I never thought I would write these words, but below you will find my response to Taylor Swift’s Wall Street Journal essay.
Swift took the the pages of the Wall Street Journal For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music Is a Love Story to give her views, feelings really, of the ever tumultuous music industry. Boundless optimism might be a refreshing reprieve in these cynical, irony-drenched times of ours and might make for great pop dittys. But Swift’s reflections on the music industry map as well to economic realities as her love songs map to real adult relationships.
Not so much.
First she tackles value. She argues that a musician’s output, an album, should be measured by ” the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work.” If only! Leaving aside the multitude of terrible, heartfelt albums that have been made, music is at the mercy of every other bought and sold goods, art or not. Supply and demand.
Though I personally loathe to use the word “art” when referring to music (I believe the label implies a stuffy distance) I will use it here as Swift has taken us down that path. As a crass binary analogy, there’s the Van Gogh level of art, rare and singular in it’s execution. Then there is the Thomas Kincaid level of art. More plentiful and generally pedestrian in it’s technic and subject matter. The former will put you back tens of millions of dollars if you are lucky to find one coming to auction, The latter can be bought for a few thousand dollars from an online gallery.
Obviously not all art is created equal.
Van Gogh’s scarcity of work, in actual numbers and availability in the market place sets it at a premium. The Internet has made scarcity obsolete. The Wu Tang Clan addressed this recently by creating master recording of their latest work “The Wu – Once Upon A Time In Shaolin” and putting it up for auction where it sold to a private buyer for millions. It was little more than a stunt, but it grabbed headlines because in the age of piracy inaccessible music from a major artist is a novelty.
Though Swift’s music isn’t scarce her live shows are. That’s one of the last go-to revenue streams for performers.
So where were the tips on putting on a great show (aside from inviting your famous friends onstage?) Where were the tips on using social media to build a loyal fan base? Where was the helpful advice on writing a song that “hit them like an arrow through the heart?”
These are Swift’s strengths. She’s a master and her stardom reflects her skills. Though she skirts across some of these topics in her piece she never digs into them to provide working musicians some takeaways. Something actionable.
Swift’s stardom paralleled the throwback to 50’s/60’s model of music consumption, the single. But new ways of experiencing music has not been met by new, and fair. compensation and control of that music. Streaming services are the contemporary jukeboxes but licensing and pay-outs that defined that era has’t progressed. No money means less chance a musician will soldier on. Swift could have joined Rosanne Cash and many others have testified before congress for fair musician’s compensation and control of their work.
A spotlight that Swift could bring to that discussion would be welcome and might get things moving faster in the right direction.
Perhaps Swift could start a label or management service to take young talent in and guide them along a path that can be treacherous.
I think Swift’s hand-shaped heart is in the right place. But talk, and WSJ puff-pieces, are cheap. If she really wants to make a positive impact on the music industry I’d like to see some action.