Yesterday Billboard released one of its most inevitable chart stories of the year: Taylor Swift’s Reputation sold a shit ton of copies and debuted at No. 1 on the latest albums chart. That fact alone is unsurprising, but when you look at its performance relative to Swift’s last world-conquering album, it’s...kind of surprising!
By the numbers alone, Reputation almost sold as many album equivalent units (1.2 million) as 1989 during its first week of sales in 2014 (1.287 million). This is largely due to the fact that Billboard hadn’t yet invented the concept of “album equivalent units” (a figure that factors in pure sales, streaming numbers, and downloads) for Swift’s last mega-smash, or even begun to acknowledge the impact of streaming writ large. So this much is understandable—1989 missed out on a crucial boost from Spotify and Apple Music plays. But so did Reputation.
Swift chose to make her polarizing sixth album unavailable to stream for the first week of release. (It’s still off every major streaming service.) Since Swift’s music doesn’t stream as well as, say, Lil Pump—none of her Reputation singles currently reside in Spotify’s top 50—it would make sense for her to want to lean on pure album sales during a tough year for pop. This was still a gamble.
It’s hard to dispute that the palpable buzz and advanced single performance for 1989 was a bigger deal than what led up to Reputation. “Shake It Off” held the No. 1 spot for two weeks, which was a shorter stint than “Look What You Made Me Do” spent up top, but it held at No. 2 for another eight before returning to No. 1 once 1989 dropped, where it was then replaced by “Blank Space.” Contrast this with the most recent Hot 100 chart before Reputation’s release: no Swift single appears higher than “Call It What You Want,” which debuted at 27. So how did she sell so many copies?
Despite a number of thinkpieces fearing that Reputation marked the Death of Taylor Swift (both Old and New), she still clearly has the ability to move some records. While Reputation didn’t explicitly utilize the popular ticket bundling scheme that’s fueled most of the year’s No. 1 albums, her partnership with Ticketmaster dubiously provides an incentive for fans to buy multiple copies of her new release.
Taylor Swift was never going to flop, but by setting her own goalposts, she’s restored an artificial sense of calm to both a fledgling industry and career that seemed like it might hit its first major speed bump. She’s the last too-big-to-fail pop star in an industry that never wants you to see how it’s failing.