The Undeniable Hypocrisy of the Apple-Swift Saga

Image courtesy of Mirror

Image courtesy of Mirror

The Background

With Taylor Swift’s cleanup at the Grammys this year and attention over her misleading “victory” over Apple—and her subsequent partnership with the company—having waned (if not faded) over the last half year, it seems to be the appropriate time now to dissect what the fuck really happened back in July of last summer. Prior to the past few months when things seemed to have boiled down to a low simmer (focused mostly on SoundCloud and Spotify), the music news arena was blowing up over Taylor Swift’s push-back against Apple. Her open letter criticizing Apple, and subsequent statement that she would be boycotting the new music service—as she had done with Spotify—made it easy for the media to paint her as a martyr for “artists’ rights.” But that’s not the whole story. Not nearly.

When Apple announced early in June of 2015 that its new music service, aptly titled Apple Music, would not be compensating artists with royalties during the first three months of a user’s free trial period, there was significant push-back before Swift even got her letter out the door. The announcement was panned by the general music community, as well as by both artists within the mainstream paradigm, and the broad base of independents. When Apple retracted the statement and replaced it with a “fine, we’ll pay artists for the three-month trial period,” artists felt that they had won a major victory against the tech giant. Many even felt that Swift spoke up for them and that they benefited from her desire to help the general music community. Here’s why that’s wrong.

A Misleading “Victory”

Numerous sources reported on Apple’s recanting and Swift’s “victory,” from TechCrunch to Forbes to Mashable. But it wasn’t that at all. The retraction by Apple was telling of a much larger trend at play (and frankly, a much larger problem for independent artists which they should be focusing on). Swift made the same stink that she did when she “broke up” with Spotify, drawing on arguments like “artists shouldn’t give anything away for free” and her favorite “art needs to be rare to be valuable.” Soon after, Apple caved and said artists would be paid, and everything ended happily ever after.

Not.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Swift that artists shouldn’t have to give away their music for free if they don’t want to (as opposed to Swift’s catch-all “no free music ever/free music devalues your art” blah blah blah), I don’t think her motives are as angelic and altruistic as they might initially appear. People should be asking why exactly Swift made such a big fuss over this. Why? Because it really cuts into her bottom line. A bottom line that many of the independents she somewhat claims to “speak for” don’t have. Their economics are a very different reality from hers. Swift lives in a completely different universe, and no, as Matt Atkins wrote in a great Medium post , she is not an “independent artist.” Her signing to Big Machine Records makes her seem more independent than she really is; make sure you remember that she owns a huge stake in Big Machine, and that it’s distributed by Universal Music Group. So no, Swift doesn’t see it from the same perspective as that of an indie band in the garage in Ohio just trying to scrape by.

If an Independent Tried to Strong-arm Apple…

This doesn’t make Swift a bad person; it simply makes her human in looking out for her own best interests. At the time, that aligned with the best interests of the general music community. But people should not confuse happenstance with correlation.

Swift was able to strong-arm Apple into changing its position on paying royalties for the free trial period, and I commend her for that. But I can pretty much offer a dead guarantee that if it had been an independent artist who took to Twitter to complain (and many did, mind you) or write to Apple, nothing would happen. I’m not even sure they would receive a response email addressing their grievances. The fact that their position changed as a result of Swift’s vocal stance was a sheer coincidental benefit for the independent music community.

Artists who are not on Swift’s level (that is to say, most artists in the world) should be asking what could and would happen if and when their best interests don’t line up with hers. (Never mind the fact that Apple completely screwed up an independent artist’s entire catalogue upon Apple Music’s release). The moniker of Swift as “the Apple-Slayer” was nice and poetic, but all the more misleading. It painted Swift as the David to Apple’s Goliath, but that’s on a whole incorrect. Swift is just as much a Goliath as Apple is, and that’s precisely the reason that Apple caved to her in the first place. Had she been the David-level artist she parades around as (and which most independents actually are), she most likely would have been roundly ignored, as most independents usually are. When Apple caved, it was a good week for all artists. But what happens when Swift decides that what’s best for her is to choke the radio market and keep out other artists who might be stepping on her musical toes? I can’t imagine that she wants to give up any of her power.

