What Taylor Swift's Million-Selling Album Means for Music
The extraordinary first-week sales for Taylor Swift's "Speak Now" have struck at the heart of ironclad assumptions that had risen among beleaguered recording industry executives.
No way an album could still sell a million U.S. units in its first week? "Speak Now" exceeded that milestone by 47,000 following its release on Monday, Oct. 25, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The CD is dead? Consumers snapped up 769,000 units of the album in the format, according to SoundScan.
Country artists can't sell digital albums? SoundScan: Swift fans purchased 278,000 digital downloads of "Speak Now."
Kids don't buy music? Hel-lo, those same kids make up the core of Swift's growing fan base.
How did the 20-year-old Swift, who rose to country crossover superstardom with her 2008 album "Fearless," manage to defy the naysayers? And what does it mean for the rest of the business as overall recorded-music sales continue to slide?
"We're really five years in the making to get to this point," Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta says, referring to the then-new label's preparations for the release of Swift's self-titled debut in October 2006.
"Even with 'Fearless,' we were still somewhat of an underdog," he says. "No one expected us to have the biggest album of the year-'It was that teenage country singer, right?' After 'Fearless,' we knew all eyes would be on us."
When the time came to begin working "Speak Now," "there was a trust factor there with her first two albums," Borchetta says, "that when Taylor makes an album, start to finish, I'm going to enjoy it."
Swift's fan base started out with teen girls "and that has spread younger and older," Borchetta says, so that her core fans now extend from tweens to college kids, with growing numbers of older, mostly female, country music fans, some even in their mid-40s.
"She's the perfect storm of an artist: super-smart, super-focused and she understands the value of her audience," says Bill Bennett, former head of Warner Bros. Nashville and now a manager at the Artists Organization. "She's worked hard to keep her country audience. She goes to every awards show, visits radio, signs countless autographs."
Media coverage lavished on Swift as sales of "Fearless" skyrocketed last year expanded her foothold in the pop mainstream. Borchetta says that artists have to be prepared for "mainstream media moments"-like, he says, when Kanye West interrupted Swift at last year's MTV Video Music Awards.
"When people come to check you out, you better have something, otherwise they are going to click away," he says. "When people went to discover her, they discovered a multidimensional artist and personality."
Clay Hunnicutt, senior VP of programming at Clear Channel Radio, says Swift's popularity transcends formats and genres.
"It doesn't happen often enough because people get put into silos," Hunnicutt says. " 'Oh, they're just a country act,' or 'He's a teen act.' That's the great thing about Taylor-the guys want to date her, the girls think she's their best friend, and everybody likes her along the way. Name another person who's like that."
Not many are. But Borchetta warns that aiming for the pop mainstream is a treacherous game for country artists.
"If you're fortunate enough to have something cross over to top 40, you can't chase that format because a year from then it could be predominantly hard rock or urban," he says. "I encourage our artists to make their best record and then we'll figure it out from there, because if you start chasing something, that's the cardinal sin."
The remarkable sales for "Speak Now" come as recorded-music sales continue to spiral downward this year, with the industry's collective sense of dread heightening when Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" failed to break the 200,000-unit mark in its debut week in August.
Since then, other highly anticipated albums by major acts have fallen far short of first-week sales projections, including Kenny Chesney's "Hemingway's Whiskey," Maroon 5's "Hands All Over" and Zac Brown Band's "You Get What You Give."
But the Swift album demonstrates that when everything aligns, consumers will still turn out in droves.
"I am elated to see that kind of business is still there," Capitol Records Nashville president/CEO Mike Dungan says. "This is clearly an example of an artist who the fans want to know everything about. They are intimately involved with her and want to hear every sound that comes out of her mouth. That is very encouraging that you can still get that kind of a relationship with the fans."
Does that mean million-selling debuts will still be possible in the future? "I certainly hope it's not the last time," Borchetta says.
Additional reporting by Craig Marks.