100 & Single: Adele's Focus-Grouped Chart-Topper And The Demise Of The "Deep Cut"

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Remember the album cut—the track deep on a disc that fans knew best, that only cool radio stations would play? Like so many cherished things from before the iTunes era, it's essentially extinct.

My evidence for this bold and seemingly facile statement isn't the steady, well-chronicled disappearance of the album-oriented rock band. Rather, it's the latest Top 40 radio smash by Adele, who retakes the summit of the Billboard Hot 100 this week with the melodramatic belter "Set Fire to the Rain," her third straight U.S. No. 1 single.

Let's talk about that word, too: single. What the heck is that anymore, anyway? You've been able to buy "Set Fire" as a standalone track since last February. Is a "single" a song picked by record labels, or by you?

"Set Fire" follows "Rolling In The Deep" and "Someone Like You" as chart-toppers from Adele's 21, which this week is in its staggering 17th week of crowning the U.S. album chart. According to Billboard, this gives Adele a couple more chart milestones to go with the absurd list she's already racked up: the longest-running No. 1 album since 1992-93's The Bodyguard soundtrack; and the first single-artist album to be No. 1 simultaneously with its three No. 1 singles.

The number I'm more interested in, though, is how long it took "Set Fire to the Rain" to reach the top of the Hot 100: 21 (non-consecutive) weeks.

That's the seventh-slowest climb to the penthouse in Hot 100 history. And unlike the other gradually climbing hits in the all-time list of slowpoke smashes, such as "Macarena" or "With Arms Wide Open," Adele's latest wasn't worked up the chart by her label, slowly and patiently, a few notches at a time. It's a song Columbia Records essentially ignored for months, until one day they looked at the sales of the song on iTunes and decided, Okay, let's make this a smash now. And so it became, in short order.

"Set Fire" was a hit last summer in several European countries. But the song was a deep cut in America up until around Thanksgiving, and it had a very erratic chart pattern for a future chart-topper. It first appeared on the Hot 100 at No. 88, on the chart dated March 12, 2011, when 21 was a brand-new album. Radio wasn't playing the song at all, and Columbia wasn't promoting it—that debut was thanks entirely to digital buyers cherry-picking it for purchase as an album cut. After one week, "Set Fire" dropped off the Hot 100—and stayed off for five months. Then, starting in August, it began popping on and off the chart—a couple weeks here, a couple there. Columbia, busy promoting "Someone Like You," still wasn't touching it. In 10 total weeks, off and on, charting as an unpromoted track, "Set Fire" never got higher than No. 72.

In November, after a five-week No. 1 run for "Someone," Columbia weighed various candidates for release as Adele's followup in America. The label came close to selecting the stomping "Rumor Has It," which had already scored strong airplay at Adult Album Alternative radio (the small format of jammy, soothing dad-rock favorites like Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz). But according to Billboard, the label ultimately "changed course to ['Set Fire'], citing, in part, its hefty 706,000 in digital sales as an album track."

A gold-certified song before the label had huckstered it to even a single program director, "Set Fire" finally crashed into the U.S. Top 40 in mid-December. It reached No. 1 just seven weeks later. Pretty speedy—unless you consider that that's 47 weeks after the track made its first Hot 100 appearance, spurred by the general public.


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15 comments
Ray Mack
Ray Mack

Can everyone go on youtube at: http://youtu.be/CyWfrGjgL-E and tell me what you think about my artists "Symron". Please leave comments. Songs: I want you and Double your Pleasure.

Craig Stanton
Craig Stanton

It's the digital age.    A single can earn a gold or platinum award without being "released" to radio, the exact opposite of the pre-1998 Billboard methodology whereby the Fugee's "Killing me Softly" could be heard non-stop for months yet never chart because it wasn't available for physical sales.   And now Glee tracks make the Billboard Top 10, and you are a rare individual if you've ever heard one played on the radio.   As for Adele ("Set Fire to the Rain" is my favorite track from 21) and Columbia: They constitute a brilliant artist and a brilliant marketer. They held "Set Fire" until "Someone Like You" left the summit. It's no accident that she's the first single artist to score three Hot 100 number 1's from the same album that also sat atop the Billboard 200 simultaneously with each.

