2015 will mostly be remembered as the year that Adele made an easy-listening album that sold nearly 1.6m copies in the UK in three weeks.
In fact, the history books may record that the whole of the year was ruled by the beige brigade: Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, James Bay, all huge. Aside from those album successes, though, record sales were a misery. Even Faithless managed to get a No 1 album because they only had to shift 12,000 copies. But those statistics tell us very little about music in 2015. There were a series of encouraging shifts, in which the old metrics of success continued to be even more redundant.
Let’s start with the man who made the year his good girl: Drake. In February, he dropped a free mixtape, which he quickly retracted and sold as an album. Then he released two off-the-cuff disses of fellow rapper Meek Mill – Back To Back, since nominated for a Grammy, and Charged Up, as well as his most-played track to date, Hotline Bling. After that, all that was left to do was headline his own festival (OVO fest), launch a Beats 1 radio show and drop Hotline Bling’s dad-dancing video, which became the meme of the year.
Drake’s 2015 is a parable for what success looks like now: not massive sales but blanket coverage, through every medium, savvily responding to the insatiable thirst of the internet. The year’s biggest songs, by him as well as Rihanna, Kanye and Skepta, appeared only as singles, not on albums. Indeed, the bubblegum pop model of the 90s and 00s is almost dead, with One Direction’s split likely to be the nail in the coffin, and former eyes-and-teeth stars such as Bieber and 1D splinter cell Zayn Malik re-emerging as credible future-R&B tastemakers. A new girlband is now a far riskier proposition than quasi-credible solo artists such as George Ezra or Jack Garratt. In 2015, people crave authenticity, or at least the illusion of it, above all else. This leaves us with a new, faintly trendier style of pop music. Garratt, along with R&B rapper the Weeknd, Diplo’s EDM crew Major Lazer, reggae star OMI and Swedish singer MØ, is among the most-streamed artists of the year. All of them started in the leftfield but became beneficiaries of people’s more adventurous online listening habits, which meant they could build fanbases without the traditional trappings of celebrity.
More excitingly, genuinely underground music has been able to flourish on this new level playing field, especially in the UK. Most notable has been grime. A genre that once struggled because of its lack of commercial appeal, grime has thrived in 2015, driven by tracks being released as soon as they’re ready, high-fan engagement and a few shoutouts from Kanye and Drake. People have been talking about this kind of future for years, but 2015 was the year it finally happened, and MCs such as JME and Stormzy were able to get Top 20 releases without signing to a record label.
You might wonder how all this can be true when the year was so plainly dominated by two major albums: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (it broke Spotify’s record for the most streams in a single day, totting up 9.6m) and 25, Adele’s aforementioned commercial behemoth. But it proves that music will continue in diffuse in unusual ways and, while there will still be blockbuster releases, artists who aren’t best suited to them will continue to explore other options.
2015: it’s the year the music industry left the decrepit old structures behind and started afresh on one that works. Hello from the other side.
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