Garth Brooks & Taylor Swift: A Study in Country Contrasts

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Garth Brooks & Taylor Swift: A Study in Country Contrasts

It’s an interesting time in country music. The format’s biggest-selling star of the last decade, Taylor Swift (25 million albums sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan), has departed for pop music with her latest album, 1989. Meanwhile, Garth Brooks, who has sold more albums than any artist, country or otherwise, since SoundScan pioneered tracking sales in 1991 (69.8 million), is back with his first studio album in 13 years, Man Against Machine.

(Perspective check: Brooks first charted in March 1989. Swift was born that December.)

Brooks’ return, however, has been greeted with a fairly lukewarm reception, as the album debuts at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 with 130,000 copies sold in the week ending Nov. 16. Still, it starts as his 14th No. 1 on Top Country Albums. On the big chart, it’s far behind 1989, which spends a third week at No. 1, selling 312,000.

Brooks is able to capture the top slot on Top Country Albums since 1989 is a decidedly pop project, and thus doesn’t qualify for the genre survey. All of Brooks’ studio projects have reached No. 1 on Top Country Albums except for his self-titled debut, which peaked at No. 2 in 1990.

(Dating to Brooks’ first week at No. 1 on Top Country Albums, with his iconic 41-week leader No Fences, Brooks has spent 161 weeks at the summit, easily the top total. Shania Twain ranks second with 96. In third place? Swift, with, fittingly, 89.)

Despite its instant No. 1 status, the new album earns Brooks his softest start for a studio album in the SoundScan era. He logged his previous low when Ropin’ the Wind bowed at No. 1 with 300,000 in 1991. (If one counts Brooks’ adventurous 1999 alter-ego release In… the Life of Chris Gaines as a studio project, then that garnered his lowest launch until this week: 262,000.)

So, what happened with Man Against Machine? Well, if an act has essentially been off the market for more than a decade, it’s hard to lure new fans to the fold. Secondly, the album’s first single, “People Loving People,” didn’t set radio on fire, as it peaked at No. 19 on Country Airplay. Brooks hasn’t notched a top 10 airplay hit since 2007’s No. 1 “More Than a Memory” (which stands as the only song ever to debut atop the list).

Lastly, Brooks’ near-complete absence from social networks and digital retail services has lowered his visibility over the past decade. He joined Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at last on Nov. 11, while his catalog continues to be absent from all but one digital retailer. The lone digital service with Brooks’ music is his own GhostTunes … and the retailer did not report sales of his album to SoundScan.

It’s only a week in, and Brooks’ new single, ballad “Mom,” has just gone to country radio, but at the moment, Swift is ruling pop with 1989 — while Brooks is hoping to return to the steep country heights that he began reaching that same year.


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