At the Grammys, Adele and Beyoncé will showcase an industry in transition
For Adele and Beyoncé, the finish line will take the same form: a prime seat at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where each is nominated for several of the music industry’s most prestigious prizes, including album, record and song of the year.
Both singers command vast, loyal audiences; enjoy the universal esteem of critics and tastemakers; and generally work with whomever they want — because everyone in music is dying to work with them.
But if their unrivaled success can make the Grammys feel like the end of a two-woman race, the paths they took to get there could scarcely be more different.
“These are arguably the two most talented people in an industry full of talented people,” said producer and songwriter Ryan Tedder, who’s collaborated with both artists. “And they’re at the extremes. That’s exciting.”
Adele, the deep-feeling British balladeer, followed an old-fashioned route, drawing on musical styles familiar to a Barbra Streisand fan, while Beyoncé, the fierce pop-soul visionary, blazed a more modern trail, pulling from a dizzying array of genres and textures.
On her album “25,” Adele channeled the internal drama of personal relationships, resisting any urge to dip into politics. Beyoncé made her “Lemonade” a proud election-year statement, connecting one woman’s troubles to the broader struggles faced by women of color.
The singers, who declined to be interviewed, even differed on how best to put one’s music into the world, with Adele relying heavily on sales of CDs and Beyoncé exploiting the new technology of digital streaming.
The contrast between these superstars reflects a music business in transition, from an established top-down model built on radio hits and physical product to a more adaptive system that uses the Internet to reach fans wherever they are.
It’s an evolution you can see in play across this year’s Grammy nominations, which recognize acts as diverse as Drake, the Canadian rapper who dominates streaming and social media, and Sturgill Simpson, the roots-music maverick who made his bones on the road.
In the best new artist category, the nominees include Chance the Rapper, whose gospel-influenced “Coloring Book” album is available only to stream (not to buy); the young country star Maren Morris, who’s attracted pop fans with her smart and catchy “Hero”; and the Chainsmokers, the dopey but effective EDM duo that hasn’t even bothered with a traditional album yet, building its fan base instead with festival gigs and a series of inescapable singles.
Even a seemingly steady category like rock performance feels suffused with change: Here Twenty One Pilots and the late David Bowie are competing against Alabama Shakes and Disturbed, both of which scored nominations with television appearances that later found viewers online.
Also in the category? Beyoncé, with “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” her Led Zeppelin-sampling duet with Jack White.
Amid this instability, Adele represents the persistence — and the value — of tradition. Full of beautiful melodies and disarming confessions, “25” is masterfully composed and even more masterfully delivered; her singing in songs such as “All I Ask,” “Million Years Ago” and “Hello” is what contestants on “The Voice” dream about when they’re asleep.
And “25’s” rollout demonstrates that the old way of doing things can still work. The album, which Adele initially declined to put on streaming services, spun off a No. 1 single in “Hello” and has sold more than 10 million copies in the United States — a number many in the business thought had been left behind in the days of Michael Jackson and Fleetwood Mac.
When she takes to the Grammys stage at Staples Center, she’ll be returning to a venue she sold out for eight nights last year — an unprecedented run that grossed $13.8 million, according to Billboard Boxscore.
Beyoncé, meanwhile, has embraced the creative and structural possibilities of the digital era. Before it was available to purchase, “Lemonade” — with its careful blend of hand-played and machine-made — arrived with little warning as a so-called visual album on HBO. After that, it streamed exclusively on Tidal, the service owned by the singer’s husband, Jay Z, then finally made its way to iTunes.
And though her single “Formation” cracked the top 10, “Lemonade” wasn’t driven by success on radio, which has proved largely indifferent to the album’s experimental sound.
No matter: “Formation,” along with “Hello,” is nominated at the Grammys for record and song of the year. And Beyoncé’s 2016 stadium tour, which stopped at the Rose Bowl and Dodger Stadium, grossed more than $250 million.
“Beyoncé doesn’t have that pressure to conform to what radio wants,” said producer and DJ Diplo, who worked on “Lemonade” as well as Justin Bieber’s “Purpose,” also up for album of the year. “She’s so elevated as a brand that she’s able to take chances and live with them.”
As Diplo suggests, it’s the strength of Beyoncé’s persona — and the savvy with which she presents it — that’s enabled her to create her own lane, navigating around many expected pop-star practices. When she announced this month that she’s pregnant with twins, for instance, she didn’t do it on TV or in an interview with Us Weekly, but on Instagram, where she posted images from an elaborately staged photo shoot.
The pictures quickly went viral as fans shared them with an enthusiasm that might’ve eclipsed the love they have for members of their own families.
That sense of connection is no less important to Adele, even if her moves are more conventional. Because her fans feel like they know her, they’re intensely devoted — almost invested — in her success, as was clear when she set a new record by selling 1.1 million paid downloads of “Hello” the week it came out.
“The song was available to stream for free,” said David Bakula, a music-business analyst at Nielsen Entertainment. “Consumers still wanted to buy it.”
But what about Grammy voters? Come Sunday night, which of these pop divas will hold more sway: the natural classicist or the fearless innovator?
History may point to a win for Adele, not only because she took album of the year with 2011’s “21” but because Beyoncé lost the same award two years ago to Beck, who at that time was deep in a natural-classicist phase.
But perhaps the Recording Academy has transformed along with its industry.
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