As Taylor Swift prepares to release Lover on Friday, she is returning to a pop world that has undergone profound changes. “Before it was a push business,” ace songwriter Savan Kotecha (Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber) explained in 2018. “Labels would push an act on a TV show, an award show, get that spot, get radio [play] and [the song] goes. Now it’s more of a pull business… it’s all about throwing out content.” The TV screens and the program directors come later, if they come at all, but those gatekeepers are no longer necessary to create a smash hit.
Kotecha’s theory has been proved emphatically in 2019. Take Billie Eilish, who has the second biggest album of the year so far. She released When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? in March after spreading 16-ish singles and an EP across roughly 30 months. In the old days, labels would wait for a major radio hit and then unleash an album; in this new world, Eilish did not get her first Number One radio hit until May, close to two months after album release.
This trajectory is not unique to Eilish. The rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie had the fifth biggest album of the year at the end of June. Hoodie SZN came out before Christmas; it took the lead single “Look Back at It” almost six months to hit Number One at radio, and the rapper still hasn’t been invited on to any of the three biggest late-night TV shows. His label-mate Lizzo released a string of singles starting back in 2017 that eventually led to April’s Cuz I Love You; “Truth Hurts” became her first Number One on the airwaves at the end of July.
But as new stars triumph in a “pull business,” Taylor Swift might be the last of the old-school pushers. She is leading into her seventh studio album, Lover, with a carpet-bombing advertising campaign that few can match.
This barrage includes, but might not be limited to, her Amazon Prime Day concert, which was streamed live and then repackaged for subsequent viewing by curious Amazon Prime viewers; a Capital One partnership featuring a commercial and a t-shirt-album-bundle for those who have Capital One cards; a deal with Spotify, in which Swift shares audio messages and stories behind her songs on the platform; a deal with YouTube Music that involves a livestream event and a video premiere; a deal with iHeartMedia, much like the one Swift had in place for Reputation, in which the radio conglomerate’s Top 40, Adult Contemporary, and “Hot AC” stations, 135 in total, all blast Swift’s new music every hour on the hour; a simultaneous promotion with SiriusXM Hits 1, which reaches around the whole country; another Amazon deal where an image of Swift appears on packaging for whatever you happened to order; and a longstanding deal with Target, which promises to carry four — four! Even Target’s press release seemed surprised — different deluxe versions of Lover.
Taken together, that means only a few hermits won’t run into Lover somehow. And this marketing blitzkrieg is not unusual for Swift, the only artist in history to sell over a million album-equivalent units during debut week on four separate occasions (Speak Now, Red, 1989, Reputation). Her fans are of an old model: ready to purchase whatever she’s selling at a moment’s notice. Only three other artists have managed more than one million-selling opening, and they all did it when the CD market was at its frothiest: Eminem (The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show), ‘NSync (Celebrity, No Strings Attached) and the Backstreet Boys (Black & Blue, Millennium).
Such numbers are nearly incomprehensible now. Eilish and A Boogie wit da Hoodie both topped the chart this year with less than 65,000 album-equivalent units. Though that wasn’t during their debut weeks, it’s more evidence that the pull-artists are on the rise. But Swift will still push her way to another Number One, the last titan standing in a brand new world.