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Taylor Swift VS Streaming: Explained

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Big Machine Records

In November 2018, Taylor Swift made a long-anticipated move away from Big Machine Records to Universal Music Group, announcing her new home on Instagram. Her post included some details of her new contract, including a provision that affects all artists under the UMG label. Swift signed with the company under the assurance that any sale of UMG’s sizable Spotify shares will result in a non-recoupable distribution of money to their artists. What this means is that artists who are in debt to their label because they haven’t earned enough money to equal the amount they were given at signing will be given this Spotify money directly, as opposed to having it automatically go towards their current owed-balance at their label and never seeing it at all. This was a huge commitment that, as Vox notes, wasn’t guaranteed by the Big Four record label before Swift’s deal.

This win is the latest in a series of battles between Swift and streaming services that began in 2014. While people are generally aware of Swift’s struggles with Spotify, streaming was less ubiquitous four years ago than it is today. No one imagined the long, complicated history that would come from Swift’s first Wall Street Journal article on the subject, and now the narrative has gone on for so long its easy to forget why Swift is fighting. Here, we’ve broken down TS’s history with Spotify and what it means for her image, her business, and the music community as a whole.

Like the universe, Taylor’s Spotify narrative began with a big bang. In July 2014, the newly-minted pop singer published a think piece for the Wall Street Journal which was a little fuzzy on the basics of supply-and-demand but cut to the core of Swift’s issues with the streaming industry to this day. At the time, she was resistant to admit that music’s value would never again come primarily from album sales, a hesitance that serves her well financially even now, and she believed that music’s monetary value shouldn’t be compromised. As a businesswoman, Taylor understands her worth and demands that everyone else understand it as well. Only four months after her article was published, Swift removed her entire catalog from Spotify.

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Speaking to Yahoo, Taylor insisted that to her, Spotify was still a newfangled experiment that could do a lot of damage to the value of her life’s work. She focused her energy on Spotify’s free, ad-sponsored tier, keeping her catalog on other streaming platforms that don’t provide an endless free option, despite all streaming being a massive blow to the financial value of a song. Spotify artists make an average of $0.001128 per stream, after their label’s share is removed. An infographic published by The Guardian broke down how many units needed to be moved for an artist to make minimum wage, comparing album sales, digital downloads, and streams. For a signed artist, with a percentage of their sales going to their label, only 500 copies of a ten to twelve dollar album would have to be sold to reach the minimum wage at the time of the infographic’s publishing in 2015. That’s equivalent to five thousand ninety-nine cent downloads on iTunes, which sounds like a lot until it’s compared to streaming platforms. On the paid platforms Tidal and GooglePlay, roughly 175,000 streams would be needed to make minimum wage. On Spotify, that number increases exponentially to over one million streams. Today, the number of streams needed to make a minimum wage yearly salary only increases with time, even as the company grows. Spotify loses money yearly and its possible that in finding ways to attempt to keep more of its revenue per stream, the monetary value of a stream only continues to become more negligible.

Swift’s issue with the free listening aspect of Spotify’s model became even more apparent when she published a Tumblr post gently admonishing Apple Music for introducing a free trial on their platform (You can read the full letter here because T.S. apparently pulled her post). As Spotify grew more and more quotidian in popular culture, Swift’s stance against it began to seem out-of-touch to outsiders, who quickly viewed her distaste for Apple’s plan to not pay artists for streams during consumers’ three-month Apple Music free trial period as simply more pushback against streaming as a whole. Swift was, in fact, reasonably upset that Apple wasn’t planning on paying artists who might be new to the industry and need immediate payment, rather than the incrementally larger pay-offs Apple promised down the road. Apple acquiesced to paying artists royalties during the trial, and Swift has since been a dedicated advocate of their platform. In addition to putting her entire catalog on Apple Music, Swift released a tour documentary exclusively on their site and appeared in an Apple Music ad.

