Taylor Swift is the voice— or to paraphrase her new pal Lena Dunham’s “Girl’s” character— a voice of her musical generation. That explains why The Wall Street Journal asked her to pen an op-ed piece for its “The Future Of Everything” edition, which heralds the paper’s 125 anniversary.
In her well-thought out, very informed editorial, the 24-year old superstar explains why she is an “enthusiastic optimist,” who believes the music industry is “just coming alive,” despite all evidence to the contrary.
Much of what Swift puts forward is factual: Digital downloads now account for 40% of music revenue, physical sales of CDs for 35% (for as much as every one says CDs are dead, they are still a significant factor..for now), and streaming and subscription make up 21% of revenue. Music industry revenue was $7 billion in 2013, down from $15 billion in 2003.
Here are the seven most interesting things Swift says in her WSJ piece and why I disagree with her on a number of them.
“There are many (many) people who predict the downfall of music sales and the irrelevancy of the album as an economic entity. I am not one of them”: The facts are irrefutable on that one. While the album is not going away anytime soon, the world is increasingly becoming a singles-driven one. There will always be artists who make albums meant to be heard as a whole, but Apple changed consumer patterns for good with the birth of iTunes. Once iTunes made it possible for buyers to cherry pick singles instead of having to purchase a full album, there was no going back. The key part in Swift’s argument is “as an economic entity.” It will remain an artistic entity for many artists, but as an economic entity, it will continue to decline.
“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for”: Bravo. At some point, whether it’s through an act of Congress or other means (and it’s looking more likely to be through Congress), sufficient royalty rates for songwriters and artists will have to be established for streaming services. Right now, they’re all over the place with no consistent formula. Napster somehow created the idea that it’s okay to steal music and even though many people don’t feel that way anymore, they still have no problem using a streaming service that pays the music’s creators a scandalously small royalty. With streaming on the rise—up 42% over last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan— and downloading and physical sales on the continued decline, this is an issue that needs a quick solution. (It should be noted that while Swift does not give her music away, she is on a number of streaming services, like Spotify, which listeners can use for free.)
“[People] are buying only the [albums] that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren't alone in feeling so alone. It isn't as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album, and as artists, that should challenge and motivate us”: Yes and no. What we are increasingly seeing are artists who simply don’t need to be— and shouldn’t be— album artists. They may have a single or two or three or four in them, but their talent isn’t in crafting a full album, it's in crafting hit singles. Swift still has something to say and she says it in album form (even though she has very high digital single sales, as well). Her fans are invested in her, just as Adele’s fans are, and they want to hear what she has to say, every word of it. Not every artist has that much to say.
“Some artists will be like finding "the one." We will cherish every album they put out until they retire…I think the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond, the one my father has with the Beach Boys and the one my mother has with Carly Simon”: Hmmm. I wonder what’s the last Beach Boys album her father bought? What about her mom and Carly Simon? At some point, most fans, even lifelong ones, stop showing interest in an artist’s new music and just go back to their favorite albums in the artist's catalog. But they do continue to support that artist and show their loyalty when it comes to seeing him/her in concert. And they use the performance of the new material as a chance to go to the bathroom.
“Forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise. No, I did not say "shock"; I said ‘surprise’.” Is this Tay Tay’s little dig at artists like Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga, both of whom continually up the shock value?
“In the YouTube generation we live in, I walked out onstage every night of my stadium tour last year knowing almost every fan had already seen the show online. To continue to show them something they had never seen before, I brought out dozens of special guest performers to sing their hits with me.” And this, my friends, is why Taylor Swift is so successful. In a way that few artists have ever harnessed as well, she understands the power of social media. When her first album came out in 2006, she blogged and had long conversations with fans via MySpace while on her tour bus. Once Twitter came along, there was no stopping her. She understands how to make each show a unique event without overdoing it on the hype. The tour before this, she wrote lyrics from one of her favorite songs on her arm every night. Brilliant-- for both her and the artist she endorsed. This tour, she had guests. She knows she has to keep fans interested and it can be by simple as small as a few lyrics on her arm… and a strong, good, live show.
“There are a few things I have witnessed becoming obsolete in the past few years, the first being autographs… The only memento "kids these days" want is a selfie”: Fascinating info for marketers. I don’t know anyone under 21 who would even consider asking for an autograph. A selfie shows fans' proximity to the artist in a way that an autograph can’t and feeds into the narcissistic needs to chronicle every moment. Proof of the one-on-one moment that can then be shared with the world is the coin of the realm.