Moving Swift-ly To No. 1

Music industry pundits at desks across the major music centers will be pounding out the story of Taylor Swift’s great debut week sales numbers—1.047 million! But maybe the real story is how Swift’s success flies in the face of conventional industry wisdom. “Album sales are falling, consumers only want to buy single tracks, piracy has destroyed sales, you can’t compete with free…” These are the current excuses for an industry in dire straits. So how does one explain Swift’s incredible result? What prompted over one million consumers to engage and relate to this young lady from Hendersonville, TN?

Unlike many of the top charting female artists of today, Ms. Swift eschews tabloid behavior and asks fans to focus on her music. With Speak Now she offers an emotion-packed journey bursting with insight into real life events. In some universal way her life contests connect with similar moments that have brushed the fabric of others as well.

There’s also something spunky about this lady; she’s a fighter. Critics complained she can’t sing, that her co-writers contributed everything on the other albums. On Speak Now, she walks out onto the stage having written all the songs by herself, including, “Mean” where she shares how hurt she was by some of these criticisms. “You have pointed out my flaws again, as if I don’t already see them,” she sings. But if Swift briefly falls to pieces, she also picks herself back up, asking, “Why you gotta be so mean?”
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Speak Now ends its first sales week in the No. 1 position on both the all genre Top Current Albums and Top Current Country Album lists with sales of almost 1.047 million units, according to Nielsen Soundscan. About 26.5% of those sales were in digital format. Swift’s record breaking debut week eclipses Shania Twain’s previous title for highest ever female country artist sales of 874k in 2002. It also is Swift’s personal best, beating Fearless which debuted with 592k in 2008. Speak Now boasts the best first week showing of any album in 2010. (Eminem’s Recovery did 742k in June 2010.)

As noted by Spielberg Consulting’s Neal Spielberg, “Swift’s four albums (three CDs and a holiday collection) make up 60% of total country album sales this week and represent 18% of total album sales for the week.”

In organizing this multi-media debut, Big Machine’s team should not be underestimated. Only a few weeks ago, insiders deemed “impossible” a million plus result. The multi-layered marketing plan, forged with nerves of steel, should be documented, published and offered to others as a textbook example of engaging fans on all fronts.

The massive launch also moved the YTD country sales needle. Last week country album sales were off 12.3% compared with the same period last year. Voila!, this week’s scans improved numbers to only down 9.1%!

Sugarland’s Incredible Machine motored through second week sales with a “normal” drop of 56% to almost 89k units but sales on the Top 75 Current Country Chart minus Speak Now barely edged above 400k, even with all the new CDs in bins. How the year will play out is still shrouded in mystery. A parade of recent debuts from Darius Rucker, The Band Perry, Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown Band, Toby Keith, Jamey Johnson, Billy Currington and more have slid rapidly from debut week glory. Upcoming launches are scheduled for Reba, Blake Shelton, Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban, and Jason Aldean and Brad Paisley both released this week.

The CMA Awards should be the switch that ignites holiday sales and starts the numbers climbing toward a seasonal frenzy. Will consumers be able to focus on so many different new titles this year or will they RSVP at their favorite music retailer for Taylor plus one? These are questions that are yet to be answered.

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David M. Ross has been covering Nashville's music industry for over 25 years. [email protected]

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