One of the few certainties in the music business these days is that if Taylor Swift puts out a new album, it will sell by the truckload.
Her last two records, “Red” and “Speak Now,” each sold more than 1 million copies in their first week out, an increasingly rare feat as music sales weaken, and listening habits shift to online streaming services like Spotify and YouTube. Two years ago, “Red” started with 1.2 million sales, the biggest opening in a decade and the last time that any album has crossed the million mark in one week.
But the fate of Swift’s newest release, “1989,” which comes out Monday, has been the subject of nervous speculation in the industry for months, given not only the poor sales climate overall but also Swift’s decision to break from country radio, a vital source of support since the beginning of her career.
This year, no new title has cracked the 1-million-sales mark – a symbolic milestone – and album sales overall are down 14 percent from the same period last year. According to Billboard magazine, “1989” is projected to sell at least 800,000 copies in its debut week.
In August, Swift, who was born in 1989, announced the release of “1989” through a fan gathering at the Empire State Building that was streamed live by Yahoo, the first volley in a steady and aggressive marketing campaign. She called the release her “very first documented, official pop album.”
It was the culmination of a long transition in her music toward pop and came as little surprise to her fans or the industry at large. But the break with country was definitive. The first single, “Shake It Off,” was a hit on Top 40 radio and went straight to No. 1, yet it was largely ignored by country programmers. Although Swift’s record company, Big Machine, had sent country stations special remixes of some of her earlier pop-leaning songs, no such effort was made with “Shake It Off.”
“A lot of folks wished that she would have done some songs that would be more compatible with country radio, but she hasn’t,” said Joel Raab, a longtime consultant to country radio stations.
In the small world that is the Nashville music business, little outright negativity about Swift has been voiced publicly. A more prevailing sentiment is wistful pride.
“Taylor is one of us, one of our children,” said Mark Razz, the music director at WXTU-FM, a country station in Philadelphia. “You’re there for them along the way, and then they need to go to what they are going to do. She’s gotten to where she is through country music, and if she goes on to be the next pop sensation around the world, we are behind her 100 percent.”
Less support from country stations – now the most popular music format on radio – may hurt Swift’s sales. But her marketing campaign is intended to promote her as widely as possible, through brand tie-ins and a barrage on social media. Her Diet Coke commercial, for example, ends with a pitch for the album, and on Tuesday, Swift introduced a new song, “Style,” through a Target ad. Her Instagram feed has been a constant drumbeat of lyrics, images and hints related to the album.
The biggest hurdle for the success of “1989” may simply be the slumping world of music retail, with downloads now joining CDs as a declining format. Spotify and other streaming services, while growing in popularity, are not tracked in the same way as sales, and so far, the revenue those outlets generate has not made up for the drop in the number of albums sold.
Even if “1989” sells only 800,000 copies in its first week, that would more than double the next-biggest showing of the year, when Coldplay sold 383,000 copies of “Ghost Stories” in May. Big albums are expected later this year by One Direction, Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar, but Swift’s release is expected to be the most popular by far.
“It’s just very difficult to convince people to buy music,” said Keith Caulfield, an associate director of charts at Billboard. But if anyone can exceed expectations, Caulfield said, it is Swift.
“Forecasts are forecasts,” he added. “The weather changes.”