Al L.
Al L.

Isn't there another aspect to this. STFTR as released as a single is off LARAH  not 21 according to billboard. Is this not correct? 

=]
=]

What do you think is the next single that will be released from her album?

just a fan
just a fan

What has sold "Set Fire to the Rain" is Adele's incrediable performance of the song at the Royal Albert Hall that has put this song in the number one slot. Adele's perfomances are better than the original recordings. On stage she has control of how she wants the song to be conveyed. It was the same with "Someone Like You" at the Brit awards. That performance and rendition of the song is so much stronger than the recording on the album. There are few artist that can do that live and on stage. She is always in the present and not back in the recording studio. There is a video of her singing "Rolling in the Deep" with only her and her favorite guitar player, it is an incrediable performance.  This is why she is a world wide phenomenon. The public has been starved for a talant of her caliber for far too long.

Ray Cummings
Ray Cummings

Good piece.You should do a column on songs that are given away FREE on iTunes. Are those downloads counted as sales?

Dance fan
Dance fan

There was a little outside prodding. Set Fire To The Rain was used for a dance number on So You Think You Can Dance the night Lady Gaga was a guest judge. That introduced it to that show's viewing audience and Gaga's fans.

curious
curious

The title of that other track isn't "Rumour Has It"? Was it changed for the U.S. market?

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Billboard definitely considers "Set Fire" to be a single from 21—hence the magazine's many stories about Adele setting a record viz. number of singles from her album concurrent with her album topping the chart. I would say the release of Royal Albert Hall was carefully timed, and certainly the song's music video is helping to promote the concert video. But the version of "Set Fire" topping the Hot 100 and getting played on U.S. radio is the original album cut—or (as is typical at Top 40 radio) a slightly edited single version of the same studio recording.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

As excellent as Adele's live performances are, the success of "Someone" in the States can't be attributed to the Brit awards performance; it wasn't distributed widely here. The Royal Albert Concert is doing quite well in the U.S. as a video—it's been the No. 1 music home video title here for a few weeks—but its sales on DVD are a fraction of what "Set Fire" is selling as a song download. So I'm not sure that's a cause-and-effect, either.

However, I would definitely back up your point that when Adele sings live on telly, she sells records. "Rolling in the Deep" got sales bumps last spring every time Adele sang it on U.S. television, including a big boost when she performed it on Dancing with the Stars. And the biggest single-week boost of all for any of her singles came in late August when she performed a stark "Someone Like You" at the MTV Video Music Awards; one week later, the song went from a mid-charting Top 40 hit directly to the No. 1 slot (moving 19–1 in a single week), thanks almost entirely to the VMAs performance.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

They are not counted—and Billboard reinforced that with its policy change in November that created a minimum price that must be paid for both singles (39 cents) and albums ($3.49) for them to count on the charts. So, for example, the iTunes free download of the week is a good way to spread the word about a new act, but it's no way to stuff the virtual ballot box and make a little-known song a hit.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

You're right about that, and that certainly didn't hurt—the week after the SYTYCD appearance by the song, "Set Fire" reentered the Hot 100. But the effect was muted: a reentry at No. 84, with a digital sum in the low five figures. One week later, the song slipped to No. 88, and the week after that, it was gone from the Hot 100 again, and stayed off for another month. All in all, in terms of raising the song's awareness, I'd say the Gaga episode of Dance was more than a blip, less than a catalyst.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

Good catch: It is "Rumour Has It," even on the U.S. album (and it charted on Triple-A and other U.S. formats with the British spelling). If Columbia finally taps it as a Top 40 radio single, however, I'd be intrigued to see whether the spelling changes.

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