Taylor Swift’s Spotify trials and tribulations
Why #TaylorSwiftSpotifyGate is all about control
You are probably sick and tired of Taylor Swift at this stage. The release of her new album “1989″ and the subsequent decision by Team Swift to yank her music off Spotify meant every single media outlet which covers music and pop culture had a reason to write about the singer. You could not avoid her.
On the face of it, Team Swift made a very simple call. She and her team of advisors, especially her record label Big Machine Records, reckoned that they were going to flog a lot of albums during the first week of release so they probably didn’t need Spotify. Not having Spotify might well aid their cause in this regard. Selling 1.2 million copies of “1989″, as turned out to be the case, meant she was responsible for 22 per cent of all the albums, digital or physical, sold in the United States that week, a staggering figure in this day and age. People may be going on about the end of the platinum album, but the campaign behind Swift’s fifth album put paid to that notion in a mere seven days.
There’s an interview here with her label boss Scott Borchetta, who talks about the decision to yank the album from Spotify. “We’re being completely disrespectful to that superfan who wants to invest”, is Borchetta’s reasoning behind the move. So, while the album is available on various paid-for premium streaming services like Beats Music and Rhapsody, Borchetta notes that they want to get away from this idea that “1989″ is available for free. It’s a move which he believes other acts will also make, though few of them are likely to have the same upside on the sales front as Swift.
But it’s worth nothing that you can probably listen to individual tracks from “1989″ – or even the full album if you delve deep enough – for free on YouTube. It’s a point which Adele’s manager Jonathan Dickens made at the Web Summit in Dublin last week. Just because the artist doesn’t want their music to be available on free streaming services doesn’t mean that the music will not necessarily end up there regardless or that fans will flock to those online outlets to hear the album.
Much as you respect the wishes of an artist when it comes to their music, the matter of controlling how and where a fan goes to hear that music is an old-school throwback. Traditionally, the record industry has always been about control, be it trying to control the means of production and distribution in the old days to controlling the various online corrals today.
What has changed, aside from the accelerated democratisation of the above processes for the benefit of all (though some old-stagers may prefer the dictatorship model of old), is that the fan is now firmly in control. The huge growth in choice when it comes to consuming music, all the way from physical objects to streaming on the go, has come about because of how technology has completely changed the rules of engagement. The artist may want to be in control, but increasingly, it’s the fan who dictates the terms of that exchange.
In the case of Swift, she and her label took a decision to say no to Spotify, probably gauging that actual hard sales might increase as a result as her superfans went in search of the new album. Remember too that the deal with Spotify is with the label, not with Swift – if she has a problem with Spotify, it’s as much to do with the deal she has with her label than Spotify. The label, more than the artist, was the winner in this joust.
Moving off Spotify is fine and dandy in the short-term, as first week sales show, but what about the long-term? What happens in five years from now as streaming, especially free or ad-supported streaming, becomes more and more the norm? Sales will continue to decline and there will come a time when even some of the superfans decide that they prefer the convenience and ease of streaming over physical product (though we can take it that there will always be people like this fan, eager to have the physical edition for many reasons). Then, we’re back to piracy and I’m sure no-one at Swift HQ or especially Big Machine wants to see that.
You could argue that this is an artist engaging in nudge theory. Swift and her team want fans to pay for her music, hence why they want to get away from free streaming services and push fans towards the premium services. Yet the nudge theory can also rebound. After all, there are probably many Swift fans, especially those about to pony out large sums of money for tickets and merch on her upcoming world tour, who may resent having to pay over even more shekels to hear the music. They’re grown used to streaming as a way of consuming the music and increasingly, fans like free or ad-supported services like Spotify. The kerfuffle over Spotify royalties does not apply to them because they figure that they’re already paying the artist when they go to a live event. We’re back to issues of control again.
TaylorSwiftSpotifygate will not be the last time these issues are aired in public. As long as the old school permanent establishment reckon they can control the process by dictating how fans can listen to music, we will have set-tos like this. But, more and more, this strikes me as a battle the record label side just cannot win. You can’t argue with technology and, even more importantly, you can’t argue with an audience who’ve already made up their mind about how they want to listen to music.