LOS ANGELES — When Taylor Swift’s album “Red” was released last week, the pop singer’s most ardent fans wasted no time downloading the digital edition on iTunes, vaulting it to No. 1 on the online retailer’s Top Albums chart in a quick 36 minutes. Those who wanted to hold a CD with her latest 16 songs were also able to snap it up as early as 12:01 a.m. Oct. 22 at thousands of 24-hour Walgreens and Wal-Mart stores.
By daybreak though, the options had multiplied: A deluxe 22-track edition was available at Target, and if the music alone wasn’t enough, Swift aficionados could also pick up a custom pair of Keds “Red” sneakers ($49.99) or get the album along with a large pizza as part of a Papa John’s deal that featured Swift’s image on the pizza box (all for $22!).
The multi-pronged delivery of Swift’s album is part of a sophisticated marketing campaign that has contributed to the extraordinary first-week sales for “Red” of 1.21 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the biggest first-week figure in more than a decade.
The success of “Red” equals hope for an industry hammered during the first decade of the digital age, one in which album sales plummeted 50 percent, but also raises the bar on what it takes to remain a pop star in the digital era.
Once upon a time in the record business, musicians created albums, record companies manufactured then delivered them to retail stores, took out ads in magazines, newspapers and perhaps on TV to promote them, then waited for the sales results to roll in.
Today however, generating blockbuster sales requires the right combination of hit music, star power and marketing savvy that connects with consumers wherever they might be, from discount department stores and online retailers to shoe outlets and pizza places. Swift’s album has also benefited from largely laudatory reviews, with several critics calling it the best yet in her young career (Los AngelesTimes pop music critic Randall Roberts gave it three stars on the Times’ four-star scale).
The type of exclusive deals that Swift and her label Big Machine struck with various and some unlikely retailers has become a crucial part of the pop music landscape.
In 2010, Green Day licensed its music and band members’ likenesses for a “Green Day: Rock Band” edition dedicated solely to the Bay Area pop-punk band’s music. Last year, Lady Gaga partnered with social gaming giant Zynga to create a Facebook game, “Gagaville,” that helped boost awareness of her “Born This Way” album, which sold 1.1 million copies during its first week.
The last dozen years have seen the rise and dominance of individual songs over full albums. The public response to Swift’s new album epitomizes artists’ need to be ever more creative and diversified in their reach.
Not every marketing tie-in works. Last year teen pop star Justin Bieber endorsed a product called PhoneGuard designed to prevent cellphone users from texting or otherwise using phones while driving. The company lost $3.9 million in the first six months of 2012.
The increasing customization of artists’ music for different outlets means they are expected to come up with songs they can release only to certain retailers, along with other individualized content such as the photos and text for the 96-page book with Wal-Mart’s exclusive “Zinepak” edition of “Red,” also including a selection of Swift guitar picks.
Target has instituted extensive in-store promotion for “Red,” as it has for previous exclusive editions of albums from Pink, No Doubt and others.
“We have so many different tricks up our sleeve to surprise and delight guests and fans of Taylor,” Target Vice President of Entertainment John Butcher told Billboard recently.
In return, artists and their recordings receive amped-up promotion of their music, although tie-ins alone don’t automatically create mega-hits like “Red.” It’s just the 18th album to sell more than 1 million copies in a single week during the 21 years of the SoundScan era.
The plethora of different editions of a given album, however, carries a potential for backlash among fans who feel torn over which version to buy — or feel compelled to buy all the editions to get everything available from their favorite artists. So far, however, there’s been little public outcry of that sort directed toward “Red.”
With “Red,” Swift becomes only the fourth act to hit the 1-million first-week figure twice since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking actual sales back in 1991.