It’s All About the Power

And that’s exactly what it’s about: the power. Swift has the power to turn heads and make things happen the way she wants. But that could be very bad for other up-and-coming artists. Swift, ironically, has become yet another gatekeeper, akin to the ones she so readily criticizes. She’s signed to an “independent” label which is distributed by one of the Big Three labels (Universal), and she has the clout to mobilize legions of fans (when she’s not suing them, I suppose).

But what about her whole “anti-free” mentality? That’s directly at odds with a lot of the thinking within the independent music community, where artists increasingly see their music as a means of marketing, rather than an end commodity for sale. What happens when push comes to shove and she’s on the other side of the fence from the much broader—but much more unknown—independent music community? She will still have the power to push her agenda, and they will simply be more obstacles in her way.

The reality is that no artist, of any caliber or genre, should have the power to dictate changes like that. At the time, it worked out for the better, but next time will be another story.

Subsequent Partnership

All of this made the announcement of Swift’s subsequent partnership with Apple more confusing, and in some ways, harder to swallow. After all the stones that were thrown, and all the press that was garnered (a calculated effort, I’m sure), the end result was somewhat anticlimactic. We were all ready for a super showdown of a major mainstream artist (yes, that’s what she is, live with reality) bucking the system and sending a message for musicians everywhere. What we got was…well…predictable.

As soon as Apple caved, so did Swift. She caved to using the service when it turned out that her open letter would get her exactly what she wanted. That sounds logical, except for the fact that she pretty much abandoned the “Apple-Slayer” independent gauntlet when she stopped focusing on how the new service would be for non-mainstream artists, and just said “ok.” In so few words, it seems that Swift was content to “take the money and run,” so to speak. Her victory really wasn’t a victory for anyone who wasn’t seeing massive streaming or airplay already anyway, so let’s not treat it as one.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Perhaps the most glaring result of Swift’s flirtatious battle with Apple, though, was the fallout over her own contracts. In the wake of her open letter, other types of creatives called her on her own hypocrisy, though this time, they weren’t musical artists: they were photographers. In an open letter of his own, professional photographer Jason Sheldon shined a light on Swift’s own hypocrisy in her company’s contracts with photographers at her shows. According to the Washington Post:

Swift’s management company, Firefly Entertainment, demands that photographers who shoot Swift’s concerts to do so on a “one-time-use” only basis and relinquish any rights to republish or sell their photos. Additionally, the contract states that Firefly has the “perpetual, worldwide right to use” the very same photographs in just about any way it sees fit, without compensating the photographer for their usage.

Wow, let’s just take a moment to let that sink in. Swift—the great “Apple-Slayer” and champion for artists’ rights and fair compensation—didn’t (doesn’t?) even feel that those same dynamics should apply when she’s the one who has to pay royalties. That’s pretty staggering.

As she wrote in her own Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Considering just how much Swift seems to think that “valuable art should not be free,” it’s fairly amazing that she doesn’t go out of her way to create the best working opportunities for other creatives. In fact, the only thing it does is make her an undeniable hypocrite. If she wants to sit on top of the mainstream and act in a holier-than-thou way, that’s fine, but she should at least be honest about it. She shouldn’t be parading around as some “champion for the independent artist” when clearly her actions say otherwise. It essentially negates everything she’s done to “bring attention to artists’ rights.”

Perhaps the most upsetting thing of all is that many were lulled into thinking that Swift is something that she’s not, including other artists, and independents in particular. This was akin to telling someone that they now had a spokesperson they could trust and count on to speak up louder than they could for their general rights, only to find out that person wasn’t nearly as altruistic as they initially appeared. Most frustratingly, though, it has the power to negate arguments made by others who really are looking to campaign for artists’ rights. Swift’s hypocrisy has the power to undermine other voices (ones who might not be as loud as hers), and to take the focus off the matters that need to be addressed.

