Planet Money
2:17 am
Fri November 9, 2012

The Secret Genius Of Taylor Swift

Originally published on Mon November 12, 2012 9:14 am

Taylor Swift's new album, Red, sold more 1.2 million copies in its first week — the highest first-week sales total for an album in over a decade. She did it partly by answering a surprisingly complicated question: What's the best way to sell an album?

There are so many ways to release your music these days. You can sell it at Amazon, iTunes, Wal-Mart, and Starbucks. You can release it to streaming sites like Spotify. You can go on tour.

Each artist chooses a mix of tools from this toolbox. And choosing the right mix can help an artist make money — something that's hard to do in an era when it's so easy to get free music.

Taylor Swift picked expertly. As Paul Resnikoff, editor and founder of Digital Music News points out, she has chosen from the toolbox only the outlets that would give her the most money for every album sold: Outlets that pushed a full album purchase.

The first week her album came out, you could only get it in a few key places: i-tunes, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Target. You could order a Papa Johns pizza and receive the CD — at the sticker price of around 14 bucks.

But the tools Swift didn't use are as important than the ones she did. By refusing to release her singles on Spotify, or any other streaming site, she pushed her fans to buy the album. Spotify pays the artist pennies on the dollar. Taylor Swift skipped it.

"Taylor already has so many fans, that she doesn't need to have that, like, incentive," 16-year-old superfan Lindsey Feinstein says. "Like, 'Oh, listen to this, and then you'll buy it.' She's past that level."

Streaming music is more like an advertisement for the artist. It's a process of music discovery, not necessarily music fandom. You build brand loyalty to the artist through streaming. Taylor Swift does not have a problem with brand loyalty. As Lindsey says, she's past that.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Who sells a lot of albums these days? She does.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE NEVER, EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) We are never, ever, ever getting back together. We...

MONTAGNE: Yes, that's Taylor Swift. She sold more than a million copies of her new album in the first week of its release. That kind of figure used to be unremarkable in the music business. Today, it's almost unheard of. And the way Taylor Swift pulled it off is also very rare. Zoe Chace from our Planet Money team explains.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Meet someone behind the blockbuster success of Taylor Swift.

LINDSEY FEINSTEIN: My name is Lindsey Feinstein. I'm 17 years old. I'm a senior in high school and I'm a huge Taylor Swift fan. She's just so nice. I mean. Her music is amazing and it's, sort of, all I listen to.

CHACE: Fans like Lindsey spend money on something unusual, for a 17-year-old.

FEINSTEIN: All the CDs are over there.

CHACE: Those are the only CDs that you appear to have.

FEINSTEIN: I have hers because I want them when I'm older, to show my kids that CDs were a thing.

CHACE: CDs are a thing these days only when it comes to the likes of Taylor Swift. There are so many ways to release your music right now - iTunes, Amazon, radio, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, concerts, streaming sites like Spotify, Rdio. Each artist picks from this toolbox in pursuit of one thing - making money. Something that is very hard to do when it's so easy to get music for free right now. And Taylor Swift picked expertly. The strategy for releasing this album was maybe the best ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER")

SWIFT: Like ever.

CHACE: She has picked, off the shelf, only the outlets that would give her the most money for every album sold.

FEINSTEIN: So iTunes, clearly. And then Target has this deluxe edition. Wal-Mart has it. She has this new thing with Walgreens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE NEVER EVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER")

FEINSTEIN: Papa Johns. This is a new thing. You can order a Taylor Swift pizza box and with it comes the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE NEVER GETTING BACK TOGETHER")

SWIFT: (Singing) This time, I'm telling you, I'm telling you, we are never, ever...

CHACE: I called another Taylor Swift expert, the editor of Digital Music News, Paul Resnikoff. He confirmed everything the 17-year-old said.

PAUL RESNIKOFF: They have to have it.

CHACE: But the tools Taylor Swift didn't choose are almost savvier than the ones she did. To be the first one at school to hear the new album, you had to pay full price for the privilege. Because Taylor Swift did not release her singles on Spotify or any other streaming site. Spotify pays pennies on the dollar. Taylor Swift skipped it.

RESNIKOFF: It doesn't necessarily make sense to release something on Spotify, because...

CHACE: You know what? We'll just let Lindsey take this one.

FEINSTEIN: Taylor already has so many fans that she doesn't need to have that, like, incentive, like, oh, listen to this and then you'll like it and then you'll buy it. I feel like she's past that level. People will literally just buy it.

CHACE: Streaming music is more like an advertisement for the artist. Streaming is a process of music discovery, not necessarily music fandom. You build brand loyalty to the artist through streaming. Taylor Swift does not have a problem with brand loyalty.

FEINSTEIN: She's kind of past that.

CHACE: So most people, when they bought the album that first week, had to pay full price. That is so rare these days. I asked Lindsey what song should we go out on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FEINSTEIN: I think we should go out with "22," because it's fun. And everyone will like. It's everyone's, like, song from the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "22")

SWIFT: (Singing) Oh, oh, I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22.

CHACE: A big part of Taylor Swift's genius is knowing exactly what 17-year-old girls want to hear.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "22")

SWIFT: (Singing) Everything will be all right. We just keep dancing like we're 22.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.