Adele’s big comeback: Sony’s album campaign leaves nothing to chance

Record label goes all out in its first release from star who was long away from the limelight

As teasers go, it yielded scant information: the number 30 illuminated on the side of the Louvre in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, the Tate Modern in London and the Empire State Building in New York.

There were paper-and-paste appearances, too, in the underground pedestrian tunnels of Toronto and on a curved corner of Camden Street in Dublin, next to the Crown Decorating Centre – not quite the Louvre, but cheaper.

Luckily, both fans of Adele and operators of Adele fan accounts (not necessarily the same people) understood right away that these "mysterious" advertisements signalled the imminent arrival of the British singer's next album (the previous ones being titled 19, 21 and 25). This was lucky, as otherwise Sony Music, her record label, might have had to go to the trouble of nudging them.

Adele’s return after six years – “six long years”, according to Rolling Stone – has since been confirmed with the announcement that new single Easy on Me will be released on Friday. This occasion was trailed on Adele’s socials, which posted a 21-second black-and-white clip of some nondescript piano notes emitting from her car tape deck as she showed off her nail art and pages of sheet music flew out the window.


This probably means that Easy on Me won't be a piano ballad at all, but to indulge in these guessing games is to fall for Sony's trick – the trick being to make people care about a singer who last released an album when Barack Obama was US president, a Brexit referendum was yet to be held and there was enough life left in the physical music market that the record, 25, could be withheld from streaming services for seven months.

En Vogues

In another change from 2015, the previously enigmatic Adele has done separate heartfelt interviews for the November editions of US Vogue and British Vogue, gracing the cover of both Condé Nast publications – the first time the same person has done so simultaneously.

This "spectacular transatlantic takeover" is, according to British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, a "historic moment", while Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis was quoted in the Guardian saying "it always feels like a global event" when Adele puts out music.

It feels like one, because that's exactly what it is – to Sony Music, at least. Together with Universal Music and Warner Music, Sony is a member of the "big three" record labels that dominate streaming and what is left of physical music sales. They're so big that the case of their market dominance was referred to the UK's competition regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, after a parliamentary committee flagged "deep concern" about their potential to distort the market.

And, with Adele, Sony has an investment to recoup. Underemphasised amid all the gossipy focus on her image and emotional state is the deal that underpins version 4.0 of Adele: the £90 million contract she signed with Sony in 2016 – the biggest such record deal ever struck with a British musician – after the expiry of her relationship with her original label, the independent XL Recordings.

Adele’s new album is an “event” because, from Sony’s perspective, it has to be.

But even though the timeline between the renting of world landmarks for promo purposes and the actual availability of new music is relatively tight, it all feels like a drawn-out, old-fashioned process in the age of the surprise drop.

Surprise drops – in which high-profile, established artists release albums overnight with minimal advance warning – are a feature of the digital music age, cultivated by Beyoncé (who has done it three times, once with husband Jay-Z), messed up by U2 (whose 2014 album Songs of Innocence was notoriously shoved by Apple into every iTunes account, unsolicited) and adopted for pandemic times by Taylor Swift.

Undoubtedly, surprise drops are a power move. They let everyone know that it doesn’t matter how deep the glut of entertainment content we’re swimming in, this artist won’t be queuing up for a gap in anybody’s schedule, they will release whenever they please and know that whatever they do will command attention. The event is there is no event: just a source of delight that lands without fanfare and, most importantly, still manages to stick.

In the video-on-demand world, surprise drops are also a show of strength, though in this case it is the platform doing the muscle-flexing – Netflix, for instance, can easily premiere a new series or film with little notice by giving it the prominent home-page position.

Succession hyping

The habit of being ultra-secretive can help delay copycatting and limit leaks, though in television, unlike music, once something is already a hit, surprise drops make no sense, as the point of an extended period of promotion for a second or subsequent series will be to hype it so much it pulls in viewers who missed the first one, prompting them to catch up.

HBO drama Succession did this ahead of its second series in 2019 and it is doing so doubly now, with clips of hilariously venal members of the elite Roy family dangled a fortnight in advance of the third season's October 17th arrival on HBO (October 18th on Sky) and seemingly every member of the cast and half the writers conscripted for press interviews.

For the already converted, the weeks of publicity will trigger want-it-now impatience. Why is HBO/Sky cruelly withholding on us? It makes me feel all gruff and sweary, Logan Roy style.

Presumably there are fans of Adele, one of the biggest-selling musicians of the 21st century, who are suffering similar frustration. Why hasn’t Sony just dished out her album, surprise style? The obvious conclusion is that it must have dismissed such a strategy as too risky for an artist who has been “away” for so long.

Instead, the Adele campaign has swerved from unsubtle teasers to traditional magazine covers, leaving nothing to chance in its bid to maximise anticipation and snatch the chart crown from some lad called Ed Sheeran. Ultimately, her success hangs not just on whether the songs are any good, but on whether listeners are in the mood for them now.