Record labels routinely throw a bunch of things at the wall to see what sticks, sometimes landing a goldmine with unexpected hits like Lady Gaga, but mostly striking out with albums few people connect with.
Then there's [artist id="2389485"]Taylor Swift[/artist]. Through her first two releases, the breakout young country superstar has slowly, steadily built a massive audience with a combination of heartfelt songwriting and countless dates opening for established stars before headlining on her own, not to mention an approachable persona and a tireless devotion to connecting with her fans.
All those years of hard work paid off this week when Swift's third album, Speak Now, launched the 20-year-old singer into the record books by selling more than 1 million copies in its debut.
How did Taylor do it? According to her label boss, through a combination of clever, wide-net marketing, a key exclusive contract with Target, a blitz of high-profile media appearances and, perhaps most importantly, that unique bond with her fans.
"For the most part, Taylor hasn't been out in the marketplace for the past year," her Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta told MTV News. "She's appeared on awards shows here and there, but what's really fantastic about this week is people are getting some new, in-person, live interviews with her and falling in love with her all over again. ... It's been two years since she's done any long-form interviews, and now people are remembering why they're seeing her everywhere: because we love her and she's made a brilliant record."
Even after the Kanye West incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Swift gave few interviews and mostly avoided walking the red carpet, even at awards shows where she was performing and winning trophies. Borchetta said that was all part of a plan to avoid the perpetual press cycle and allow fans a breather from reading chats with Swift when she didn't have new songs to talk about.
But it wasn't just the absence that made the heart grow fonder. Swift's previous disc, November 2008's Fearless, continued to move major units throughout 2009, ending up as that year's best-selling disc. In the meantime, Swift was cooking up a fresh batch of confessional, no-holds-barred songs about her love life (and, apparently, Kanye) that have helped her buck the trend of singles-focused acts who can't move full albums.
"She's able to engage people in a way that's different than most other artists," Billboard's Keith Caulfield told MTV News last week. "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."
Combine that with a crossover appeal that reaches not just fans of veteran country stars like Shania Twain, but also contemporary acts from Britney Spears to Carrie Underwood, and a release date close enough to the holidays to guarantee stocking-stuffer placement, and you have another potential blockbuster.
Thanks to her strong songwriting and attention to detail, Swift has also trained her followers to want her full album, not just cherry-picked singles. That has helped boost her sales at a time when many similar pop artists are seeing their single download sales far eclipse their album sales. And, of course, she tweeted her thanks to those die-hards on Wednesday (November 3) for making her album a success. "I ... Can't ... Believe ... This ..., You guys have absolutely lit up my world. Thank you," she wrote.
Borchetta said he began working with his marketing team on the plan for Speak Now in February, focusing in on landing a Target exclusive because of his admiration for how the company has handled recent exclusives with Christina Aguilera, the Jonas Brothers, Carrie Underwood and John Legend.
"That's the place you want to be, and they only do one or two a year," Borchetta said, adding that he loved how Target handled its commercials for the Swift album — which features three bonus tracks, three remixes and 30 minutes of exclusive video — and noted that the extra music Swift provided for the chain was all killer, no filler. "Taylor doesn't write throwaways. When finalizing this album, she kept writing, and I told her we would have a home for these songs."
But Borchetta didn't stop there; he also convinced Starbucks to step out of its musical comfort zone and stock Speak Now, a move that came after his team flew out to meet the coffee chain's executives, who he said fell in love with the music. Add in placement at everywhere from Hot Topic stores to other nontraditional retail outlets, and you have a Swift-nami that ensured fans could get the album anywhere they wanted to.
"We had to create new storefronts for this, because there's not going to be another record chain in our lifetime," Borchetta said. "That's why I would take our marketing department and go to a mall in another city and say, 'Look around, be creative, where can we be?' It's like getting Rascal Flatts in JCPenney. You have to make your music more accessible."
The final piece of the puzzle is Swift herself. From tirelessly shaking hands, doling out hugs and signing items for her young fans to performing on "Dancing With the Stars," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and "Live! With Regis and Kelly," just more than a month shy of her 21st birthday, Swift is easily one of the hardest-working women in show business when she has a record to promote.
Borchetta marveled at her stamina in just one day last week, when she got up at 4:30 a.m. to play the "Today" show, then swept off to a midday event, performed on "The Late Show With David Letterman" that night and moved on to another NBC taping, then back to "Letterman" for a CBS radio event and a late-night meet-and-greet.
She was up again early the next morning for "Regis" and a midday event for 1 million kids watching at 25,000 schools via a Scholastic webcast. "She worked her fool butt off," Borchetta said.
Now comes the celebration. But unlike other artists who get suitcases of cash, cars or other flashy gifts for reaching major milestones, Borchetta said Taylor will probably keep it low-key. "We'll have a big dance party," he said. "That's what she loves to do. It's never been about things for her. It's more about friends and her fans."
Did you pick up Taylor's latest? Why do you think it was such a success? Share your thoughts in the comments!