I always assumed Taylor Swift was just a bubbly, doe-eyed pop star with an oddly large amount of 30-something fans.
Then I read this quote: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”
The quote, from an interview Swift did in The Wall Street Journal last year, got new life this week when Swift’s label Big Machine Music pulled her catalog from the digital streaming service Spotify and set off massive debate about the value of recording artists and the future of the industry.
It’s a topic I wrote about earlier this year. “The coming challenge for record labels and musicians,” I wrote, “will be convincing listeners that “music is worth more than a monthly subscription fee.”
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Swift’s tactic seems to be offer them no other choice.
It is law of scarcity in practice.
Swift just released her latest album “1989” as a full-length CD — the kind you can buy at Target, where she in fact has an exclusive distribution deal. It comes in a jewel case, with a 20-page slick booklet of lyrics and liner notes, plus a series of faux Polaroids and a retail price of $9.99. If you want to hear it, you have to buy it.
And people have. The album sold 1.287 million copies in its first week — the biggest debut of an album since 2002.
Of course Swift is a rarity and more valuable (to streaming sites like Spotify, at least) than most artists. For most bands, Spotify has replaced iTunes as the ultimate mark of legitimacy (iTunes replaced CDs, which replaced cassette tapes, etc.). I was giddy to discover my band was finally available on the service. For those musicians who have no chance at selling 10,000 copies of an album, much less 1 million, Spotify (and other streaming services) offer a leveled playing field. That is attractive, regardless of the payouts, which in the case of Spotify amounts to percents of a penny on each play.
Most music critics agree that Swift’s gesture is symbolic at best.
Still, it is important. Artists have long criticized these streaming services for unfair payment practices. Some — Radiohead singer Thom Yorke most vocally — have railed against the system and removed their work from sites like Spotify altogether.
Radiohead may have critical acclaim and clout within a certain crowd, but they are still underground compared to the pop-culture powerhouse of Swift. Spotify tried to woo her back via social media.
It’s not clear if other big-named artists will follow Swift’s lead. But her move progressed the conversation. Singer Aloe Blaac spoke out against what he sees as streaming services undervaluing the value of songwriter in the marketplace in an article on www.wired.com this week. He pointed out that 1 million digital streams earns around $90 on Pandora — the other big music streaming service. That’s often split between songwriter and publishers.
“If songwriters cannot afford to make music, who will?” he wrote.
Swift’s strike against streaming services has another, larger implication, because she is the Millennial personified. She’s is an artist very much of (and in touch with) her generation. It’s the theme of her album.
One hopes others in her generation are paying attention.
Streaming services could (and should) pay artists more, but at the end of the day, they are just the delivery system. It is not Spotify killing the music industry (as some have claimed); it’s the fans.
So, I’ll quote Swift again and ask that if you find any hint of truth in her words, you go download a track by your favorite artist. Buy a CD or a record. Go see a live performance.
Pay a musician for their work.
“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.”