Taking back control isn’t just for Brexiteers, you know. Everywhere you look, artists are doing it too.
The global noise around Taylor Swift’s excellent new album, Lover (Republic/Virgin EMI), has been encouraging this week for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, because the presence of Lover on streaming services from the get-go hasn’t prevented it from posting some extravagant sales numbers, even if it falls just short of the magic one million US week one mark.
It is still the fastest-selling album in the US since her own Reputation in 2017 while, globally, Lover racked up more than three million units in consumption, according to her new label, Republic Records. In China, consumption remarkably topped one million units, more than doubling the territory's previous record for an international album. Other records to tumble included the all-time pre-sale record at Target (which had a US exclusive on Lover's deluxe versions) and the biggest album debut in the history of Amazon Music.
Lover also hit No.1 on charts around the world, including Australia, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and, of course, the UK. It sold 53,022 copies here, according to the Official Charts Company. That's down on Reputation's 83,648 – to be expected given the sharp decline in traditional album sales since then, as well as Lover's availability for streaming. There, Swift's embrace of the format paid off, delivering 17,891 units and making up a 33.74% share of her total sales. That's not far off the 39.9% share posted by streaming king Ed Sheeran's No.6 Collaborations Project on debut, with the superstar pair posting remarkably similar physical shares (Swift: 45.37%, Sheeran: 45.6%).
If Swift's numbers boggle your brain, it's her music that will blow your mind
But if Swift's numbers boggle your brain, it's her music that will blow your mind. While Republic founder & CEO, Monte Lipman noted, “Taylor’s brilliant body of work has shattered industry metrics around the world", he also stressed: "Lover is clearly her most acclaimed album to date. Her honesty and vulnerability poured into this album has created a masterpiece.”
And, indeed, Lover is the best advert you could ever have for artistic freedom. Reading the fascinating excerpts from Swift’s journals, included with the deluxe versions, that concern the industry, it’s apparent how much an artist’s career can depend upon the whims and actions of others, even when they’re well on the way to superstardom. Plenty of people helped her along the way, of course, but even an artist of Swift's calibre managed to get lost in the label system at one point.
This is surely why Swift – aggrieved at Scott Borchetta’s sale of Big Machine, home to her first six albums – used her Good Morning America appearance to announce a plan to start re-recording her old songs from 2020.
If that seems like an awful lot of effort for a global superstar to go through for relatively minimal financial gain, well, it probably is. But, as with most of Swift’s business decisions, it’s not actually about the money, and Lover – described proudly by Swift as “the first album of mine that I’ve ever owned” – shows you why.
Reputation’s content may have been seemingly largely dictated by the social media/streaming narrative of the time, but Lover sees Swift following her own path, both musically and lyrically. This brings us off-brand delights such as the super-charged power-pop of Paper Rings and the steel drum-infused childlike wonder of It’s Nice To Have A Friend, and allows her the scope for the Jenny Lewis-esque title track. Lyrically, she's at her very best, from the heartbreaking Soon You'll Get Better to the pithy defiance of The Man to the tour de force allegory of Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince. (True, it also brings us London Boy, although you suspect Swift didn’t intend those lyrics to be taken quite as seriously as the capital’s Twitterati have done and anyway, as Lover's No.5 most-streamed track in the UK last week, despite being track No.11, it didn't seem to put anyone off). All this and more straight-up pop bangers than any other 2019 album – even if, unlike everyone else, Swift is comfortable leaving the singles near the end of the tracklist.
Lover, you see, is a consummate, wide-ranging album clearly made by an artist with the confidence to do whatever she likes. It probably wouldn't work for everyone, but the freedom granted by her new deal with Republic suits Swift down to the ground – a lesson that should be absorbed by every other music company out there. It also makes you wonder how some of her earlier records might have turned out if she’d been granted the same liberty to experiment. Her re-recording programme, once it materialises, probably won’t go so far as to tell us that. But her actions might just mean the next generation of artists won’t have to ponder the same what-might-have-beens.