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2017-09-03 19:41:02
Now on Stage: The Countdown to a New Taylor Swift Album

For the music industry, the rollout of a new Taylor Swift album is always a master class in marketing, and the release of “Look What You Made Me Do,” the first single, is a case in point.

Even before the song came out late last month, the mere fact that Ms. Swift had wiped her social media accounts clean — a “watch this space” signal — was covered as major entertainment news. Once out, the single instantly broke streaming records on Spotify and YouTube, while fans clogged Twitter to decode the celebrity score-settling in its lyrics. All the noise seemed to guarantee a big splash for the album, “Reputation,” due Nov. 10.

Yet in the three years since Ms. Swift’s last album, the music industry has changed so drastically that much of the old playbook no longer applies. Like Adele, whose 2015 album “25” reached sales peaks that the industry had long since given up on, or Beyoncé, whose every public gesture is scrutinized in detail, Ms. Swift, 27, can turn any release into a pop-culture phenomenon and a referendum on the state of the business. But what counts as a hit when all the traditional goal posts keep moving?

In 2014, when Ms. Swift released her last album, “1989,” streaming accounted for only 23 percent of music consumption in the United States, according to Nielsen, and it was still seen as unproven format. Ms. Swift snubbed Spotify as a “grand experiment” with unappealing economics, and “1989” sold 1,287,000 copies in its first week, better than any album in the previous 12 years.

Now, streaming is 63 percent of the market, and the success of subscription platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have turned the fortunes of the entire industry around. Last week, shares of the French media conglomerate Vivendi rose after Goldman Sachs valued Universal Music, a Vivendi division, at $23 billion, almost triple the size of a takeover bid four years ago.

But with streaming on the rise, sales of CDs and downloads — the most lucrative formats — are plunging fast. So far in 2017, the market for single-track downloads is down almost half of what it was three years ago. The question lingering over the industry is whether Ms. Swift can match her last sales number, and how.

“For the right artist, there is gigantic demand out there,” said David Bakula, a senior analyst at Nielsen. “But in order to reach that same level of success, there are different levers today to push and pull than there were the last time.”

For Ms. Swift, those levers this time around will include partnerships with UPS, whose trucks will be decorated with her face, and Target, which will carry special editions of the album featuring print magazines containing, among other things, Ms. Swift’s poetry and artwork. (Target was also a major outlet for “1989” and Adele’s “25.”)

On Sunday, Ms. Swift released another new song, “... Ready for It?,” after first offering a preview during ESPN’s broadcast of the Alabama-Florida State college football game on Saturday night.

What has gotten the most attention, positive and negative, is Ms. Swift’s use of Verified Fan, a Ticketmaster system intended to identify dedicated fans and weed out bots and scalpers from high-demand ticket offerings.

Last week, Bruce Springsteen used it on the first day of sales for his Broadway run, and even with plenty of frustrated tweets from unlucky fans, the results suggested a far less chaotic process than what has become the norm in a market plagued by online interference.

Ms. Swift is using Verified Fan for a new tour, but Ticketmaster also customized the system for her, tying music and merchandise sales to ticket access. The more goods fans purchase — and the more free “boost activities” they engage in, like watching videos and posting messages online — the further those fans will advance in a digital line for tickets.

Some commentators accused Ms. Swift of exploiting her fans’ loyalty to sell more goods, prompting her organization to defend the program as one that defeats scalpers by recognizing “things her fans are already doing.”

“If these same tickets were offered on the open market, scalpers would snatch them up and fans would be paying thousands of dollars for them,” a representative for Ms. Swift said in a statement. “This is a program that rewards fans for being fans and makes sure they get great tickets at face value.”

Whether other artists can learn anything from this, however, is another question. The pop world is split between superstars who write their own rules — like Ms. Swift, Beyoncé and Drake — and everybody else. The comparison extends to their fans: Only a handful of stars can command the kind of loyalty that makes their fans go to such lengths, said George Howard, an associate professor of music business and management at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“Other artists will assume that they will be able to adapt or clone this approach to similar effect,” Professor Howard said. “It won’t happen. A large part of what Taylor Swift is able to do relies on her being Taylor Swift — she can do what others cannot.”

It may take years for the music market to evolve to the point where novel techniques like Ms. Swift’s use of Verified Fan could be used by non-superstar artists, said Professor Howard, who pointed to Radiohead’s pay-what-you-wish experiment for its 2007 album “In Rainbows.” That plan was debated for years but is now common on indie-music sites like Bandcamp.

Another question is whether Ms. Swift’s new album will be available on Spotify. Three years ago, she publicly feuded with the company, apparently over its policy of making all music available even to nonpaying users; she pulled music from the platform and did not reinstate it until June.

She has given no indications of her plans for “Reputation.” But Universal Music, the company that distributes the music on her label, Big Machine, renegotiated its licensing deal with Spotify this year; the arrangement gives Universal the right to restrict new music to Spotify’s paid tier for two weeks, a plan that might well appeal to Ms. Swift.

Adele withheld “25” from streaming services for seven months, and in its first week it sold 3.38 million copies in the United States, the largest opening for any album since Nielsen began tracking sales information in 1991.

“Look What You Made Me Do,” which has a darker sound and approach — and makes surprising and perhaps puzzling use of Right Said Fred’s 1991 novelty hit “I’m Too Sexy” — has received a mixed response from critics. But within 24 hours, it had 10.1 million streams around the world on Spotify, a record, and it was immediately put into heavy rotation on pop radio.

This early in the campaign, most music analysts were loath to make sales predictions for “Reputation,” and it is not expected to match the staggering sales numbers for “25.” But several said they did not doubt her ability to match the opening-week sales of “1989.”

It remains to be seen whether the marketing rollout for “Reputation” can create a frenzy of demand that maximizes album sales amid the larger tilt toward streaming. But in her ability to simply seize the attention of the culture, and of the industry at large, Ms. Swift has already succeeded.

“Whether you like the song or not,” said Lenny Beer, the editor of Hits, an industry news and gossip publication, “you know the song is there. Everybody is talking about her.”