Pop Music

Taylor Swift: True Lil Wayne Heir

Lil Wayne sold a million copies of Tha Carter III in one week back in June of 2008. It's a nearly impossible benchmark in an era of dwindling album sales. And the day Lil Wayne was released from prison, Taylor Swift matched his feat.

Actually, she surpassed it. Tha Carter III sold 1,005,545 copies in its first week, and Speak Now sold 1,047,000. Back in 2008, Lil Wayne was anointed industry savior, a paradigm-shifting artist capable of both giving away music online and posting absurd sales figures. That seems like a long time ago. In 2010, Taylor Swift carries the music industry in a way Lil Wayne will never begin to approach.

The shocking thing you may not remember is that the top selling artist of 2008 was actually not Lil Wayne. It was... Taylor Swift, who moved a ridiculous 4,003,000 copies of her first two albums that year.

Her last album, Fearless has sold over six million copies in the U.S. alone. Tha Carter III, meanwhile, sits at about three and a half million. She would have been the top selling artist of 2009 were it not for Michael Jackson's death.

The current top selling artist of 2010 is Eminem, who has sold nearly three million copies of Recovery. Taylor Swift could very easily overtake him; she's already well over halfway there between the continuing strong performance of Fearless and Speak Now.

So we've established that Taylor Swift is utterly without peer in terms of selling albums in the current musical landscape. The question is, with artists increasingly turning to alternate business models, what does that mean?

In a different era, it would have been no stretch to call the top album seller the most significant artist of that year, from Elvis all the way to The Backstreet Boys. But the old metrics are crumbling. If all the money to be made from the creation and distribution of music was once a large pie cut in only a few ways, it is today cut into hundreds or thousands of pieces.

Musicians can earn money from selling albums or singles, physically or digitally. They can sell product placement in lyrics or videos, they can earn money licensing their music across every media platform. They can raise money by online donation, as Public Enemy just did. There's merchandising and concert tickets and all that is just the obvious stuff -- there is no limit to the flexibility of sales potential with the internet.

The goal of Poptimystic is to point out what music is popular and why we think it is. But what could once be accomplished with one visit to the Billboard charts is now practically a philosophical question. Each week, we'll use different charts and rankings in an attempt to pinpoint what music is moving America.

This week, the old method will work: Taylor Swift is, overwhelmingly, the most important artist of the moment. Her appeal isn't hard to understand. She has captured the country music fans, who are the most loyal album-purchasers in America. Her wholesome image appeals to the older, non-internet savvy music consumer. Her guileless presence and earnest songwriting method have made her the voice of an entire generation of lovelorn teenagers. She has remained a tabloid fixture without getting slutty or druggy.

Who knows how long she can hold onto whatever this is, but her ability to dominate album sales these last three years is an historical feat.


As of 11/4/10

1. Taylor Swift - Speak Now 2. Sugarland - The Incredible Machine 3. Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown 4. Lil Wayne - I Am Not A Human Being 5. Eminem - Recovery 6. Elton John & Leon Russell - The Union 7. Glee - The Rocky Horror Glee Show EP 8. Rod Steward - Fly Me To The Moon... The Great American Songbook Vol. V 9. Darius Rucker - Charleston, SC 1966 10. Michael Buble - Hollywood: The Deluxe EP

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Kiernan Maletsky is Westword's music editor. His writing has appeared in alt-weeklies around the country as well as Miley Cyrus's mom's Twitter feed.
Contact: Kiernan Maletsky