On Aug. 18, Taylor Swift went dark, wiping her social media accounts clean and replacing them with a cryptic clip of a snake. By the end of the week, Swift had announced her sixth album, Reputation, and released its moody, electro first single, “Look What You Made Me Do,” with its lyric: “The old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now … ‘Cause she’s dead!”
The song, her first solo release in three years, broke 24-hour records for Spotify, Vevo and YouTube streams, and ended the 16-week reign of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee‘s “Despacito” atop the Billboard Hot 100 with 2017’s highest single-week sales.
But the single has since set some less glamorous records as well. A week after reaching No. 1 on the Pop Songs chart, it moved to No. 7 — the largest fall from the top in the chart’s history — and from No. 5 to No. 20 on the all-format Radio Songs chart, the biggest fall from the top five in that chart’s 27-year history. Subsequent releases haven’t fared as well, either; after debuting at No. 4 on the Hot 100, second single “…Ready for It?” fell to No. 53 (though it has rebounded since the Oct. 26 release of its video), while “Gorgeous” dropped from a No. 13 debut to No. 69 in its second week.
There is little question the album will sell about as well as Swift’s previous three, which scanned over 1 million units in their first weeks. But the radio plummet highlights how much her recipe for success has changed over her career. Though FM radio powered much of her previous success as she morphed from a country singer to pop princess — she is one of just seven artists with at least eight Pop Songs No. 1s — her team has pulled back on radio promotion. According to two people familiar with the situation, Swift’s record label made a push to get “Look” to No. 1, then backed off, which led to the chart drop. (Big Machine Records declined to comment on marketing or promotion.)
“Everyone was ‘helping the program,’ if you will, and then it just kind of burned and it was over,” says one radio executive about “Look.” “It never really researched like a long-standing power, like she’s had in the past. It was more of a statement single.”
Multiple radio executives who spoke with Billboard are bullish on Swift’s radio future, calling “Ready” more of a “vintage Taylor” song. But for Swift, a big single leading into the album’s release doesn’t seem to matter; industry sources tell Billboard that Big Machine is expecting Reputation to sell an eye-popping 2 million copies in its first week.
“She, in many ways, is the Radiohead of the digital generation,” says Jeff Rabhan, chair of the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. “She’s the only one that checks every box: digital, physical, tickets. In my mind, she’s the most powerful commodity in the music business.”
Swift is employing a new bag of tricks this time to prime the sales pumps, from a UPS promotion to a deal with Target that guarantees her more in-store display space than ever. Instead of radio, she has relied on Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program to incentivize fans to purchase albums and merchandise, or complete social media “boosts,” which increase their chances of getting tickets to her yet-to-be-announced tour. By Nov. 3, pre-orders had passed 400,000 copies, and Target claimed it as the retail giant’s biggest entertainment pre-order ever.
“She’s never one to be complacent or do things that have been done before,” says Tom Poleman, chief programming officer at iHeartMedia, adding that the downward slide of her lead single on radio could be due to “general curiosity to hear the next thing quickly,” which is “probably representative of what’s happening in music generally: Songs are coming and going a lot faster, because the life cycle has been accelerated.”
Bucking the industry’s new conventional wisdom, streaming services have been told they won’t be able to stream Reputation in its entirety when it’s released Nov. 10, underscoring the financial incentive superstars still have to withhold their albums, even as streaming powers the industry’s accelerating growth. There is no example to date of an artist earning close to the equivalent of 1 million in week-one album sales via streaming: Kendrick Lamar‘s DAMN produced the most streaming-equivalent albums, tallying 340.8 million first-week audio on-demand streams, or 217,000 SEA units, in April.
Hip-hop and R&B rule in streaming, so it’s doubtful that Swift could produce as many streams as Lamar. But even if Reputation did generate 200,000 SEA units, it would result in about $2.1 million, Billboard estimates, while 250,000-300,000 album sales would equal the same. If withholding streaming produces more than 300,000 sales, the move is worth it, Billboard estimates.
For Swift herself, says Rabhan, the monetary differential is likely less of a concern than her stand about streaming undervaluing music, given “she could make more money in 30 days touring than she can in two years selling records.” As for radio, “Nobody intentionally wants to have singles that don’t work, but maybe this is a bridge record into a more international type of sound,” he says. “It’s so hard to grow with your audience; the 13-year-olds who can’t live without you turn 14, get high for the first time and think you’re the biggest loser who ever walked the earth. If you can avoid that, that’s a win.”
Additional reporting by Ed Christman