Under a particularly New York Times-y headline, “For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music Is a Love Story,” the singer-songwriter I once crowned the Poet Laureate of Puberty writes that she thinks the future of music is a bright, shiny wonderland for any artist who can really connect with their fans, which is to say, any artist that can do what Swift has made a career of doing.
Look, long before Swift was a multi-millionaire getting dolled up to gallivant about New York City with a cadre of celebrity-slash-model-slash-actress friends, long before her success seemed inevitable and then, as inevitable successes tend to appear, unearned, she was a hustling, enterprising, teenage prodigy. She had the chutzpah and passion to uproot her entire family approximately 776 miles just for a shot at a record deal that could easily have never materialized. So while the natural inclination when someone is as super-starry as Swift is to presume her cushy life is carefree and she has no idea what it’s like to need to work hard, this is patently untrue. Sure, she could retire now and swim in pools of money until she dies. But Swift is probably up there with Beyonce in the work ethic category, and she doesn’t even have a husband-as-co-headliner to lean on and/or use to boost ticket sales and attention.
That being said: holy humblebrag.
Swift has a documented history of humblebragging. Her greatest offense in this realm is her hallmark surprised face at awards shows, which she continues to employ even though she has won over 130 awards. This is prime facial humblebragging; it would be like if the President of the United States made a “Who, me?” expression every time a band played “Hail to the Chief.”
Try not to make a surprised face when I tell you that Swift is one of the top-earning women in music. Her latest album, Red, sold 1.21 million copies in its first week, the biggest sales week for an album since 2002. Her 2013 North American tour grossed over $110 million.
All of which is to say: the lady is an outlier. Good for her! But for her to say, as she does, that “the music industry is not dying… it’s just coming alive” is like Regina George saying, “We don’t have a clique problem at this school.” A more accurate sentence for Swift to write would be, “My future in the music industry is not dying. Not sure about the rest of you, TBH. But you’ll be able to download my next album on iTunes and buy a special edition at Target!”
Swift’s definition for an album worth buying is, conveniently, the definition of the kind of album she loves to produce. People are still buying albums, she writes: “They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart of have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone.” She doesn’t really say anything about the number of people who will buy an album that takes huge risks, or changes the conversation around what music is and could be, or is visually stunning (see: Beyonce) or is surprising, or even unique. In Swiftland, the only acceptable currency is feelings.
Her thesis is definitely true — sometimes. “Heart” is certainly a motivating factor in music purchasing — for some people. But not all fans love music just because listening to it is like a hug from your best friend when you need it the most. Some of the greatest, most valuable music of all time is music that probably, if you listen closely enough, makes you deeply uncomfortable, or makes you question long-held assumptions or ideas you’ve had about the world and your place in it.
The through-line here, as in all humblebrags, is a kind of blindness to privilege. She’s basically saying, “Care hard enough, try hard enough, be great enough, and everything else will work itself out.” But that wasn’t true, even for her. She’s like that friend telling you to just “eat right and exercise” as if all people are blessed with the same genetic makeup and metabolism, or to “focus and study hard,” as if everyone is gifted with the same innate ability to grasp new concepts.
It was Swift’s good fortune to arrive in the industry at a time when young people still paid for music, before streaming services like Songza, Pandora and Spotify started to dominate the market. Swift’s talent, at the outset, was speaking to girls under the age of eighteen; her luck was that this demographic was still buying music — legally — in droves, and that her fans’ purchases could be sponsored by their parents. Even though these fans could just opt to stream Swift’s music today, the numbers show that they largely continue to shell out cash for the real thing, due in part to the very devotion Swift is able to inspire. She hooked her listeners while they were young; they won’t abandon her now.
Were Swift to break out today, she’d be selling her songs to teenagers who are far more likely to stream than to buy. Across the industry, album sales are down while streaming equivalents have almost doubled. Album sales fell 14.9 percent compared to last year. Streaming is outpacing not just CDs, which apparently some people do still buy, but digital downloads. Last year, the New York Times reported, “downloads of individual tracks fell for the first time, by 6 percent, and in the first half of 2014 they dropped 13 percent.” Streaming services only pay artists “fractions of pennies in royalties each time a song is listened to.”
Hey, maybe Swift WOULD still be selling albums by the million if she released her first single tomorrow. It’s not like she’d be any less talented or less driven or less media-savvy. But her WSJ piece willfully fails to acknowledge all the stars that aligned for Swift’s stardom to occur, probably because some of those factors — timing, age, luck — were beyond her control.
All humblebrags are a cry for attention. Swift already has so much attention, though. So maybe she just did this so everyone could know that she would like a garden?
Alternate theory: she did it all for the stipple portrait.