(Legal) Iceberg Ahead

Even as the fallout from the Apple-Swift roiling seems to have unfolded months ago, so too was there something else on the horizon for Apple which spelled a different kind of trouble: monopoly. As the FTC subsequently sent out subpoenas to competing music services following its initial probe of Apple Music, attention began to focus again on the tech giant in a way that is less than flattering. The “war” which Spotify started last July with Apple seemed to spread to other areas of the collective music business conscience. Apple Music may not have been “doomed” as Tidal was (or seemed to be) upon its initial release, but it does have new things to take care of that other services don’t need to account for.

Perhaps the irony of the whole situation is that Apple’s legal issues regarding Apple Music really only surfaced after the service was announced and released. Inasmuch as Apple would like to pretend that it has enough money to push its way through to any opinion and finding that would benefit it, it still must contend with U.S. legal code, not to mention its own Terms of Service. Power and money notwithstanding, the outcome of the said legal issues won’t resolve super quickly.

In the End

In the end, the whole Apple-Swift saga that encompassed the end of last summer really wasn’t what people reported it to be. It won’t (and hasn’t) really resulted in a super-massive victory for independents beyond some news attention, and it actually served to highlight some dirty little secrets in Swift’s own business affairs. I don’t know if the saga is concluding or just in a lull itself, but I don’t think this “picture-royalty” thing is going to go away anytime soon. Now that the dam has broken, I bet we’re going to see many more creatives (photographers for sure) speaking up over the next year or so about their business experiences with Swift, and I don’t think they will all be positive.

As for Apple, it continues to chug ahead after the release of Apple Music, albeit in the shadow of the new FTC probes. Though the service boasts a few interesting features, few of them can really be described as “new” or “earthshaking.” While ex-BBC host and DJ  Zane Lowe likely made U.K. listeners happy on the new Beats 1 radio program, for us in the States he was a somewhat irrelevant “exclusive” for Apple to tout (simply because most Americans didn’t know who he was). If Apple really wants to set itself apart in the long term (10+ years), it’s really going to need to do better than a few exclusive names. I suppose we’ll see, but for the time being, the Apple-Swift saga has left a sour taste in my mouth that won’t be going away any time soon.

Taylor Swift Can’t Sue Me Yet

Last week, I posted an article detailing Taylor Swift’s statement that she intends on trademarking phrases from her most recent album 1989 like “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989.” I found the statement equally outrageous and unsurprising, as Swift seems intent on continuing to provide headlines in the wake of Swiftgate. [1] My disdain for this sort of play by Swift is fairly apparent.

Taylor Swift; Image courtesy: Getty Images for Moet & Chandon Astrid Stawlarz

Taylor Swift; Image courtesy: Getty Images for Moet & Chandon Astrid Stawlarz

But let’s back up for a moment. My disdain is not brought on by some anti-business philosophy or pro-starving-artist sentiments. That would make it super convoluted and essentially amorphous in meaning. It’s actually a lot simpler than that: my disdain is driven by how Swift’s actions are affecting her fans, and the subsequent results that may (and most likely will) occur. While I applaud Swift, and artists like her, for taking their business futures by the horns and seeking to transform themselves from solely artists into artists/business people, I do not agree with the way in which Swift is going about it. And apparently, neither do some of her fans.

Today, Buzzfeed reported that Swift’s lawyers began threatening Etsy sellers with legal action (which we all know is code for “we’re going to sue you the minute the ink dries”) if they didn’t take down products they were selling which referenced either Swift’s lyrics or music. Normally this would be a completely reasonable thing to request (though in this case, the “request” is actually a demand), except for 3 things:

  1. The respective Etsy sellers were selling one-off items, or just cobbled-together fan paraphernalia; hardly enough to either cause Swift any sort of economic hardship or make her any real money anyway
  2. Swift doesn’t own the trademarks yet
  3. Swift is biting the hand that feeds her (her fans), and appears happy to keep doing it

So let’s take these one at a time. Regarding point number one, we’re talking about little pieces of jewelry or candles with bits of Swift’s lyrics referenced—hardly enough to be of any real threat (or benefit) to her “empire.”

