Usually, when gearing up for a new Taylor Swift album release, Swift’s Big Machine Label Group lowers expectations by initially suggesting that the albums will debut with about 750,000 units in the opening week, even though Swift’s last three albums scanned over 1 million units in first-week sales. Speak Now sold 1.05 million in the week ending Oct. 31, 2010, Red scanned 1.21 million units in the week ending Oct. 28, 2012, and 1989, tallied 1.287 million units for the week ending Nov. 2, 2014, according to Nielsen Music.
But this time around, industry sources tell Billboard, Big Machine is telling its accounts Reputation will see first-week sales action of 2 million units, more than Swift has done for any of previous albums. That’s despite the fact that the U.S. music industry is far more dependent on streaming than sales than it was in 2014, with album sales down 18 percent so far this year while audio-on-demand streams — the only streams that count toward the Billboard 200 — are up 59 percent year to date.
Big Machine’s uncharacteristically lofty projections have set off a debate among the data analysts and sales teams at competing record labels over whether the Nashville label can come close to achieving that figure — and how it would do so, even though the first singles off Reputation aren’t performing as well as the first cuts off 1989.
One label analyst says, “No way,” another says Big Machine’s 2 million figure “must be worldwide,” while a third says “that’s got to include streaming but even then I don’t think they can make it.”
While most streaming executives have been told they will not have the album the first week, retailers were initially told that the album will not go to streaming services for at least the first two weeks — and that Big Machine was still undecided on how long the ultimate length of that window would be. Since those initial discussions, that sales window has been truncated to one week, merchants say.
For an artist like Swift that can still do big physical sales, it still makes financial sense to withhold the album from streaming services. While Adele withheld 25 for seven months from streaming services in 2015, clocking a record-breaking, first-week sales of 3.4 million units and scanning 8.8 million units by the time she gave it to streaming services on June 23, 2016, there is no example to date of an artist earning close to the equivalent of 1 million in week-one album sales via paid streaming. Kendrick Lamar‘s DAMN. earlier this year has produced the most streaming equivalent albums (SEA), when it had audio on-demand streams of 340.8 million, or 217,000 SEA units, in its debut week ending April 20, 2017, and total consumption units of 603,000 units during that period.
Hip-hop and rap rule in streaming, so it’s doubtful that Swift could produce as many streams as Lamar. But even if Reputation did produce enough streams for 200,000 SEA units, that would generate about $2.1 million, Billboard estimates. Depending on how much of a discount Big Machine is offering to retailers, about 250,000-300,000 CDs or album downloads will bring in that same amount. So if withholding streaming can produce more than 300,000 copies in incremental sales, it’s worth it.
Can the U.S. music industry still support a million-album debut week for a superstar artist? Besides Swift and Adele, no other artist has done it since Lil Wayne‘s Tha Carter III, just made the million copies mark in the week ending June 15, 2008, except for Lady Gaga in 2011. Her Born This Way moved 1.1 million units in its debut week, thanks to 99 cents sales at Amazon, a controversial move that caused Billboard to install a $3.49 price floor on album sales in order to be eligible for The Billboard 200. Others like Lil Wayne came close with Tha Carter IV in 2011, while Justin Timberlake just missed it with The 20/20 Experience in 2013.
Early indications are, Swift can still do it, too. Big Machine told the Washington Post that Reputation pre-orders hit 400,000 last Friday, and that total didn’t even include a United Parcel Service (UPS) promotion. Sources say that iTunes alone accounted for half of that, or 200,000.
Pre-orders may have been unusually strong thanks to a shrewd plan that encouraged fans to pre-order the album (and also buy merchandise) to boost their chances for tickets to her upcoming tour, and better seats. The pre-order promotion is designed to encourage fans to buy multiple copies of the album to a maximum of 13 copies, with each earning fans more points.
Last time out on 1989, iTunes had 200,000 in pre-orders, too, and ultimately hit 616,000 in the debut week. Meanwhile, Target is getting two exclusive versions of the album, each with differing artwork and its own, different magazine containing articles and photos of Swift, both selling for $19.99 as a pre-order on the retailer’s website; and the standard version, that all other retailers will get, selling for $15.
In return Target has, sources say, agreed to give over a greater proportion of display real estate than ever before. For example, the “hits” endcap will only have Swift’s music in it. Also, Swift’s music will be featured in dedicated, corrugated dumps placed in aisles around the store, not just in the music department, sources say. Target also has strong pre-orders on the album with some sources reporting that Swift has broken the chain’s pre-order record.
A Target spokesman confirms that “Reputation is our biggest entertainment pre-sale of all time, across movies, music and books” and further said that overall Target expects the album to be the biggest release of the season.
On the last Swift album, 1989, Target scanned 474,000 units in its first week, Walmart scanned 87,000 units, Amazon scanned 31,000 units, Starbucks did 17,000, and Best Buy scanned 11,000, and Walgreens, Trans World Entertainment and Kroger, combined, moved about 10,000 units.
Some predict Target will hit 600,000 units in the first week for Reputation, while iTunes will reach 500,000 units. Others say they hear Walmart will sell 250,000 units, though some are skeptical and expect Walmart, Amazon and Best Buy and other physical retailers may do about 300,000 units combined.
One big unknown is how many pre-orders the UPS promotion will drive, with customers having to fork over $14.99 for the album and another $9.50 for shipping, meaning an almost $25 price tag. Still, the lure of the promotion for concert tickets may get fans to regard the cost as part of the ticket price, and fans are now used to paying upwards of $100 to see superstars live. In addition to improving their chance for Swift concert tickets, the UPS pre-order promotion automatically registers the fan for a contest to fly to a city for a Swift concert. Without pre-ordering the album Swift fans can still participate in the contest but they have to send in an entry ballot.
Traditional appearances on mainstream television and other media by Swift during the debut week will also undoubtedly drive sales. She is expected to perform on an ABC show on Thursday night; followed by an iHeart special on Friday, Saturday Night Live on Saturday; with a Sirius XM performance for broadcast expected to be announced soon. Meanwhile the media blackout on interviews will probably also end, after the first major story appears, naturally in the Reputation magazines on sale at Target.
With the full breadth of the Swift promotional campaign for Reputation now unfolding, UPS pre-orders notwithstanding, tallying up the the rest of the industry projections amounts to about 1.4 million units, better than first week sales of 1989, but short of Big Machine’s big forecasts. Sources say Swift’s distributor, Universal Music Group, will ship between 1.2 million and 1.5 million units of the CD, while vinyl not expected to be ready until sometime in December. UMG declined comment for this story, and Big Machine didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Melinda Newman provided assistance in preparing this story.