Columbia counting on Adele, ’19’

Labels develop new strategies for new stars

IN THE NINE months between the U.S. release of Adele’s “19” and the announcement that she had received four Grammy nominations, Columbia Records released only one single by the Brit singer, “Chasing Pavements.” That’s a counterintuitive strategy for a performer with a full career ahead of her rather than one probably limited to one single. But as the way music is consumed changes, so, too, do the strategies to develop stars.

That way of thinking started to change with Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” two years ago, when Downtown Records stuck with the single as it crossed over from one format to another until it seemed to be on every station except the country spots on the dial. A second single did not fare as well, nor did anything on the second album from Gnarls Barkley, but the duo behind Gnarls Barkley, Cee-lo Green and Danger Mouse, are certainly seen as career artists. Adele is also perceived that way, most importantly in the halls of Sony Music.

Aligning a singer with a single song, though, still feels like a risky move. The fact that “Chasing Pavements” has not taken the U.S. by storm may be an advantage for Adele: There’s not an audience expecting a follow-up containing the same broad sweeping elements, big vocals and smartly orchestrated strings. Like Gnarls Barkley, she made a varied album, and when a second single is selected, it will most definitely not be a sonic sequel.

Adele, whose “19” has sold 334,000 copies domestically, is developing slowly by modern standards, which may actually be working in her favor. The process of gradual discovery has tradition on its side, and the evidence suggests Adele is in a class with M.I.A. and Secondhand Serenade — acts whose commercial success in 2008 was mostly limited to one single but who have the potential for lengthy careers. And if she comes away with a Grammy win for new artist, record, song or female pop vocal, she will have a leg up on the post-Amy Winehouse singers with whom she has been grouped.

“Inevitably,” Adele Adkins says of Duffy, Kate Nash and others, “all younger British singers will be seen as another U.K. girl unless they’re doing hardcore or metal. It’s such rubbish.”

A BIT OF KISMET blessed Adele’s stop in Los Angeles in the middle of December for a string of promotional appearances. What had been planned as a trip for performances on “Ellen” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and opening a benefit concert headlined by John Mayer turned into a whirlwind collection of interviews with national media, extra TV appearances and meetings. Her profile had been catapulted by the Grammy noms, which may well owe to her appearance on “Saturday Night Live” the night Gov. Sarah Palin appeared; Adele’s perf refreshed countless memories of her album.

Adele was most interested in discussing how 2009 was taking shape: She is booked for 21 U.S. dates in January and March and is eyeing Europe in the summer. She plans to record her second album in California rather than London and is hoping work will begin in the fall even though she does not have much material ready. (Renewed interest in “19” has some Sony Music execs believing album two is a 2010 release.)

Set in stone, however, is the sound she intends to emulate: two productions by T Bone Burnett — Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ “Raising Sand” and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. “An organic sound,” she says, noting she is keen on duets and perhaps an INXS cover. Her first album, which is rich in a variety of textures and styles, required three producers; she’s hoping to stick with one on her next disc.

“I want the production to be old school,” she said, and it seems easy to infer that she wants to incorporate elements of the artists she listens to regularly, chiefly Alicia Keys, Joan Armatrading and Etta James.

Before that second album is realized, there’s still that matter of a second single. Three other tracks have been released in the U.K. and a few other European countries, but none have had the impact of “Chasing Pavements,” which has made the top 10 in eight countries and sold 317,000 downloads in the U.S.

“Cold Shoulder,” which has been released in four countries, is high on her list of potential singles; “Right as Rain,” which has not been released beyond the album, is the most likely candidate to hit airwaves nearly a year after the release of “19.” Either choice reinforces the notion that Adele was one of 2008’s strongest rookies, one who deserves watching throughout 2009.

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