Here’s a head-scratcher for the digital era: even though U.S. album sales have plummeted 20 percent since Taylor Swift’s last album, Red, was issued in 2012, the singer scored the best opening week of her career with 1989, moving 1.28 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. With that debut, Swift not only registers the only instant-platinum release of 2014, but bests her last effort by 7.6 percent (the only other album to hit the million mark: Frozen, which has sold 3.5 million units, most of them this year) and beats previous 1989 projections of 750,000 (upped to 900,000 on release day and 1.2 million 48 hours later) by some 500,000 copies. So how did she manage to defy expectations and log the biggest week for an album since 2002, when Eminem’s The Eminem Show sold 1.32 million in its second chart week? In a classic Swiftian strategy, the 24-year-old under-promises, over-delivers and then some, while behind the scenes, label Big Machine, and its Universal Music Group support system, drives sales with ruthless focus. Here’s how she beat the odds, all with an aw-shucks smile.
1. ENTICE MULTIPLE PURCHASES
It wasn’t just the CD-only, exclusive-to-Target bonus tracks that drove fans to purchase a copy of 1989 during release week (a tactic used for Red and 2010’s Speak Now as well). Each disc also offers a set of Polaroid-like photos — five different collections were printed, but consumers don’t know which set they’ll receive — and a unique code that can be used to enter the “1989 Swiftstakes,” where the grand prize (250 in all) is two passes to a meet-and-greet experience with the singer and a concert. The catch? The entry period ended Nov. 2, the final day of 1989‘s first tracking week.
2. CONNECT WITH FANS SOCIALLY AND EMOTIONALLY
Swift’s fans “want a close connection, and she gives it to them consistently,” says one UMG insider who adds that the singer’s engagement with her audience is “the best we’ve ever seen.” During release week, Swift initiated a frenzy of online conversation by releasing 1989 an hour early, making the announcement on Twitter at 11:18 p.m. ET on Oct. 26. The next day, she began an exhaustive campaign that involved retweeting and reblogging fans on Tumblr who posted pictures of themselves holding the album. With it, the Twitter hashtag #taylurking was born, a cheeky way for Swift to let her fans know she was watching. Throughout the week, more than 2 million mentions of “Taylor Swift” were registered on the platform, with online chatter peaking at 70,000 tweets per minute the night of Oct. 26, according to data provided by Twitter. Moreover, adds the Universal executive, Swift’s fans protect her. “They are superinvolved, making sure that other fans don’t get a copy of the album and upload to the Internet.”
3. TAKE OVER TV AND RADIO
Swift launched 1989 with a live stream, but after shaking it off for the first time, it was bye-bye Web, hello terrestrial broadcast media: The MTV Video Music Awards, Good Morning America (twice), The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Voice (twice), America’s Top 40 With Ryan Seacrest, Sirius XM Town Hall, Late Show With David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Talk — even NPR got in on the rollout. “Taylor, her management and the label were as aggressive as an organization can be,” says another UMG insider of her TV and radio blitz. The end result: 58.6 million people potentially reached.
4. KEEP THE ALBUM OFF STREAMING
Delaying a new album’s arrival at streaming services to help boost initial sales is a tactic that has served top-name artists well, including Swift. So 1989’s non-streaming status was not a surprise — until a week after release, when Big Machine pulled Swift’s entire catalog from interactive streaming services with an ad-supported, free tier — key among them: Spotify — but kept it at premium-tiers and/or pay-only services Beats Music, Rdio, Rhapsody and Google Play All Access, ensuring higher, subscriber-only royalties.
5. MARKET FAR AND WIDE
No stranger to product endorsements and tie-ins, Swift returned to such blue-blooded partners as Diet Coke (her ad features the ultimate hook, dozens of adorable kittens, capped off by a 1989 plug) and also teamed up with the ubiquitous Subway for a national promotion. Her album was also carried in supermarket chains including Kroger’s and drug-store chains (Walgreens). And in exchange for the Target exclusives, the country’s second-biggest album retailer responded with a big marketing push.
6. LOWER EXPECTATIONS
Seven weeks ago, UMG projected that 1989 would sell 1.1 million units, but that figure was readjusted to 750,000 units about four weeks before its release. It wasn’t for lack of confidence in Swift’s commercial power, but because overall sales have declined so dramatically in 2014 (blame the shrinking download business and the growth of streaming services) many doubted any artist could hit the first-week million mark. Additionally, there were fears that country fans would abandon Swift because she was fully embracing a pop sound. The payoff: a steady climb in projections, eventually matching in seven days what Beyoncé did in 17 with her surprise-released, self-titled effort, one of 2013’s biggest out-the-gate sellers (as an iTunes exclusive, Beyoncé scanned 617,000 albums in three days). The ever-calculating Swift needs no surprise.
A version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Swift’s music was pulled from Rdio.