Riddle me this: The record album is supposed to be dead as a doornail, safely laid away in the grave, with the last rites proclaimed by blogger Bob Lefsetz. The opinion that download singles now rule became the new conventional wisdom. The top-selling album on last week’s Billboard 200 chart was Mumford & Sons’ Babel, at 96,000 copies that week. Topping the country albums chart was Little Big Town’s Tornado, which sold 23,000 copies.
But this week is a different story. Taylor Swift’s Red album is on a safely predictable track to sell a million copies this week. Jason Aldean’s Night Train just moved over 400,000 copies in its first week of release. That’s his biggest sales week ever. Red sold more than 262,000 copies the first day alone. And it is not available on Spotify, Rhapsody or other streaming services.
The previous big album noise this year came from the folk music group Mumford & Sons, who recently sold 600,000 Babel albums in their first release week. That was the best first week for any artist this year. Mumford now have sales of over 900,000 albums.
What the hell is going on?
It just proves all over again what has been said about the movie industry for decades: Nobody knows anything about anything.
Maybe it’s just as simple as this: If you give the people what they want, they will buy it. Or, I suspect, if you give the public what they have been unconsciously needing and seeking, they will snap it up.
Taylor Swift: She weaves believable and desirable teen fantasies of romance and love and heartbreak and breakup and revenge. It’s the soundtrack for an imaginary The Real Nashville Chicks TV show.
Jason Aldean: A gritty country image and strong vocals with believable songs and lyrics, backed by a very credible and talented rock band. Like it or not, this sound is and will be the sound of mainstream country music — read mainstream country radio music — for some time to come.
Mumford & Sons: The return of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary and the Limeliters. A throwback to the golden age of modern folk music and the era of the Newport Folk Festival.
Swift’s and Aldean’s and Mumford’s sales numbers, are, admittedly, anomalies in these days of singles downloads. Nonetheless, these numbers exist as genuine.
If you give the Billboard 200 and Country Album and Folk Album charts a close study, you will see some pretty sickly numbers overall. Remember, it wasn’t all that many years ago those six-figure releases were pretty common. Look at the charts today.
Obviously not everybody lives for disposable singles to download and carry around and listen to until they burn out on them. Do you want three minutes of Katy Perry or 40 minutes or so of Taylor Swift or Miranda Lambert? That’s a clear choice that many people are making. Taylor may be heading down that Katy Perry road with many of the songs on Red, but for the immediate timeline, she is still carrying her country audience. Which still buys albums. I still buy albums.
And I’ve seen some recent studies that conclude that a lot of people are tiring of DRM and are going back to CDs.
Another riddle is this: Are these three albums seriously considered to be country music albums?
I think they are. You can argue all day that country should only be in the traditional Hank Williams or Patsy Cline mode. But those two were as different as Jason Aldean and Taylor Swift. Hank was traditional honky-tonk and Patsy was smooth country pop. But country audiences loved both of them. And the same goes today for Aldean’s more metallic country rock and Swift’s popish teen commentaries.
And the Mumfords certainly carry on the folk-country traditions. Woody Guthrie — although some powerful country music people don’t agree with me — should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame for such songs as “This Land is Your Land” and “Philadelphia Lawyer.” Folk and country and bluegrass are so intertwined that there really should be no differentiation between them.
I think a lot of people, young as well as old, still like the album format. They like being able to sit down with a favorite or new artist or group and listening through a set of songs and reading the credits and the liner notes and experiencing what the artist hoped they would experience.
I think that there are enough maverick listeners out there who want to hear what they want to hear.
Chet Flippo is Editorial Director for CMT/CMT.com. This NASHVILLE SKYLINE column first appeared on CMT.com.