Number two, as is clearly spelled out in this Time article, in 2014 Swift merely applied for the trademarks she’s already aggressively protecting. That means she actually has no right to be sending letters with threats of legal action right now; at least not until the USPTO awards her ownership over her prospective trademarks. So, from a strictly legal point of view, Swift is very clearly jumping the gun on threats of any sort of trademark infringement lawsuit. [2] That means that this great song by progressive-metal artist Peculate is not only awesome, but completely legal (at least for the time being):

Now the last point, and actually the most important of the three: Swift is actively alienating her fanbase and leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of (possibly former) fans. Swift is so focused on protecting her (as of yet un-granted) trademarks that she is biting the hands that feed her. Let’s see what some of the Etsy sellers/Swift fans have to say:

One Etsy owner/fan said:

When we got the email that the trademark infringement occurred [(which, by the way, it hasn’t yet)], we were shocked…We were scared. We didn’t even make enough money for a lawyer…That same day, we saw that Taylor was attempting to trademark a variety of phrases trying to get them blocked from being sold. After seeing that, we grew a little angry and felt targeted by her camp. It didn’t seem like much of a coincidence anymore.

Another wrote:

Obviously an artist has a right to their art and people should respect that. But at the same time most people, like us, are trying to be respectful and contribute to the excitement that the artists brings into our lives. When that is taken away, it leaves us with a bitter taste in our mouths. It feels as though we don’t matter [to her.]

Swift’s actions will cost her very much in the long run, I believe. While it’s true that Swift is entitled to a share of any money made through sale of products that reference her material, I wonder if alienating her fans could possibly be worth the $1.60 she might receive in a one-time royalty. One commenter on the Buzzfeed article pointed out the reality that there is a ton of fan-made Harry Potter stuff floating around out there for sale, but J.K. Rowling doesn’t go around sending cease-and-desist letters to all those sellers.

Ironically, so many times in the music business, artists encourage fan art and expression; it helps them to build their brand and following. In fact, I see daily posts on my Twitter feed by the artists of fans’ work that they love. I’ve seen drawings of band members, bracelets and jewelry with the band name, and shirts with artists’ logos and lyrics all submitted by fans to the artists as away of showing their support. And so many times I find the artists so grateful for the allegiance and passion that they repost the pictures and encourage other fans to send in pictures. This is how you build a bridge to your fans.

In the music industry, it’s all about reputation: reputation amongst peers and reputation amongst fans. Few other things matter as much as those realities because those are the two realities that one can count on, particularly when things get tough. It can be a hard market, but if you’re an artist with a great reputation amongst peers, other artists will continue to want to play shows with you, vouch for you, encourage their fans to go see you. And your own fans will take up your flag. But if your reputation sucks, frankly, you’re lessening your chances of having any of those things.

Maybe Taylor Swift doesn’t care—I can’t and won’t presume to know. Here’s what I do know: her reputation is taking a beating in the music trenches, even if her wallet isn’t. 1989 sold a ton of copies and that’s great, but selling album copies doesn’t automatically rehabilitate one’s image amongst one’s contemporaries. Ironic though it may seem, the way things are going, Swift’s own fans are going to be a major headache for her camp in the future. Many of them feel betrayed, targeted, taken for granted. And that’s rule number one in this industry: never ever take your fanbase for granted.

 

Thanks to Mom for reading drafts of this.

 

Notes

[1] My first article on Swiftgate can be found here, with the follow-up piece here.

[2] This means that the poem I wrote at the bottom of my post last week is completely legal. (Though one could also argue quite successfully that it would be anyway whether Swift has been granted the rights or not since it falls under a creative parody license).

The Unflattering Spotify Light

With the first month of 2015 under our belts, things continue on in the music industry that hearken back to the last quarter of 2014 in almost predictable ways. YouTube and Apple are trying new paths forward for their music services (which I will cover in later posts), but perhaps the most telling of dynamics is what’s going on with Spotify right now.

