The secret to Adele's success

The Adele campaign has made astute use of the idea of realness. Her personality – gobby, funny, big-hearted – has been amplified, not media-trained out of existence.

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On February 14, Adele Adkins appeared at the Grammys in Los Angeles, where she performed her 2010 single Rolling in the Deep and collected every one of the six awards for which she was nominated. Tonight she appears at the Brit Awards, where she is nominated for Best British Female Solo Artist, Best British Single and British Album of t he Year for her album, 21. All the signs suggest that 21 is an album that has not yet run its course. The most surprising thing is how far it has come already.

Platinum-selling in more than 20 countries, and a staggering 14 times platinum in the UK, Adele's second album has achieved a magnitude of success many presumed was no longer possible in an internet age. The future of retail, as Chris Anderson had it in his 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, was in catering to niche appeal – all of them, simultaneously. But the death of the superstar, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated. More than a year from its release, 21 still rests in the UK top five. With approaching 4 million copies sold, it has passed Michael Jackson's Thriller and Madonna's The Immaculate Collection, and is creeping up on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon. "No one could have predicted that 21 would go on to sell as many copies as it has, because even the biggest albums these days don't reach those kinds of numbers," says Paul Williams, a business analyst at Music Week. "Only around a handful of other albums have sold that many and all took much longer to do so than 21. To sell that many copies you have to reach as many people across the generations as possible."

Many have fixated on Adele's image, or lack of, as the key to her success. Last year, the man who signed her, Richard Russell of XL Recordings, told The Guardian that "the whole message [with Adele] is that it's just music… there are no gimmicks, no selling of sexuality". Perhaps Russell overstates his case: the Adele we saw at the Grammys – slimmer, with blow-dried hair and bee-stung lips – was certainly not asexual (although certainly, it's far removed from the flesh-flashing Lady Gaga/Kei$ha template). Rather, the Adele campaign has made astute use of the idea of realness. Her personality – gobby, funny, big-hearted – has been amplified, not media-trained out of existence. She inhabits her songs, in the most unpretentious way. And while Adele is hardly manufactured, this tactic chimes neatly with the modern reality show format – the X Factor contestant whose success is entwined with their real-life story of hard times and heart-break. Adele's big-lunged break-up anthem Someone Like You, heard everywhere from talent shows to karaoke booths, is a song that you throw yourself into, that you invest a little bit of yourself within.

There is, however, one way in which the Adele campaign has rewritten the rule book. Perceived wisdom goes that to crack America, you have to tour hard, hit every local radio station and press the flesh like your life depends on it. Yet Adele has been rather choosy. She said she'd never play a festival, and she has held to it. She's cancelled not one, but two US tours – in 2008, because she wanted to be at home with her boyfriend; in 2011, for the more unavoidable reason of a damaged vocal cord. Yet this has not impeded her rise – indeed, argues Williams, scarcity may have become a hook in itself. "A decision to ration appearances means when she does perform in public it feels all the more special. So, that means a performance at last year's Brit Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards in the US, and not much else. But these performances have been streamed millions of times in every corner of the globe. Even in places she hasn't visited, she's been the year's biggest seller."

Perhaps the one thing guaranteed to slow 21's sales is a new Adele album. And contrary to reports last week in Vogue suggesting the singer was planning to take "four or five years" off, we might not have long to wait.

"I've a few days off now, and then it's the Brit Awards here at home," she blogged last Tuesday. "Then I'm straight into the studio. Five years? More like five days!"

Team Adele

There was a deft team behind Adele's 21, and they are also reaping the benefits of its success:

  • Richard Russell

Formerly of the 1990s rave act Kicks Like A Mule, Russell is the co-founder and now sole owner of the London-based independent XL Recordings. Run with the ethic that the musicians themselves should be in the driving seat, XL found success with The Prodigy, The White Stripes and Dizzee Rascal before signing Adele.

  • Paul Epworth

The producer who rose to fame through production work with the indie bands Bloc Party and The Futureheads. Increasingly, he's become known as a songwriter, co-writing with Florence + The Machine and Friendly Fires. His work on 21 – three co-writing credits, including Rolling in the Deep – earned him four Grammys.

  • Francis 'Eg' White

A low-key hit maker with a resume writing for Duffy, Will Young, Take That and Kylie Minogue. He worked with Adele on her first Top 5 hit, Chasing Pavements and returns on 21 with a co-write on Take It All.

  • Rick Rubin

The co-founder of Def Jam and the man behind Johnny Cash's latter-day rehabilitation, Rubin is also co-president of Adele's US record label, Columbia. He invited the singer out to Malibu to record in his personal studio, spawning three 21 songs – Don't You Remember, He Won't Go and I'll Be Waiting.

  • Dan Wilson

Outside of his work with Adele, Wilson is best known as the vocalist for Semisonic, who scored a worldwide hit with Secret Smile. Wilson co-wrote three songs on 21, including Someone Like You.

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