In a way, nothing much has changed. Last November we reported on the news that Reputation – Taylor Swift’s sixth album on which she went so trap-lite as to haul in a Future verse – sold more than 1 million copies in the US in its first week of release. The sales figure lurches up to about 2.135 million copies worldwide if you also account for the extra 950,000 in global sales reported by her label. Now, looking back at the summary of how much musicians sold and were streamed in 2017, Taylor has been confirmed as the only artist who sold a million copies of an album in the US. Which … OK, not that surprising, right?
If you’re the sort of person who’s been alive since before about 1999, a million copies may not sound like much. In the recording industry’s pre-internet heyday, it would be pretty standard for albums that lingered in the charts for half a year to end up going platinum several times over. I mean, remember when MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em became the first rap album to shift more than 10 million copies in the US? Remember when Norah Jones sold more than 1 million copies of Come Away with Me in 2003? When Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, for which I stanned at the time and of which I bought two copies because I lost one CD at school, sold more than 4 million copies in the US in 2001?
In fairness, a lot of those sorts of sales didn’t all tumble out in the first week as Taylor’s did. By the early 00s, besides someone like Eminem, Britney Spears or N*Sync (or Lil Wayne later, with Tha Carter III in 2008) it had becoming increasingly rare for any artist to tip over seven figures in sales. Hybrid Theory, for example, sold just 50,000 copies in its first week. But Taylor has managed to crack a very particular code that is turning her into somewhat of an anomaly: a “young person” in music whose core audience is still all about albums, rather than singles. In the UK, her closest equivalent is probably Rag’n’Bone Man – rather than Ed Sheeran, as you might imagine. The bearded Sony star tipped over the one million sales mark in the UK for his debut Human, with physical copies accounting for more than 75 percent of that figure; shouts to your radio-listening aunts and uncles for that. With Taylor, the ratio of physical-to-digital, in that first week in particular, would’ve been even higher.
In all the reporting on her frankly impressive sales, we’ve not heard much about how Reputation has cemented her as a complete throwback. This is the age of singles, of tracks streamed off phones, of songs fed into the playlist and then the AUX cord and used as individual markers to soundtrack the memories that hopefully won’t make you shudder in years to come. This is not so much the time when the single functions strictly as an advert for the album anymore. Personally, I’m still the sort of person who prefers to grow annoyingly obsessed with a full album and play it until it makes me feel a bit sick, then put it away for a bit, then come back and want to sob when I discover something new on track 7 that fucks me all the way up.
This isn’t about the particulars of my personal habits, though. It’s about the niche one of music’s biggest names has managed to carve out for herself. Taylor’s at a level of fame where she doesn’t need her singles to become massive, lasting hits in order to promote her albums. Besides “Look What You Made Me Do,” which straddled the line between ‘news item about celebrity beef’ and ‘a track that Right Said Fred now have a writing credit on,’ few of Reputation’s other singles made such a colossal impact on the charts. Buying physical singles is practically unheard of now – how many people do you think walked into a shop asking for a CD copy of “…Ready for It”? – and digital downloads are slumping year-on-year.
Rather than rely on the entire old model of physical singles plus radio airplay plus music videos to entice people to buy an album, Taylor has slightly tweaked that model into something that works just for her. She relies on some combination of social media frenzy, music videos, radio airplay and the exclusivity of physical sales or iTunes downloads. As streaming has opened its gaping gob to swallow up other forms of music consumption – see last week’s headlines from the UK and US – it’s become broadly unwise to keep music off services like Spotify. Even Beyonce, who moulds her own release strategies from scratch every now and then, turns to TIDAL for exclusive drops.
So, yes, Taylor sold a million actual copies of an album. No, the album wasn’t even one of her best. It wasn't even very good. But what’s interesting here is that her fans don't have an issue with following her down a profit-hungry path that not many other pop stars walk as brazenly right now. They're willing to pay extortionate amounts for a tour ticket scheme, for instance, even when said tour isn't selling out. They're up for shunning Spotify to buy the damn CD. They're willing to scratch around in their memories for the iCloud password that lets them log into the iTunes store. They'll follow Taylor wherever she goes, even when there's a risk that her decision will make her flop or that they'll end up broke. Luckily for her, she's built up such a loyal base that chances of a flop – even in the post-why isn't Taylor talking about politics era – aren't scaling worrying heights yet. And for as long as that's the case, nothing much will continue to change.
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