Most anyone who paid any bit of attention in October-November of last year will remember the meltdown between artist Taylor Swift and music streaming service Spotify so cleverly termed Swiftgate. Purportedly over compensation (or lack thereof) for music streaming royalties, the spat between the pop star and the streaming service was a true story with legs, continuing for weeks on end. As each side released statements following Swift’s pulling of her entire catalogue from the service, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek and Swift’s management engaged in a series of statements, each seeking to portray themselves in a positive light.

Many of us within the music industry suspected that Taylor Swift’s underlying motive was a PR move enacted to boost numbers of Swift’s upcoming album release (and one which absolutely worked). Swift’s October release of her album 1989 blew well past one million in sales by 2014’s end, and has now been certified 4x Platinum (in excess of four million copies shipped). [1]

At the time I predicted that the dance was not over—that things would continue to evolve in 2015—and they have: last week, Spotify released a statement noting the termination of its contract with PR agency M&C Saatchi PR, originally tasked with heading up the music service’s accounts in the consumer, corporate, and b2b arenas. The dropping of M&C is telling in more ways than either company appears ready to admit.

It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Spotify dropped M&C because the latter botched Swiftgate. Whether originating initially from M&C itself, or from Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, it is clear that their subsequent comments on Spotify’s royalty rates and on the questions of fairness were neither well-timed nor well-received within the music community. Instead of resolving the Swiftgate debacle for the music service, it managed to stir up even more questions. What Spotify should have done (or had done on its behalf by M&C) in the course of Swift’s scathing comments is essentially recuse itself of the whole situation; their response only made matters worse. In the end, Swift got all the publicity she (most likely) wanted, and her album blew through the roof with record numbers for the year. Spotify, on the other hand, was cast, yet again, in the same light that has proved unflattering and awkward for other services like Pandora and Rdio.

Though it might be too much to assert that M&C had any control over those events, it is clear that whatever work it did in the wake of Swiftgate was at the very least misguided. In the music industry, he said/she said battles are fought out in the trenches of the fanbases, not in conference rooms, and not in statements released to the media. Though I think Swift’s move was intended more to benefit herself than her fans, a great many of those fans felt the opposite, and will migrate away from Spotify to find her music elsewhere. Swift achieved her goal by spinning the argument as being about her fans and about fairness for artists. Though the truth may be debatable, what is indisputable is that Swift came off to many as having taken proactive action for the sake of her art and fans.

Spotify (and M&C by extension), would have been well advised to spin Swiftgate as a pop star being presumptuous and out of touch with her fanbase. Instead, Spotify/M&C’s purely reactive response allowed Swift to spin the debate as being about royalty rates and artist compensation. Thus, in “commenting on Swift’s departure,” Ek ended up obliged to defend his company’s compensation policy as a whole. A simple statement by Ek that Spotify was disappointed to lose Swift’s catalogue, but that he respected her decision, would have taken the legs out of Swiftgate. Instead, his ineffective efforts to justify Spotify’s compensation policy gave Swiftgate legs, made Swift into the David fighting Goliath, and left Spotify with enough lasting bad press to make it look around for a different PR agency.

Spotify’s dance with Taylor Swift may now becoming to an end with its dropping of M&C as its PR agency, but Swiftgate opened the door for other artists to take shots at the company. Royalty rates are not about to get any better, and life for the Spotify camp is not about to get any easier concerning artist compensation. The streaming music wars have only just begun; hopefully Spotify’s next PR firm will find the right ammunition to fight them.

 

Thanks to Dad, Charles Jo, Scott Menor, and Terrence Yang for reading drafts of this.

 

Notes

[1] It is important to note that RIAA certifications such as gold and platinum do not always mean copies sold. Over the last few decades, certifications have extended to sometimes include multiple discs within one album (a double-album, for example), or simply albums shipped by the record labels to retail outlets. More information on RIAA certification qualifications can be found here.

If You Have a “Party Like It’s 1989” Tattoo, You’re Screwed

Between yesterday and today, CNN, BBC, Rolling Stone, and Time all reported that Taylor Swift has trademarked a few phrases from her most recent album, 2014’s 1989. While I can certainly understand copyrighting a song, I find Swift’s actions today just a little over-zealous (okay, that’s a lie; they’re very over-zealous).

