Selling Music the Old-Fashioned Way?

That Taylor Swift’s Red had the biggest first week sales since 2002 isn’t much of a surprise. Swift has done everything she needed to do and then some to hold onto her fan base for the last two years, and the fact that the album announcement itself was something of a surprise automatically piqued interest. I think the brag about doing this the “old-fashioned” way (that is, not making the album available on streaming services or online stores known for heavy discounting like Amazon or Google Play) is nonsense, though. Are limited edition deluxe versions available through a single retailer old-fashioned? Is selling CDs at a discount with a pizza order old-fashioned? Most important: is iTunes old-fashioned?

That last is the essential question, not just because iTunes was the only online retailer allowed to sell the album the first week of release, but because of the way iTunes sells big albums like this. Just as they did with Speak Now, Big Machine issued a single a week exclusively on iTunes in the lead up to the album. All but one of those singles, the last one, “State of Grace”, made top ten. Which means a lot of people, including me, used the “complete your album” feature to buy the full album when it was released. I can’t help but wonder how those are counted. I don’t suppose it makes a difference to the chart if the singles are counted as individual sales and then the album separately, but what about those people who pre-ordered the album before the singles started coming out? Did they automatically receive those singles as they were released? Do those count as sales (which would have inflated their chart listing)? None of this affects the actual album sales, but it would be nice to know. Somehow I have a feeling those are questions that iTunes doesn’t want to answer, and that Big Machine may not want them to answer.

And there’s still the question of illegal downloading. In the end, keeping Red off of Spotify and Rhapsody and other streaming services may make sense, but it also opens the door for the pirates. As of now, there are 30 different torrents for Red on The Pirate Bay with well over 6,000 seeds. That adds up to a hell of a lot of downloads, and that’s just one site. Does the trade-off between revenue lost at streaming sites, and revenue lost to pirates, balance out? Is there actually more of an advantage to staying off streaming services as opposed to making the records available and diminishing somewhat the monetary drain of the pirates? Some studies have shown the opposite, but maybe Big Machine knows better (they did the same thing with the last Rascal Flatts album, though I don’t imagine Rascal Flatts is a big draw on torrent sites—as of now there are only two torrents on Pirate Bay).

I have no answers, only questions. But the idea that Red sold over a million copies the “old-fashioned” way, and that this somehow means a return to the good-old days, strikes me as ridiculous. This is no different than the idea of Radiohead creating a new paradigm with In Rainbows. It worked for them, because they’re huge. Big Machine’s strategy for Red works because Taylor Swift is huge. It doesn’t mean anybody else would do as well (I’d like to see someone try this with a Flo Rida album), or that Swift would have done worse by deploying another strategy. After all, Speak Now sold over a million its first week at a time when the record market was worse than it is now. The only real lesson to be learned from Red is that massive popularity pays; if you’ve got that, you can do just about anything and cash in.