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

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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