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Big sister energy: How Taylor Swift built a billion-dollar musical empire

The singer is now on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people. Will that convince sceptics she’s a shrewd entrepreneur, as worthy of recognition as Steve Jobs or Richard Branson?

“Real” music fans, the kind who are critics and the kind who are not, hate Taylor Swift. Or at least they’ll tell you so ... loudly and clearly. “Real” titans of business do too. They dislike that she is girlish, overbearing, needy and seemingly inescapable – not just by way of her latest endeavour, the 152-date stadium romp known as the Eras Tour, which recaps all 10 of Swift’s studio albums, presenting each as an era, with its own elaborate sets, costumes and vibes. “She doesn’t write her own songs,” Blur’s frontman, Damon Albarn, alleged in 2022. “There’s so little to say about Taylor Swift being Person of the Year,” the New York Times and GQ journalist Kelsey McKinney wrote for Defector a year later. “Is it just me,” an anonymous Reddit thread from 2019 opens, “or is Taylor Swift the worst celebrity in the USA?”

The tour began on St Patrick’s Day 2023, in Glendale, Arizona (which officially changed its name to Swift City, Era-zona in honour of the event), and will continue until December of this year, ending in Vancouver. It sees the artist perform 44 songs and make 16 costume changes across five continents for 195 minutes or so each night. It is also the show that tipped Swift into billionaire territory, according to Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s richest people – she is reported to have made $1.1 billion (€850 million) in sales. But will this formal, gargantuan figure finally convince sceptics that Swift is a shrewd businesswoman, possessor of business acumen and entrepreneurial instincts as worthy of admiration as Steve Jobs, Andrew Carnegie or Richard Branson?

This great sum has been a long time coming. Swift, who is 34, has for years been a savant of what one might coin “big sister energy”, a friendly, confessional, urgent kind of intimacy that feels consistent with the way we use social media. It is an easy characterisation to dismiss. Indeed, she has been treated with suspicion for nigh on a decade, her natural primness, commercial popularity and puzzling uncoolness deeming her a target for the musical elite. Most famously Kanye West, who at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards infamously interrupted the young singer as she was accepting the award for best female video, saying: “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you ... but Beyoncé had the best video of all time.” The moment, which started like a coronation and turned into something closer to a public shaming, saw Swift’s happy expression dissolve into shocked dismay. It’s a derision that feels fitting to her fans – a demographic that skews young, female and white, one routinely labelled as silly, dramatic and unserious. Swift knows this, and spun her torture in a way that granted her entry into the hallowed halls of commercial relatability, bulldozing through the former boundaries of a fan-and-star relationship, all the while connecting on a level that feels cross-generationally appealing.

Like Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez before her, Swift writes autobiographically, a technique that, in the internet era, is a clever marketing device. The intense parasocial bond that Swift’s fans feel with her – the singular, desperate throb of their devotion – is due to the vulnerability of her songwriting, to the point where fans insist her lyrics make them feel as if they’re reading their own diaries. Part of Swift’s genius is her ability to offer personal details of her life in ways that feel universal – whether you, like a number of her concert attendees, are a 12-year-old girl or, as in the case of one memorable New Yorker essayist, in prison for murder. She, too, understands the importance of creating a moment. Her stadium shows create mass cultural occasions – not dissimilar to what Springsteen did for the boomer generation, or Beyoncé for black university students at Coachella – which translate both in person and algorithmically, such as her performance of the song Bejeweled, which incorporates part of a viral TikTok dance, or when she references comments that she’s read about herself online.


Though often undermined and overlooked in her career, Swift has shown an uncanny ability to spotlight and create change within an industry protective of abusers and tethered to boys’ club allegations. Several of her landmark cases within the music industry are notable – perhaps none more so than the rerecording of her masters, a process which saw Swift reclaim the back catalogue that was refused to her upon switching record companies. A spirited strategist, Swift found a satisfying recourse: the rerelease of her six albums, track by track, labelled with “(Taylor’s Version)” to prove to passionate fans this track was a counterpunch designed to punish her transgressors while fortifying her legacy – even if record labels subsequently clamped down on artists rerecording their own music.

Then there was her stunning takedown of the streaming titans Spotify and Apple Music. When it was revealed that Spotify royalties amounted to less than 0.01c per play, Swift removed her entire back catalogue from the platform, but not before taking to the Wall Street Journal to write: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” They changed their policy immediately. Her quest for justice continued with Tim Cook’s Apple. “I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free, three-month trial to anyone who signs up for the service,” she wrote to users of the service. “I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.” Within hours, Cook and his team conceded.

It’s rare – billion-dollar rare – to ascend to the pinnacle of pop stardom, as Swift has. Rarer still is the way in which she has impacted the business so profoundly. Beyond her insistent demand for control, something which continues to inspire young, powerless artists today, Swift also found a way to dominate across consumption metrics by way of guerrilla marketing tactics, such as commenting on fans’ social-media accounts; inviting them to secret pre-album release sessions; quietly paying for college tuitions; and embedding secret messages – known as Easter eggs – into her promotional material, a system that rewards those who stay close.

With her latest tour, one which routinely boosts local economies, the artist maintains a similarly high level of customer loyalty, rigorous work ethic and personalised experience. Her tickets are expensive, but her shows sell out almost instantly. Indeed, perhaps this is Swift’s most powerful trick: her ability to make us reconsider what we thought we knew about economics – and what we thought about women as a whole.