It took two more years for the “Blank Space” songstress to loosen her stance against Spotify specifically, adding her music back on the platform in June 2017 after the company signed a deal with UMG (who are also a parent company of Big Machine Records) that allowed artists to “window” their new releases and keep them off of Spotify’s free tier for their first two weeks on the market. Taylor waited until 1989 was firmly in “catalog” and no longer making money from album sales. At this point in the album’s lifetime, she needed the streams for chart placement based on newer algorithms that account for streams in addition to radio play. It also came at a time that backlog catalog streams could help promote her next new album, Reputation, and followed Spotify’s new Global Head of Creator Services, Troy Carter, renegotiating contracts to mend Spotify’s public relations with songwriters. The fact that her music would return to the streaming giant on the same day as Katy Perry‘s album release also probably didn’t hurt. By this time, Spotify had grown out of the experimental stage.

From 2014 when this narrative began until now, Spotify has grown by 150 million users and proved it is more than a passing fad. Now that Taylor had lost in the court of public opinion, she had to find a way to make this new world financially viable for herself and the artists that came after her. When Reputation dropped in November 2017, it wasn’t made available on any streaming site for nearly a month. It sold more units than the rest of that week’s Billboard 200 combined, and it didn’t arrive on streaming until she had made all the money she could from the CDs, digital albums, magazine tie-ins, and dollar downloads. Today, Taylor is the only artist to have four albums sell more than one million copies in their first week, with every album she’s released since 2010 achieving this milestone. Swift had grown from an artist still learning to a businesswoman functioning under what Billboard described as Economics 101. TS had become a decisive CEO of her own brand, knowing when to use streaming to her advantage and how to avoid its pitfalls. She made her singles available on Spotify to boost her album’s visibility and its longevity and had proven herself in every way she needed to as an example of how to use today’s music industry to create a viable livelihood even as the value of a four-minute song becomes monetarily null.

Another observation from that Billboard article revolved around the public image of Swift’s Spotify feud at the time of publishing, which is the same narrative that’s conveyed in the media now as Swift continues to push for the artists’ right to fair compensation: why does anyone in the tech industry think that ten-time Grammy Award winner Taylor Swift needs their input? If you look at the patronizing tone of journalistic coverage surrounding Swift’s business decisions, you’ll see they often treat Taylor like her opinions on the music industry at-large are made with the emotional gravitas of a romantic relationship, while male artists like Garth Brooks “weigh in” on the issues. The same people giving Swift their advice, like the execs at Spotify, are the same ones who haven’t actually figured out how to make any money. Meanwhile, Swift had managed to game the system to her advantage. This deep-rooted sexism is still present at nearly every level of the music industry, from country radio DJs to consumer ethics.

Also important to note is that Taylor isn’t only fighting for herself and her business, but for the music industry as a whole. The singer-songwriter understands that she exists on a plane of celebrity where merch, tours, and public appearances can fully fund her life and the lives of her hundreds – if not thousands – of employees. For a star whose image was seemingly irreparable at the time of Reputation‘s release, the instinct was to view her actions as blind to the realities of smaller artists. Now that her main rival, Kanye West, positions himself as an unlikable crazy person, he no longer holds the cultural clout and influence to reliably affect her image. As Swift reclaimed the snake imagery that had been used against her to her advantage, West claimed MAGA hats and told the world that slavery was a choice. With her downfall no longer an assured possibility and a solid new release, Swift started making even more smart PR decisions like using her influence to help liberal political campaigns, in a display of both her power and her empathy for others. She’s also fighting this streaming battle for others (in addition to fighting for her own long-held ideas about music), and each win for her side is also activism on behalf of other artists. Her war on streaming is ultimately a negotiation with wins and losses on both sides. The current narrative surrounding it would likely be very different if she was a male artist, and it would probably be more accurate at that. So, here’s to Taylor Swift: businesswoman, PR magician, and activist for anyone who has ever thought of picking up a guitar.

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