Exclusive: Taylor Swift on Being Pop's Instantly Platinum Wonder... And Why She's Paddling Against the Streams

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Chris Willman
·Writer
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photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Looking at the sales for Taylor Swift's 1989, it would appear that reports of the death of the music industry have been greatly exaggerated. SoundScan reported Tuesday night that Swift's fifth album sold 1.287 million copies in its first week, the highest out-of-the-box bow for any album release since The Eminem Show sold a hair more than that 12 years ago. She now goes down in history as the first artist in history to have three million-selling opening weeks. This would have been impressive even in 1999, when Backstreet Boys walked the pre-Napster earth like lumbering giants. But in 2014? It's like we've just seen a ghost — the ghost of a happy, healthy music biz that can apparently only be summoned by Swift.

Swift was too busy promoting 1989 in Japan this week to immediately toast the sales or critical plaudits. But we caught up with her by transatlantic phone for her first interview since she achieved these fairly stunning figures. Topics of discussion included her unusual DIY marketing ideas… the album's sure-to-be-controversial second single… and a new over-the-counter medicine you might have heard of called Swiftamine.

There's also that little matter of her having just removed her entire catalog from Spotify, after having previously only withheld new releases from free streaming services. Some news accounts in the business pages have claimed that her label had some secret Machiavellian scheme in mind, but as Swift makes clear here, she's in control of her own business moves as well as her heart.

[Related: Roughly 1,989 Words About Taylor Swift's '1989'! A Track-by-Track Guide]

YAHOO MUSIC: This album had the highest first-week sales since 2002. Then there is also the fact that you're the first artist to have a million-selling week three times in a row. And then there's also just the idea of this being a personal best, just for you. Do any of these ways of looking at the initial success of the album mean more to you than others?

TAYLOR SWIFT: Well, my huge dream in this whole thing, which I was told many times was an unrealistic… I was told many times to keep my expectations in check, so I did. But the ultimate dream was, "Can we ring that bell? Can we get a million; can we do this for the third time?" Because we were all very well aware that if we sold a million records this time, it would be the only time in history that someone had done that three times. That was the most insane thing, when we got the first hint that we might end up actually getting to do it. And then my second biggest hope was, "Hey, wouldn't it be insane if we topped what we did with Red?" And then the fans ended up making that happen, so it's been just kind of like a dream scenario all the way around. And I just feel so lucky that people seem to understand what I was doing with this album and loved the new direction of it.

You put something up on Instagram where you pointed out that some of the so-called experts had initially been projecting it might only sell 650,000. When you heard that back then, were you thinking, "Oh, come on, guys? This is me, Taylor — you know I can do better than that"? Or did you ever give in a bit to the diminished expectations of 2014?

Well, I understand there's been a huge shift in this economic landscape, and the perception of music has changed a lot in the last two years. And so when I saw that number that was lower than what we've done before as a prediction, I didn't really know what to expect anymore. Because I hoped that I had created something that people would want to buy, but I didn't know what's been happening in people's minds… I just was hoping and praying that people still perceived there to be a value to someone's musical creation.

That leads to the streaming question. We've played the game of wondering whether you would have sold hundreds of thousands of fewer copies last week if the album had been available to people for free via those services. To a lot of people, you're a hero for reinforcing that music still has a value. And then there are some people who think you're standing in the way of progress by not giving in to the streaming model. What are your thoughts on all that?

If I had streamed the new album, it's impossible to try to speculate what would have happened. But all I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And I'm not willing to contribute my life's work to an experiment that I don't feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free. I wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal this summer that basically portrayed my views on this. I try to stay really open-minded about things, because I do think it's important to be a part of progress. But I think it's really still up for debate whether this is actual progress, or whether this is taking the word "music" out of the music industry. Also, a lot of people were suggesting to me that I try putting new music on Spotify with "Shake It Off," and so I was open-minded about it. I thought, "I will try this; I'll see how it feels." It didn't feel right to me. I felt like I was saying to my fans, "If you create music someday, if you create a painting someday, someone can just walk into a museum, take it off the wall, rip off a corner off it, and it's theirs now and they don't have to pay for it." I didn't like the perception that it was putting forth. And so I decided to change the way I was doing things.

I talked with your dad briefly at your Secret Sessions, and I remember him saying something to the effect of: "If she's going to be writing op-eds for the Wall Street Journal claiming albums are still commercially viable, she really has something to prove." But what is it about the album, per se, for you? There are "album artists" — which we usually associate with rock artists — and then singles artists, and you're the rare person who is both. But it's clear that you're a believer in the album. Why worry about selling a million copies of an album when you could just be setting records for selling 5 million of this or that single?

