How Women Saved the Music Industry in 2011

Illustration: Kagan McLeod

Rihanna, Adele and Katy Perry are among the female stars who helped dig the business out of a seven-year sales slump.

You could say the music business had a banner year. Really. For the first time since 2004, overall album sales were up, to the tune of 4 percent. Of that, digital album purchases increased by nearly 20 percent and track sales by 9 percent, and while CD sales were down 5 percent, it was a far less toxic number than the double-digit declines of the past decade.

Who's to credit? Adele, for one. In 2011, the British singer sold 5 million copies of her Grammy-nominated sophomore effort, 21 -- 33 percent of them digital -- which seems to indicate the album format isn't doomed. "Adele's achievement across so many genres and platforms dispels the death-knell notion," says Jim Donio, president of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, which tracks the market.

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He calls the current climate a "healthy rebound" but stops short of using the word "turnaround": "Google, Spotify, Facebook, those all underscore the digital surge -- the immediate gratification of paying to download a track. Yet people still embrace albums. Look at Taylor Swift with Speak Now or Katy Perry with Teenage Dream."

Indeed, Swift moved 3.8 million copies of her third album, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Perry has seen five singles from her second full-length top the charts, tying Michael Jackson for the record and totaling 15 million downloads. And Rihanna released two hit albums to bookend the year, racking up sales of 1.9 million. "These girls have become brands on a global scale," says Donio. "They're all dominant in their own way and bring with them an interesting cross-section of fans."

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In pop, 2011 was the year of the female singer: Adele, Lady Gaga, Perry, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, even Britney Spears pulled off radio hits -- still the surest way to boost sales, along with TV exposure. Combined, these seven sisters sold 52.5 million downloads. They also toured their vocal cords raw, spent millions on videos and performed at every awards show imaginable. The effort paid off.

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Word-of-mouth had an impact, too, but not the old-fashioned kind. Buzz spread via social media and music-sharing services, while a move toward fair pricing, aided by Groupon's discounted concert tickets, also contributed to profits. The jury's still out on Amazon's 99-cent two-day sale of Lady Gaga's Born This Way, however. While it spurred sales of a million copies in week one, it took seven months to double that number. It's unclear how the P&L shook out, and Billboard has disqualified such fire sales from its charts.

Women made their strong identities known across multiple mediums, including movies (The Help, Bridesmaids) and TV (New Girl, Whitney), but in the music world, fantasy was key. A decade after 9/11, escapism seems alive and well as Gaga, Perry and Minaj developed costumed alter egos as superheroes and femme fatales. "These women are successful because the music is great, but people also gravitate to the persona," says Donio. Adele, on the other hand, aims for the opposite end of the realism spectrum. She's the relatable "girl who's just like you," he opines. "21 is a work of art." Bottom line: Music truly offered something for everybody.

Their male counterparts were a tough-talking crew including Lil Wayne (his Tha Carter IV moved 964,000 units its first week and another million within four months), Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake, Wiz Khalifa and DJ Khaled -- rappers from New Orleans, Toronto, Brooklyn and Chicago regaling a new generation of suburbanites with tales of their hopes and dreams (namely, money and real estate). On the flip side, Chris Brown saw career redemption with F.A.M.E. and graduated from R&B teen to hard-core hip-hop artist. His ode to cars, girls and cash, "Look at Me Now," was the No. 3 song of the year, according to Billboard, proving that hip-hop braggadocio remains popular and profitable. But in this economic climate, 2011's music stars will want to invest wisely. In the words of Drake (as heard on Khaled's current hit, "I'm On One"), whose album Take Care moved a million units since November and is poised to be among 2012's biggest hits: "Get it while you're here, 'cause all that hype don't feel the same next year."




  1. 21: Adele
  2. Sigh No More: Mumford & Sons
  3. Tha Carter IV: Lil Wayne
  4. Watch the Throne: Kanye West/Jay-Z
  5. Mylo Xyloto: Coldplay
  6. Born This Way: Lady Gaga
  7. Loud: Rihanna
  8. Take Care: Drake
  9. Teenage Dream: Katy Perry
  10. Doo-Wops & Hooligans: Bruno Mars


  1. "Rolling in the Deep": Adele
  2. "Party Rock Anthem": LMFAO
  3. "Firework": Katy Perry
  4. "Grenade": Bruno Mars
  5. "Forget You": Cee Lo Green
  6. "Give Me Everything": Pitbull feat. Ne-Yo, Afrojack & Nayer
  7. "E.T.": Katy Perry feat. Kanye West
  8. "Moves Like Jagger": Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera
  9. "Pumped Up Kicks": Foster the People
  10. "Super Bass": Nicki Minaj