When Beyonce surprise-released her self-titled fifth album exclusively on iTunes last December, the sneak-attack tactic left the industry with a lot of questions once the dust settled. The strategy was undeniably successful — Beyonce moved 617,000 copies in three days, and outsold Bey’s previous album, 4, in just four weeks — despite the lack of a preceding single, announced release date or physical retail involvement. Many wondered whether this was the new norm: who was the next artist to “pull a Beyonce” and find a similar amount of success?
In the 10 months that have followed, artists like U2, Thom Yorke, Skrillex and Kid Cudi have attempted to duplicate the thrill of an out-of-nowhere album release in various forms and fashions. Taylor Swift, who releases 1989 next week, has not. That is not Taylor Swift’s style.
When Beyonce was released, it was revealed that the album’s secret drop date was finalized with just a week to spare, and that “Blow” was settled on as the first single to impact Top 40 radio… until “Drunk In Love” took off, of course. By comparison, the rollout of Swift’s fifth studio album has been highly manicured and perfectly calibrated, like all of her prior album rollouts. It has hummed along over the past two months with unstoppable efficiency and borderline megalomania, nary an altered course in sight. We are in the middle of Swiftober, and so far, Q4 of 2014 has felt like the Q4 of 1989. Was Beyonce’s album release a bold, groundbreaking display of pop music muscle? Absolutely. Does Swift have the sales history and fan support to also drop an album out of thin air and spin it into a blockbuster? Sure she does. But every indication shows that that’s never going to happen.
Since Swift shared that she would be revealing something during a Yahoo! live stream taking place on August 18, every aspect of the 1989 era has been presented as a must-see event announced ahead of time. During the live stream, Swift shared her pristine new pop single “Shake It Off,” its Mark Romanek-directed music video, the title and artwork of her album, the Oct. 27 release date of her album, and the fact that it would be her “first documented, official pop album.” The explosion of information effectively turned August 18 into Taylor Swift Day, and the buzz translated to radio, where “Shake It Off” set a record for the highest debut in the history of Billboard’s Adult Pop Songs radio airplay chart. With an immediate radio push and music video streams combining with robust digital sales, “Shake It Off” debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 chart, just the 22nd song in the chart’s history to debut at the top. Swift Season was in full effect within a week of the song’s debut — which, oh right, also included the live debut of “Shake It Off” during the MTV Video Music Awards.
The launch of “Shake It Off” was immaculately conceived, and while the song simmered at radio, Swift kept the promotion (and headlines) coming. In a Rolling Stone cover story, she dished that her new song “Bad Blood” was about another female celebrity with whom she was now “straight-up enemies,” stoking speculation that has since landed squarely on Katy Perry. Swift then used the Internet as a promotional playground: she posted cat photos, covered Vance Joy’s “Riptide,” Instragrammed new lyrics and started a Tumblr. And just when “Shake It Off” started to wear out its welcome a teensy bit (the song is still atop the Radio Songs chart, although its digital sales have understandably dipped below 200,000 downloads per week after two months of release), Swift dropped another synth-pop missile on the world at large with the Jack Antonoff-assisted non-single “Out Of The Woods” last week. Rumors that the song was about Harry Styles started swirling, and when they died down, Swift unleashed another track for mass consumption, “Welcome To New York,” on Monday night (Oct. 20).
None of this — lead single, teaser tracks, social outreach — is groundbreaking stuff for a major-label artist. Yet this is what Swift does with every album, and she does it better than anyone. Her three most recent projects (2010’s Speak Now, 2012’s Red and this year’s 1989) have each had their lead singles drop in August ahead of their October release dates, maximizing Swift’s fourth-quarter dominance every other year. Because each of these albums are released shortly after their respective year’s late-September Grammy deadline, Swift can ride out a year-and-a-half-long campaign that, in the case of Red and possibly in the case of 1989, ends with an album of the year nomination. That’s right, 1989 would be competing at the Grammys in February 2016! And then, six months after the Grammys, the cycle can start anew! It’s a calculated, well-oiled strategy — there’s a reason her record label is called Big Machine — and it has made Swift the most successful albums artist of the 2010s so far, selling over 22 million albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
And that’s one of the reasons why Swift is not going to “pull a Beyonce”: she relies on physical sales. As Billboard’s Keith Caulfield pointed out in August, 71 percent of Red’s 4 million units sold were physical copies, and along with big-box retailers, the full-length was sold at Papa John’s Pizza, Starbucks and Walgreens. Whereas Beyonce scorned physical retailers in the short-term by making her album exclusive to iTunes, Swift has once again partnered with Target for 1989, giving the U.S. deluxe edition exclusively to the retailer. And for those who think that Swift could “pull a U2” and work with a company like Apple to make her album free to users for a limited period of time, that’s not going to happen, either. “In recent years, you’ve probably read the articles about major recording artists who have decided to practically give their music away, for this promotion or that exclusive deal,” Swift wrote in her Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this year. “My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet…is that they all realize their worth and ask for it.”
So Taylor Swift is the breathing argument for traditional album releases, and even if more major artists start “pulling a Beyonce,” don’t hold your breath for Swift to do the same. Don’t want to release your music on BitTorrent? That’s okay, because Taylor didn’t, and she doesn’t have to. Now I’m going to step away before Kanye West interrupts my typing and tells me that Beyonce had the greatest album release of all time.