Well, maybe the album format still has some life left in it after all…
After a week of talk show appearances, arena/stadium tour announcements and bizarre Papa John’s promotions, the sales figures are in for Taylor Swift’s fourth full-length album, “Red,” and they are impressive. Pundits were already predicting a big week for Swift, who sold a million copies in a sales-frame for her last record (2010’s “Speak Now,”), but the results are even bigger than expected, securing “Red” 1.208 million sales and netting the music industry its best single-week-selling album in a decade.
According to Billboard, Nielson Soundscan has only been tracking album sales since 1991. In that time, “Red” is only the 18th album to hit a million copies in a week and Swift the only woman to have accomplished the feat twice. Those numbers are promising for the music industry, which hasn’t seen a bigger sales week since Eminem released “The Eminem Show” in May of 2002 (to the rhythm of 1.322 million copies) and, in connection, since the digital revolution changed the way music was bought, sold and marketed.
In 2002, Napster and other peer-to-peer downloading clients had certainly begun to shift the music industry away from the album format and towards a singles-focused platform, but the idea was not truly commercialized until the launch of the iTunes Music Store on April 28, 2003. With these facts considered, Swift’s big week is even more impressive, breaking through the singles-obsessed nature of modern-day popular culture to score almost-unprecedented numbers. Between “Red” and Adele’s “21”—which, according to Rolling Stone, has now sold 25 million copies worldwide—the music industry might want to reconsider that mantra about the album format being dead.
Indeed, with relatively positive critical responses (including a B+ from the Western Herald) and plenty of radio firepower, “Red” could be following in Adele’s footsteps. While the Grammy Awards Deadline has already passed (the cutoff for eligible entries is Sept. 30 each year, meaning Swift will have to wait another year for her album to be considered for the big award categories), Grammy officials clearly have a great deal of respect for her.
The 22-year old singer/songwriter will co-host the Grammy nomination ceremony on Dec. 4, keeping up her presence with a show that has already showered her with accolades once before (for her album “Fearless” two years ago).
So with all of this media saturation (and with surefire smash hits like “22” still to come), how far could “Red” go? As Adele has proven, it’s all about maintaining a presence for a long period of time, about the longevity created by having four or five singles that achieve pop-cultural ubiquity. In any case, the recent success of albums from the likes of Swift, Adele and Mumford & Sons—not to mention the fact that two of this year’s biggest hits (fun.’s “We Are Young” and Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know) came from indie-rock bands—may be proof that pop music is ready to usher in a new era. Each of these artists display a greater reliance on organic instrumentation and traditional songwriting structures than many of the past decade’s biggest hit-makers (acts like Rihanna, Katy Perry and Flo Rida), and their ability to sell not only singles, but full-length albums is something worth keeping an eye on.
Is the radio moving back to a place where bands and emotive singer/songwriters are the ruling forces instead of rappers and dance-pop stars? Only time will tell on that account, but 2012 sales figures and the upcoming Grammy nominations (which should indicate whether or not the recent support for left-of-the-mainstream acts like Bon Iver and Arcade Fire was a fluke) will likely give a better picture of where the music industry is headed…and what that shift means for passionate listeners.