutes of creating scale in marketing start to unravel when it becomes clear that it’s no more expensive to cater to niche interests. Put another way, there needn’t be a fruit-based leveling exercise when we can decide to appeal to a defined audience in a defined way using low- or no-cost methods.

Do Your Own Math, Gary Richrath
The paradigm-changing economic efficiencies of social media are well understood. What is perhaps more interesting to a marketer is that these cutting-edge channels turn out to deliver a more mature audience than was originally thought. New technology = teenager from down the street, right? Wrong, apparently. 22% of Facebook users are between 35 and 54; close to 110 million people. For Twitter it’s 44% of users, which equates roughly to almost 47 million people. Best of all (accounting for some overlap in the crowds) this 120 million people span 3+ decades of musical tastes. Old former hair bands can get a revival. Musical styles can become more analog than computerized. People can be heard playing instruments again on the radio.

Mumford and Sons, anyone?

Against the pounding offense of Flo Rida or B.O.B. or even Eminem (with Dr. Dre brought in for added gravitas), Adele scored her record-setting Internet sales victory much in the same way as Japan did in the women’s World Cup: steady, persistent, true to the core mission, and knowing how to capitalize on the luck that comes her way.

Will a more mature customer be able to recognize these same qualities in a brand? Accordingly, will PR firms and ad agencies help companies take the long view, encourage a focus on quality, and build programs that bring forth the skill and soul of music without quantization?

I don’t know. All I do know is that it is the newest set of online tools that allow me to indulge in my decades-old pleasures. There must be a lesson in there for brands on how people Roll With The Changes.