Morgan Wallen’s Dominance Strategy? Really great albums

Morgan Wallen’s “One Thing at a Time” is an 18-reel album, with 36 songs running a total of nearly two hours. This more is more formula could make it one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.

The album, released on Friday and Mr. Wallen’s first since a public scandal in early 2021, has posted the biggest first-week numbers of 2023, according to preliminary data from Luminate. “One Thing at a Time” is expected to top the Billboard 200 chart, fueled by a projected 450 million US streams, according to industry publication Hits Daily Double. (By comparison, Taylor Swift’s 20-track “Midnights” garnered 550 million streams in its first week.) If Mr. Wallen, a 29-year-old from East Tennessee, lands at least 28 songs on the Hot 100 singles chart, he will set a new record.

His high presence on the music charts reflects the popularity of his music—a stylish mix of classic country singer, rock guitar, and hip-hop or trap. In recent years, Mr. Wallen has become one of the most important young stars in pop music, breaking out with cool hit singles (“7 Summers”) and compelling album tracks (“Me on Whiskey”). But its streaming success is also the result of a music release strategy that more artists, especially in hip-hop, are adopting as they try to keep up with changes in how Billboard measures music listening in the streaming era.

Morgan Wallen and his mother Lesli Wallen arrive to attend the 2022 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

The thinking is simple: Fans who hear an album for the first time are likely to listen to it all the way through, so artists should give them more songs when they can. It’s a strategy borrowed from the playbook of hip-hop stars and has caught on with pop phenoms like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Lana Del Rey. Long tracklists don’t just boost first-week numbers, they keep the streams coming — and keep the album higher on the charts — if the album proves popular.


Like many artists, Mr. Wallen amassed a trove of songs during the pandemic, which largely explains why his 2021 album “Dangerous: The Double Album” ended up with 30 tracks. But his team also noticed the streaming successes of major albums, such as Drake’s 25-track “Scorpion,” which currently holds the Billboard Hot 100 chart record for most simultaneous song placements.

“Seeing someone as big as Drake — arguably the biggest artist on the planet — put out a track list like that definitely made me ask questions,” says Seth England, Mr. Wallen’s manager and CEO of Big Loud Records, his label. artist.

“As it turned out, with the modern rules, there was definitely a strategy to have longer track lists,” says Mr England. Mr. Wallen declined to be interviewed.

Morgan Wallen attends the 56th Annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., November 9, 2022. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

Mr. Wallen’s streaming feats would not have been possible a decade ago, when the charts counted only album purchases. In late 2014, the Billboard 200 chart began to include streaming numbers in addition to sales. Prior to 2009, a title like “Dangerous” would have been removed from the chart based on its age.

Keith Caulfield, managing director of charts and data operations at Billboard magazine, says these changes are helping some well-flowing artists dominate the charts in a way they couldn’t before. “The graph itself is tabulated in such a way that longer runs are being constructed now,” he says.


“Dangerous” was a huge commercial success, eventually spending 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Then a video of Mr. Wallen making a racial slur went viral. Big Loud Records suspended his record deal and radio stations and streaming services temporarily stopped promoting his music. Despite the blow to Mr. Wallen’s public image, “Dangerous” became the most popular US album of 2021 across all genres, according to Luminate. It has logged more weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 (109 weeks) than any single-track album in the chart’s history, dating back to March 1956. (Only the cast recording of the musical “My Fair Lady,” since 1956, it has 10 more weeks.)

Mr. Wallen apologized after the scandal in 2021. While his reputation hasn’t fully recovered, the music industry—radio, streaming, concert promoters—has embraced him again, and country music fans have stood by him.

Morgan Wallen performs during the first day of the 2022 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

Having so many tracks on an album only works if people like the music, says Mr England. He addresses the criticism that Mr. Wallen’s success is based on quantity alone. “There’s really a lot more to it than that,” he says.

With “One Thing at a Time,” Mr. Wallen again had rich material. “Morgan is a very active songwriter” who writes on tour, says his producer Joey Moi. Industry songwriters, meanwhile, were bombarding him with songs, hoping to get them on his record. Mr. Wallen’s team decided to go the 30+ route again. Actually, the album could have been longer. Starting with about 100 songs, Mr. Wallen and his team whittled the album down to 42 tracks before settling on 36 songs.


Mr. England sees “One Thing at a Time” as what he calls a “reverse deluxe” album. Many artists these days release an album and then follow it up with a deluxe edition containing more tracks, another charting strategy. Mr. Wallen does it all at once.

“People now look to Morgan Wallen’s albums — those long track lists — as the preferred country jukebox,” he says.

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