There's no doubt that Taylor Swift is on a roll. From the pile of four-star reviews for her just-released third studio album, Speak Now, to the intense interest in the stories behind the songs, the 20-year-old singer is poised to cement her status as one of the biggest young career stars in all of music.
And next Wednesday could provide the icing on the cake. According to industry experts, Swift is on track to easily notch the biggest first-week sales of the year, and possibly even approach one of music's most elusive achievements: a platinum-selling debut week.
"I've been very specific on my point of view from the beginning," said Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Swift's label, Big Machine Label Group. "We shipped 2 million copies this week and we always felt we could do 700,000 to a million." Late Wednesday, Borchetta said that sales for the week were trending "way north" of 700,000 and depending on how the rest of the week goes, "who knows?"
Either way, he was confident that Speak Now would sell a lot of copies.
Billboard has predicted that Speak Now could sell as many as 800,000-900,000 copies in the week following its release, easily besting the year's biggest bow to date, Eminem's Recovery, which moved 741,000.
"Expectations are high, very high," said Keith Caulfield, senior chart manager and analyst at Billboard, on Wednesday. "Let's say even though 1 million is possible, even if she doesn't get that, it will probably sell 800,000 or more, which will give her the give biggest single sales week for an album this year ... or last." Caulfield said the experts Billboard has spoken to are bullish on Swift's prospects, and they have good reason to be.
"It speaks volumes about how big a star she is and how she can get people engaged by not just buying a single track or concert ticket, but getting consumers to buy a whole album," he explained. "Considering how many albums she's sold and the story she's built and the career she's had over the past couple of years with her first two albums, it seems like the appropriate reaction."
Borchetta said the potentially gaudy numbers are a function of both a very careful, thoughtful marketing plan from his label and, more importantly, the strong connection between Swift and her fans. "It's about the songs for her and Taylor has taught millions of young people to go out and buy CDs," something that is a rarity in this day of easily accessible downloads from albums often larded with a few gems amid so much chaff. "Taylor doesn't write throwaways."
As proof, he noted that earlier this week she had nine of the top 10 singles on iTunes' country chart. Despite the seemingly risky prospect of flooding the market with more than 2 million CDs, he's not worried about returns. "Smile and wave," he said proudly. "They're gone. We're already getting re-orders." And though iTunes does not reveal sales data, Swift also seems on track to set some new high-water marks on Apple's digital service; at midweek all 14 songs from the album were on iTunes' top 200 singles list, including 10 in the top 30.
While some artists have come off recent best-selling albums to find soft sales for follow-ups, Caulfield said Swift seems destined to buck that trend because of the way she connects with listeners. "She's able to engage people in a way that's different than most other artists," he noted of Swift, who has created a unique lane with her confessional songwriting and willingness to share her private emotions with her millions of fans. "People feel that she's speaking from the heart and making a very personal statement. The songs come from her heart and [talk] about her feelings. You feel like you have more of a connection with her than other artists."
Another unique aspect he pointed to was her youth and ability to straddle both the country and pop worlds by appealing to fans who love Britney Spears and who used to follow Shania Twain, but who also enjoy contemporary country stars like Carrie Underwood. Add in super catchy songs and the Big Machine label's strategy of getting Speak Now into everywhere from big-box stores and mom-and-pop shops to Hot Topic, Starbucks and maybe even your local 7-Eleven, and the picture starts to come into clear view.
Now, about that 1 million number.
No album has reached that plateau since Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III sold 1,006,000 copies during its first week on shelves back in 2008, and one industry person who doesn't work for Swift's label told Caulfield that selling a million copies of an album in a week in 2010 is the equivalent of selling 2.3 million back in 2000. That magic number, the highest first-week tally in the chart's history, was put up by 'NSYNC's No Strings Attached in 2000.
Swift's last album, Fearless, debuted at #1 in November 2008 with sales of 582,000, going on to move 6 million copies and take the crown for the top seller of 2009.
At the end of the day, though, Borchetta stressed that Swift is not the kind of artist who is obsessed with reading SoundScan sales reports. "She's certainly aware of those things, but she doesn't put it in the perspective of having to beat another artist," he said. "She loves it when she's successful and is still just as excitable as ever, but when a fan quotes a lyric back to her she just loves it. For her, it's about her songwriting."