NEW YORK (Billboard) - Fan anticipation is already building for Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now,” after the pop-country superstar revealed on Ustream that the follow-up to her multiplatinum album “Fearless” will be out October 25.
But anticipation of a different sort is building among music retail and label executives: Can “Speak Now” top U.S. debut-week sales of 1 million units? And if Swift can’t attain that now-elusive milestone, can anyone?
The last album to do so was Lil Wayne’s “Tha Carter III,” which sold slightly more than 1 million units in its first week, the period ended June 15, 2008, and has sold 3.5 million units to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Since then, the closest any album has come to matching that performance was AC/DC’s “Black Ice,” which bowed with 784,000 units in the week ended October 24, 2008, and has sold a total of 2.2 million, according to SoundScan. Eminem’s “Recovery,” the sales champ of 2010 so far, debuted with 741,000 units in the week ended June 27 and has racked up total U.S. sales of 1.5 million, according to SoundScan.
Other highly anticipated albums to be released later this year include titles from Susan Boyle, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Linkin Park, Kid Rock, Norah Jones, Diddy and Lil Wayne.
In an informal survey of a dozen recording industry executives conducted by Billboard, Boyle, West and Wayne each drew votes as contenders for million-unit debut weeks. But most said they believe Swift has the best shot.
“It feels like if anybody can do it now, she could be the one,” said Will Botwin, president/CEO of Red Light Management and ATO Records. “She has the sales base and heat from the last few albums. And with all the amazing things she has going on, she is as likely as anybody to reach a million units, especially with the efforts of Big Machine and Universal behind her.”
Executives at Swift’s label, Big Machine Records, and her distributor, Universal Music Group Distribution, couldn’t be reached for comment. But retail sources said UMGD expects to ship 1.5 million units for the album’s release date and that it’s projecting first-week sales of 750,000 units.
Swift’s self-titled debut album, which came out in the final week of October 2006, has sold 4.8 million units, and “Fearless” has sold 5.9 million after debuting with 592,000 units sold in the week ended November 16, 2008, according to SoundScan.
But since the release of “Fearless,” Swift has proved to be not only a country-crossover star, but a media superstar as well. A major-label sales executive who asked to remain anonymous said the perception in Nashville is that Swift’s popularity has peaked, adding, however, that the 1 million mark is still within reach.
“She has created mass appeal, she has a bigger profile than anybody in music,” the executive said. “I am betting that as we get closer to the release date — with all the deals that Big Machine is probably working on falling into place — she will be so in-our-face everywhere we turn that she will hit the critical mass that could see a million-unit week.”
According to SoundScan, U.S. album sales are down another 12.1 percent so far this year from the corresponding period in 2009. Given the continued sales slide, another major-label sales executive who asked to remain unnamed said he doesn’t believe anyone — “not Jay-Z, not U2, not Eminem” — will ever again reach 1 million units in their debut week.
The specific challenges facing Swift are threefold, the executive said. “I don’t think she can get enough (radio) formats,” the executive said. “She may have three — country, some AC (adult contemporary), depending on the song, and maybe top 40. But that’s always the dilemma because there are not many slots for nonrhythmic music on top 40 radio in the major markets.”
Secondly, the executive speculated that Big Machine probably will price the album at a full $18.98 list price. That means it won’t be price-friendly to Walmart, the largest U.S. physical music retailer, and thus won’t be heavily discounted by the mass merchant to drive sales, unless it wants to forgo its profit margin.
Finally, the executive didn’t think Swift’s digital sales will be strong enough. Digital sales accounted for 21.8 percent of the debut-week sales for “Fearless,” short of the 34.4 percent digital share for first-week sales for Eminem’s “Recovery,” according to SoundScan. But that may not be a fair comparison, given that digital album sales have surged since the release of “Fearless.”
A distribution executive at a major label suggests that a better barometer of debut-week performance may be to include track-equivalent album sales, where the sale of 10 digital tracks equals an album.
“I would still bet that she comes under a million units,” the executive said, adding, “It’s not our album, but I would be the first guy to stand up and cheer if it does happen.”