How would the music-listening public immediately respond to one of the steadiest pop stars of the 21st century throwing out her old playbook and releasing a muted collection of gauzy pop ballads and folky acoustic narratives with less than 24 hours’ notice? Quite well, it turns out: Taylor Swift’s Folklore debuted with a massive 846,000 in first-week album equivalent units, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data, easily the biggest single week for any album in 2020.
Still, that was just the first week. For an artist as well-known as Swift making such a dramatic left turn, you could probably guess that a large chunk of that opening number came from sheer listener curiosity, as news of the album’s impending release spread rapidly through a nation still mostly under quarantine.
“Surprise records seem to bring in a wider amount of people than traditional rollouts,” a source at Apple Music tells Billboard. “They event-ize releases and people tend to want to be part of those events.” But perhaps as the shock of the new and unexpected wore off, it would recede from blockbuster status, as listeners would turn back to albums that were more traditionally streaming-friendly than a greyscale singer-songwriter set.
Instead, six weeks into its release, Folklore continues to hold uninterrupted atop the Billboard 200 albums chart. The reign is not only the longest for a Swift album since 2014’s 1989 held the top spot for 11 non-consecutive weeks, it’s the longest stretch for any album since Drake’s Views spent 13 weeks at No. 1 in 2016. That’s a stunning run for any album, let alone one that lists indie-folk paragons Aaron Dessner of The National and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as some of its primary collaborators.
So how has Folklore managed to hold onto that number one spot longer than any album since we had a different president? Well, timing certainly helps, as does a lack of major competition from subsequent new releases. In the five weeks following Folklore’s gigantic debut, not a single new set has been released that has moved 100,000 such units in a week — a mark that Folklore itself cleared in each of its first four frames. The closest competition Swift has received for the No. 1 spot since its debut has come from posthumous albums dropped weeks before her latest: Pop Smoke’s Shoot For the Stars Aim For the Moon and Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die, which between them have collectively held the Nos. 2 and 3 spots on the Billboard 200 in some order for the past five weeks.
Compare that level of competition to that challengers faced by Taylor Swift’s previous set, 2019’s Lover, which reigned for just one week atop the Billboard 200. In the two weeks following that set’s debut week, Lover came up against highly anticipated new albums from Tool (Fear Innoculum) and Post Malone (Hollywood’s Bleeding). Both of those LPs moved over a quarter-million equivalent album units in their debut weeks — and indeed, if Folklore had carried its performance to Lover’s release schedule, it would’ve also managed just one week at No. 1.
However, it’s not just good timing that’s kept Folklore at No. 1: In its last three weeks atop the chart, the album is also solidly outperforming how Lover was doing at this point in their respective release schedules. Folklore has moved 101,000, 98,000 and 90,000 equivalent album units in its fourth, fifth and sixth weeks of release, where by comparison, Lover notched 79,000, 65,000 and 57,000 units in its fourth through sixth frames. (Swift’s 2017 set Reputation boasted stronger numbers than both in its fourth through sixth weeks, helped in large part by that period running into the holiday sales season.)
Also, while Folklore hasn’t seen the same level of new-release competition that Lover has, it’s hardly been the only album released by a major artist over the past month-plus, as new projects have been dropped by Katy Perry, Nas, The Killers and Luke Bryan over that period — all artists who have scored No. 1 albums in the last decade. “Artists continue to release music and their fans are still clamoring for it,” Marian Dicus, vp, global co-head of music at Spotify says. “To state that Folklore’s success is due to a lack of other releases is underselling Taylor’s ability to write songs for the moment, and to connect with her fanbase.”
Part of the set’s endurance can also be attributed to savvy promotion from Swift and her team. While Swift skipped the extended rollout prior to the album’s release with Folklore, she’s taken a page from many of the most successful artists in 2020 and shifted her focus to keeping the set’s momentum going after its release. That’s included waiting until the set’s third week of release to sell its physical version in stores, unveiling a deluxe edition on streaming services with a new bonus track (“The Lakes”) in its fourth week, and organizing new thematic “chapters” from the set’s songs to then be further advertised on streaming services in its fifth week.
All of these tactics have helped keep interest and consumption of the album up, and prevented her totals from falling as dramatically as they might have otherwise. “Taylor always has a strong creative vision and connects deeply with her fans,” Dicus says. “As she has with her previous releases, she continues to lean into utilizing all of our available tools to bring her fans into her creative world.”
Of course, it would also be myopic to deny one of the simplest explanations when accounting for Folklore’s continued excellent performance: People really, really like the album. It’s Swift’s most acclaimed set to date, notching not only her highest critical score (88) on review-aggregating site Metacritic, but also by far her highest user score (9.2) as well. (The combination of critical and fan enthusiasm for the set has even taken some dark turns, with the few critics who’ve been tempered in their praise risking extreme online harassment.) Billboard’s Paul Grein wrote this week about the strong chances of Folklore to score Swift her third album prize of the year at this year’s Grammys. Response to Folklore as a full album that’s more than the sum of its tracks has been resounding enough that the set has been able to buck some of the extreme trends that normally befall surprise albums on streaming services.
“There is usually a drop off for albums in general as fans gravitate around their favorite songs. Surprise records tend to drop further because they had more initial listeners and more touristic ones,” the Apple Music source tells Billboard, before confirming that “Folklore in particular has been very durable. Quality wins out in the end, and this is really good record that sounds great as a whole — and listeners are still engaging with it that way.”