I guess it's just a personal decision from artist to artist. But I'd really much rather write a novel than a bunch of short stories. I'd rather be known for a collection of songs that go together and live together and belong together. These are essentially installments of my life, two years at a time, and I work really hard to make sure that those installments are good enough to also apply to other people's lives in two-year periods of time. Albums defined my childhood, and they've defined my life. I just hope that they will continue to define people in newer generations' lives. I'm so proud of my fans for going out there, over a million strong, and proving that albums still matter to them and that art is still viable to them.

[Related: Taylor Swift and 89 Fans Party Like It's '1989' on New York Rooftop]

It felt like you were experimenting with your own ideas about marketing, in terms of doing some really untested stuff. You had the Secret Sessions parties, where, paradoxically, it seemed like you were starting a word-of-mouth thing, even though you were swearing people to secrecy. And then calling yourself a social-media lurker and taking that to the furthest extreme as you re-posted things online… Was there anything where you thought, "Hey, this is kind of a weird way to market an album, but let's just go for it?"

They were all ideas that hit me in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night, or in the middle of listening to a new song I'd recorded for 1989. I'd just get these ideas and think, "What if we did these for the secret society living room sessions? Can we do that? Yeah, of course we can do that." We had no idea what was going to happen. And the thing with me posting pictures on Twitter of my fans holding the albums, that was an idea I had five minutes before I did it for the first time. On Tumblr they've been joking for months about how I'm always just lurking around the Internet, stalking their blogs. Predominantly, for the most part, most of these ideas were not thought of in some conference-room marketing meeting.

People always talk to you about marriages and relationships, and they say relationships take work, and you have to keep surprising each other. And that I think the most profound relationship I've ever had has been with my fans. That relationship takes work, and you have to continue to think of new ways to delight and surprise them. You can't just assume that because they liked one of your albums, they're going to like the new one, so you can make it exactly the same as you made the last one. You can't just assume that because they were gracious enough to make you a part of their life last year, that they're gonna want to do the same thing this year. I think that core relationship needs to be nurtured. And so there were a lot of things that were brand-new to my career, to my life, and to I guess what you would call the campaign of this album — things we'd never even tried before, but they just felt right because it felt like nurturing that relationship.

It has to be tough choosing singles off an album where every song sounds like a single. There seems to be an extra degree of fan support for "Style" being an eventual single, though.

Yeah, I hear that as well. I'm hearing all those things you're hearing.

Is the second single official? There was word it's "Blank Space."

Yeah, "Blank Space." The fans tend to decide the singles relatively quickly for us. We don't even need to do much as far as A&R work, because they are very vocal about their favorites. In my mind, I have a very clear picture about singles one, two, three. I'm up in the air about four, but I think that it will present itself just like all the other ones have. It's really exciting to see people have so many favorites and be very, very clear about which ones they think should be singles.

"Blank Space" is a particularly provocative choice for a single, because you were already wondering whether people would get that song or not as just an album track. It's such a different kind of lyric for you to put out there. Don't you worry some people will think, "Wait? Is that really her?"

It's interesting when you put out a song with sort of a comedic element to it. People with different senses of humor perceive it differently. You'll have people who completely get the joke and they're saying, "Oh, look, she's completely taken back the narrative, and she's singing from the perspective of the person the media paints her to be." And then other people will be listening to it on the radio and thinking, "I knew it! I knew she was crazy!" Just the way this has all kind of shaken out, I did not expect for "Blank Space" to be the favorite. And it is the absolute favorite. It's No. 1 on iTunes right now, which is absolutely insane, and "Shake It Off" is No. 2.

It's just so cool to see people like that, because it was sort of a risk for me to even take it into the studio and play this idea for Max Martin and Shellback and say, "Hey, I want to write this completely satirical song about the fictionalization of my personal life, and just kind of poke fun at it." The fact that it ended up being a sort of shining spot on the album is really exciting for me. Because I think it's gonna be really interesting when people see things we have up our sleeve, like the video and other things that I'm really excited about people discovering. It's probably the wildest video I've done.

[Related: Taylor Swift To Debut Performance of 'Blank Space' at 2014 American Music Awards]

You probably haven't heard about the CMA Awards yet, but Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood had a whole segment about you in their opening monologue. They described your leaving country music behind inducing Post-Partum Taylor Swift Disorder. Supposedly the Democrats lost the midterms because Obama didn't address this. And Brad and Carrie adapted "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" to be "Who's Gonna Fill Her Shoes."

Oh my God. I can't wait to watch that.

But you have, we know, seen this past weekend's Saturday Night Live sketch about the anxieties that can only be cured with Swiftamine.

Oh my God. Swiftamine was amazing. My mom and dad and I were all together watching it, and we were just dying laughing. My favorite part was "Oooh, Taylor Swift, she's always wearing, like, a 1950s bathing suit."

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