For ‘Lover,’ Taylor Swift has embraced streaming, but is it too late?

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times

For more than a decade, Taylor Swift’s record sales have been about as close to a sure thing as exists in the rarely settled music industry.

When the singer’s most recent album, “Reputation,” came out in 2017, it sold more than 1.2 million copies in its first week — her fourth record in a row to go platinum essentially upon release. (That’s more than any other artist has ever scored.)

Taylor Swift kicks a beach ball during a performance at Wango Tango 2019 at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. on June 1, 2019. Swift will perform at the MTV Video Music Awards later this month. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

But what’s a reliable seller to do in a market where nobody’s actually buying? That’s the question Swift faces ahead of Friday’s release of “Lover,” her seventh studio album and the first that will serve as a true test of her viability in the age of digital streaming.

That’s undeniably where the business finds itself today. Two years ago, on-demand streaming on platforms like Spotify and Apple Music counted for 54% of total music consumption in the United States, according to Nielsen Music. In 2019, that share is up to 80%.

And though Swift remains a titan of pop music — Billboard says her recent stadium tour behind “Reputation” grossed a whopping $345 million in ticket sales — her streaming numbers are curiously soft.

This week, the singer has only two songs on Spotify’s U.S. Top 50 chart, despite having released four heavily hyped tracks from “Lover.” (The title cut, which came out Friday, sits at No. 6, while “You Need to Calm Down” is at No. 38.) So far this year, Nielsen ranks her as music’s 14th-most-streamed artist — behind some of pop’s biggest names, including Ariana Grande and Post Malone, but also behind newcomers such as Juice WRLD and YoungBoy Never Broke Again with nothing like Swift’s overall cultural presence.

Given that Billboard combines sales and streaming figures, including YouTube views, when tabulating an album’s commercial performance, the result is that “Lover” may end up Swift’s first album since 2010’s “Speak Now” not to immediately pass the 1 million mark. Insiders are predicting a finish of around 700,000 units — still by some distance the year’s biggest debut.

“It will be difficult for her in today’s streaming-dominated environment to match the lofty sales numbers of her previous albums,” said Lenny Beer, editor-in-chief of the music-industry trade journal Hits.

Why the trouble connecting in a space teeming with pop fans? For starters, Swift famously resisted the shift to streaming, saying that platforms didn’t pay creators fairly for their work. Yet as she kept her music off Spotify — conditioning her loyal audience to think of buying her songs and albums as an act of devotion — younger artists like Grande emerged to establish themselves as streaming favorites.

“Taylor was the flag carrier for strong physical sales in a time when physical sales were declining,” said David Bakula, a Nielsen analyst, who added that by the time Swift made her music easily accessible online, many listeners had simply moved on.

She’s also struggled lately to land the kind of Top 40 radio smash – think Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” or Swift’s own “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood” — that drives casual fans to streaming services to hear a song again (and again).

Both “You Need to Calm Down” and “Lover’s” lead single, “Me!,” were blocked from reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100 by the unpredictable phenomenon that was “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. But the songs didn’t merely stall out just short of the top; they also fell from the chart’s upper reaches more precipitously than was once typical for Swift, who, at age 29, shares more with a showbiz veteran like Katy Perry than with an upstart like Lil Tecca, the 16-year-old rapper with an inescapable viral hit in “Ransom.”

One response to Swift’s streaming dilemma, at least when considered in the larger context of her wildly successful career, might be: Who cares?

The answer, though, is that in all likelihood, she does. As an artist, Swift clearly wants to be part of the fast-moving pop conversation; she’s not Adele, whose classically minded skill set dovetails with an apparent lack of interest in the world of gossip and celebrity feuds. Swift’s music is all about the ways that society and technology intersect (and often interfere) with old-fashioned romance. And with its close ties to social media — not to mention the attention it receives from other gatekeepers — streaming is where that conversation happens now.

In other words, it’s not enough for Swift to speak to an audience that still downloads albums and buys CDs, assuming such an audience even exists anymore.

So after years of ambivalence, Swift is “embracing the new rules of engagement,” as Monte Lipman, chairman of her record label, Republic, put it. Not only that, but the singer has teamed with Spotify to create an enhanced version of “Lover” with various bells and whistles including audio messages and a hand-written note.

“It’s really a way for her to bring what she used to do for her physical albums into the streaming era,” said Marian Dicus, Spotify’s global head of artist and label services.