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Taylor Swift’s take on the surprise album

by Yuvthi Misser

Taylor Swift’s Folklore is the emotional quarantine surprise album of the year. How did the surprise album tactic work for the pop star who has relied heavily on the traditional album rollout?

Taylor Swift, 30, has established herself as a household name - having now received a whopping ten Grammy awards from 41 nominations. She is no stranger to booming success and until recently the pop-star has relied on the traditional promotional playbook in garnering that success. The traditional album rollout includes the announcement and release of a promo single, the first single with a highly stylised music video and multiple performances at award and television shows. This formula repeated with the second and third singles before an album is released. This is coupled up with countless television, radio and magazine interviews and covers. This formula has proved immensely successful for Swift's previous albums, Red (2012) and 1989 (2014).

The growth of social media has also been beneficial in the promotional game and Swift has utilised it perfectly. For instance, back in 2017, before the announcement of her Reputation era, Swift cleared her Instagram and started posting enticing teasers of snakes. After fans were reignited with passion and love for her, Swift now controlled how the media should engage with her new album. This, according to an article from Forbes by Hugh Mcintyre, showed just how powerful Taylor Swift is and how she controlled the promotion and advertising of her album (well at least her team did.)

[Taylor Swift at the NME Awards 2019, holding an NME award. Photo: Taylor Swift @taylorswift13 via Instagram]

Through the traditional route of promoting albums and singles, artists gain traction and excitement towards their music come time of their album release. However, her Reputation (2017) and Lover (2019) eras proved to be less commercially and critically successful, even being shut out of the general field categories and being relegated to the Best Pop Vocal Album category on both occasions. However, it did highlight Swift’s staying power by utilising the adoration from her fans in gaining album success, no matter what she does.

This is why when Swift decided to go against the grain and released a surprise album with no advertisement or promotion, it shocked the internet. On July 23 2020, Swift tweeted that the surprise album, titled Folklore, would be released at midnight. The tweet also entailed that she had poured “all of [her] whims, dreams, fears and musings,” into the album, which instantly floored her fans due to her silence during the COVID-19 lockdown.

[Taylor’s tweet detailing the release of Folklore, her eighth studio album. Photo: Taylor Swift @taylorswift13 via Twitter.]

But why a surprise album for Swift who has relied oh so heavily on promotion and marketing? Over the years, the art of the surprise album has become a growing trend amongst musicians. Rachel Finn of DIY explained that the surprise album allows for easily flowing creativity for the artist, allowing them to control the way their music is received and “[to] let the music speak for itself.”

In December of 2013, Beyoncé had released her surprise, self-titled album which resulted in the iTunes store crashing and an internet meltdown. The album was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. Beyoncé sold 80,000 units in three hours, a total of 430,000 digital copies within 24 hours and over 616,000 albums over a three day period. Beyoncé debuted number one on the Billboard 200 with the highest debut sales week by a female in 2013 and of her solo career. After the overwhelming success of Beyoncé, she later released another surprise album entitled Everything Is Love (2018) with her husband, Jay Z, forming the duo known as The Carters.

[Beyoncé’s self-titled album cover, her name in pink letters against a black background. Photo via Pinterest]

Kamikaze (2018) by Eminem is another example of a surprise album that was received well by the public, giving him the pleasure of being the artist with the highest album sales in the year of 2018. So it is only fitting that an iconic artist like Taylor Swift would hop on the train of surprise albums.

[The album cover for Kamikaze (2018) by Eminem, depicting a Kamikaze plane with the words “Kamikaze” written on the back, along with FU-2 and TIKCUS. Photo via Pinterest]

In a time where there is not much to do due to lockdown regulations, Swift chose a seemingly opportune time for artists to write and record but what some may consider the inopportune time to release Folklore. The release proved to be worthwhile with her fans eagerly awaiting the release of her eighth studio album. Accompanying the release of Folklore was the music video for its first single, Cardigan. This anticipation allegedly caused Spotify and Apple Music to crash for a few minutes just after Folklore’s release.

Swift went on to explain that during her time of waiting around for the pandemic to end, she had written and recorded Folklore in her home as she was forced to deal with her vulnerability in private. The style of the album was very different from her previous album, Lover. Folklore had tones of alternative and folk music. The indie album is considered by many the most emotionally raw Swift has ever been in her music and there was no doubt that her listeners were taken aback.

[A still from the Cardigan music video that accompanied the release of the album. Depicting Swift opening the cover a piano and peering into a glowing soundboard. Photo: Taylor Swift @taylorswift13 via Twitter]

Folklore has set new records with being the first album to spend six weeks at number one on the Billboard 200 in four years and proved that Taylor Swift is a master of music, embracing different genres over the years. Immediately after its release, the indie album became one of the most critically-acclaimed of 2020. The reasons as to why the pop star released a surprise album were not for the sales or shock but because she felt that the uncertainty that she feels at this time is overwhelming and her gut was telling her that, “if you make something you love, you should just put it out into the world. That’s the side of uncertainty I can get on board with.”

[Folklore’s tracklist, depicting Taylor Swift in black and white in an open field. Photo: Taylor Swift @taylorswift13 via Twitter]

Folklore adds another string of success for the singer-songwriter and provides a comfortingly emotional album for quarantine listeners. Swift had benefited from the publicity and creative freedom that she has garnered with the surprise album, resulting in a record number of sales, streams and now five new Grammy nominations for the record. The singer has proven herself a master of her craft and Folklore another iconic album for the singer-songwriter.

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