First, let’s draw a very clear distinction between copyrighting and trademarking. Copyrighting is something that most, if not all, creative artists do to protect their creative works (including songs, books, movies, etc.) against plagiarism and unsanctioned reproductions. Copyrighting is very normal, and no one gives it a second thought. Trademarking, on the other hand, is not the same as copyrighting. Trademarking means that one cannot produce any physical products with the trademarked material on them. For example, Apple’s logo is a registered trademark, and therefore can only be reproduced on merchandise like shirts or stickers with the explicit permission of the Apple corporation. Trademarking a logo or tagline makes a lot of sense in the business world. Trademarking random phrases (some as short as three words!) from a pop-music album does not.

While I can respect Swift for attempting to further her brand with what may appear as a savvy business move, I can’t understand how she intends to trademark certain phrases that are so general that I couldn’t believe any patent court could deliver ownership of them to her alone. Generic phrases like “this sick beat” and “party like it’s 1989” are among the pieces now off limits for production on a slew of products, including: aprons, napkin holders, walking sticks, and, indeed, “non-medicated” toiletries. Ironically, the lead single’s title, “shake it off,” is not on the list.

So here’s the takeaway: for anyone who turned 18 or 21 in 1989, no partying like it’s 1989—Taylor Swift now owns that year; that means no cute little party hats, no commemorative t-shirts, and no celebratory anniversary cakes with the banned phrase written in icing. Skaters and rockers, no scrawling “this sick beat” on your guitars and drumkits—Swift owns all sick beats that can be described as “sick” from now on. I really wonder just how problematic this is going to be for people who already have bits of these phrases tattooed on their bodies—do they have a certain time period during which they can have them removed without legal action…? Okay, if Swift gets “this sick beat” then I think it’s only fair I get to trademark “I like music.” In honor of this incredible piece of news today, I have composed a poem:

A Swiftly Flowing Love Ballad

I love a song’s rhythm and pulse

It’s become the only thing I want to know

This sick beat is such a treat

I hear it all up and down the street

It makes me think I’ll find my soul mate soon

I just hope it turns out to be you

And I feel lucky for just getting to listen

It’s just so nice to meet you, where you been

For all the time I was looking for new music

I could show you (some) incredible things

That’ll make you happy, and you’ll never lose it

And please don’t get upset if I get so riled up

‘Cause you know I think we’d never go out of style, bud

Let’s just walk together for a while

I’m sure we could do a couple miles

With your pop-star hand in mine

Here’s to a party like it’s 1989

Navigating Swift Currents

As we come to the end of 2014, things seem quiet in the music-tech arena—at least for now. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that things were blowing up between Spotify and a number of artists over royalty rates and compensation practices. No doubt the most famous of these disputes (this year) was between the streaming service and popstar Taylor Swift. In what has come to be known by some in the tech and music communities as SwiftGate, Taylor Swift abruptly pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify just around the same time that she released her new album 1989. The response was nearly biblical.

All I saw for weeks on end was a back-and-forth exchange of words, accusations, arguments, and media coverage between Swift and Spotify. Even the service’s CEO Daniel Ek took time to release a public statement responding to Swift’s qualms with the service. This was definitely a story with legs—it just didn’t seem to die down.

Yet what struck me the most were not the statements made by either side, or even the statistics each used to bolster their respective cases. I was more focused on the amazingly divided response that Swift’s actions and statements generated from her fans. Personally, I’m ambivalent—I enjoy some of Swift’s music, though not all, and would not call myself either a major fan or a hater. When Swift wrote her op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, though, there were immediately a couple of things I didn’t agree with. Perhaps the most presumptuous statement I thought, though, was:

“Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”

