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Taylor Swift is about to accomplish what many didn’t think was possible in today’s music business: At press time, her third album, Speak Now, was on track to sell 1 million copies during its first week (plus a 24-hour head start on the conventional Tuesday release). Whether the country star breaks the seven-figure threshold really doesn’t matter — it’s getting close that counts. “Whatever the number is, it’s mind-blowing,” says Big Machine CEO Scott Burchetta, whose Universal-distributed label has issued all three of Swift’s albums, 10 million strong and counting.
With album sales down another 13% this year, a hit of this magnitude is a boost that’s desperately needed. In fact, the 20-year-old Swift is propping up an ailing music industry almost single-handedly, and Nashville is giving “the coasts” a run for their money. Big-name releases in the coming weeks from the likes of Kanye West, Rihanna and My Chemical Romance are expected to chart strong but sell a fraction of what Swift moves.
Perhaps you’re wondering, along with many music pundits: What’s so special about this barely-out-of-her-teens country singer who’s driving daughters, mothers and grandmas alike to their local chain store in droves? Sure, she has a good voice, a pretty face and has dated more than her share of famous guys, but so have any number of female pop stars. The answer is that she transcends generations and genres to appeal to the broadest pool of music consumers. So even pop fans who find country uncool don’t seem to have a problem embracing her songs. Similarly, the die-hard, twang-loving, cowboy boot-wearing music buyer can justify Swift’s second life as a pop star because she’s first and foremost a country act.
Then there’s the advance publicity for Speak Now, which was orchestrated with about as much delicacy as a Halloween parade, foisting exes Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner and rumored fling John Mayer into the headlines. It all fit very nicely into a narrative about maturation, both in life and art, which consistently touted that on Swift’s most personal effort to date, she wrote all of the songs. It’s what Burchetta calls being a “true album artists” and the rest of the world simply thinks of as relatable: bubblegum melodies and tales of love — innocent, lost or unrequited.
Finally, Swift made one very smart move: She went the opposite direction of her friend Miley Cyrus. While the Hannah Montanastar came out swinging with her 2007 debut, Meet Miley Cyrus, which has sold 3 million copies, subsequent studio efforts have underperformed, and her most recent album, June’s Can’t Be Tamed, has yet to be certified gold. It’s perfectly fair to place the blame on one too many revealing looks that were entirely too adult for 17, and where Cyrus got flak for being risque, Swift opted to stick with her white cotton dresses and prairie tops.
Most important, on a dollars-and-cents level, Swift devotees, and country fans in general, still buy CDs — yes, actual CDs. Compared with their pop and rock brethren, they’re slower to embrace the digital revolution — partly because so many rural areas still lack high-speed Internet — but more likely to invest in the artists they love for several cycles and often many years. Look no further than Sugarland, whose The Incredible Machinemoved a healthy 203,000 copies during its first week last month; collectively, the duo has sold upward of 8 million albums in six years.
Of course, for every young upstart like Swift, there’s a veteran act taking the long, slow road to retirement. But it’s a common fact of the country format: You can tour forever on two or three successful albums, and once you have a career in country, it’s pretty hard to lose it. In the pop world, you can be passe in a year. In an era of diminishing returns, Swift is bucking trends and thriving; in her love life, she’s not asking the media to respect her privacy but rather putting it out there for all the world to see and feel right along with her. When the critics questioned her ability to sing, and even mocked her performances, Swift kept her cool and is enjoying the best reviews of her career.
“It’s a great thing for the music business,” says Ken Robold, executive vp and GM of Mercury Nashville, home to Sugarland. “It will collectively lift the entire industry’s spirits to know that there’s still an artist out there that can touch that many people and still sell that many records — it’s a ray of hope.”
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