This statement, though most likely made with the best of intentions, comes across to many within the music community as narrow-minded and out of touch. First, I readily agree with Swift that music is indeed art; art is subjective and highly personal to each person who experiences it. But art is not inherently rare. Nor should it be. This is an outdated concept that smacks more of a stuffy art-history academic than a modern musician. Art as a commodity, or even simply as a means of expression, should derive value from its inherent existence and experience; economic value is secondary to the very nature of what art is. In stating that art requires qualities of rarity and economic value in order to be valuable as art, Swift thus demonstrates a misunderstanding of what art functions as at its core. The concept of music as free is a notion that I will tackle in a later post (probably more than one), but what I will say with regard to Swift’s analysis is to point out how narrow its definition is. There are a great many artists who distribute their music for free, either online or as free giveaways at shows. By insinuating that these artists are devaluing their own art by making the decision to freely distribute, Swift does two things: 1) she demonstrates a worldview that is essentially narrow in its scope, and 2) she effectively succeeds in insulting these artists, more or less stating that they’re not smart enough to “know better.” It’s been a while since I performed as an artist in my own right, but even I still take offense to the above insinuations. Am I really to believe that Swift never played a pass-the-hat acoustic set at a Starbucks or diner somewhere when she was just starting out? [1]

But back to the response to Swift’s sparring with Spotify. If the goal was to generate a media response, then such a goal was certainly achieved. The responses from Swift’s fans in the general music community were far more diverse than even I would have thought. They ranged from those championing her decision and statements to those swearing they will never buy another Swift album from here on out (of course, the latter of those is hardly a statistic that can be confirmed at present). Yet what I focused on through this whole maelstrom of attention and biting back-and-forth comments was the way it could very conceivably (and most likely did) affect Swift’s fans on a psychological and emotional level.

Music, as stated, is emotional and highly personal. There’s a certain identification that one feels when one identifies with a particular artist, song or album. The psychology of wearing a shirt with an artist’s moniker on it effectively marks one as flying a flag for that artist—they become an extension of oneself—an extension of us. We use an artist’s music as a way to expand our sense of expression to the world. That makes our identification with that music highly volatile. Snap decisions like Swift’s have the opportunity to aggressively backfire (depending on one’s point of view, I suppose). Thus I question the long-term effect of Swift’s actions and statements. Yes, the immediate effect was fantastic for her: sales of her new album 1989 blew through the roof upon it’s release on Oct. 27, 2014. It opened at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold over 1 million copies. But I can’t help but focus on the gripes of those fans who felt personally betrayed by Swift’s removal of her catalogue from and subsequent sparring with Spotify. Are those fans going to go see her on tour? Buy a shirt? Tell their friends about her new album? Probably not. The way I see it, Swift has effectively traded long-term benefits for short-term gains. One thing I know about music and artist-loyalty is that it can be a fickle beast. The possible (probable?) effect of dividing her fanbase I think will constitute a major challenge for Swift to overcome in the future. She will have to spend time, energy, patience (and most likely money) trying to reconnect with those fans she might have alienated or even lost.

While it’s possible that the short-term gains may have been worth it to Swift and crew, I think the next currents will prove more difficult to navigate in the coming months. I think Swift has a lot of work ahead of her, and a lot of damage-control to partake in (ironically, not unlike the damage-control that Metallica faced in the wake of the whole Napster controversy). [2] I suppose only time will tell. We’ll reassess in the new year.

 

Thanks to Alyssa Shaffer, Charles Jo, Mom, and Dad for reading drafts of this. (And to Paul Graham for reminding me that thanks are as much in order for assistance as much as publication of the final product).

 

Notes

[1] Within the music community, the term “pass-the-hat” most readily refers to a (usually) acoustic set where no cover charge is required, and the artist relies mostly on the generosity of the audience to throw a few dollars in a hat or the guitar case to show their appreciation for and enjoyment of the performance.

[2] As many may remember, when Metallica waded into the thick of the Napster controversy in 2000 (most visibly driven by drummer Lars Ulrich), their rabid fanbase subsequently split into those who supported Metallica’s decision and those who vehemently opposed it. The alienation of a portion of their fanbase proved a challenge that took Metallica a number of years to surmount (and arguably one they are still surmounting). It affected both their sales of merchandise/tickets and their reputation within the music community.