Shake It Off or Take It Off (of Spotify): Interpreting Taylor Swift’s Bold Move

Taylor may have swiftly changed the game when it comes to the future of streaming music.
Taylor may have swiftly changed the game when it comes to the future of streaming music.

I’m sure by now you’ve all heard the news: Taylor Swift has removed all of her music from Spotify.  As in, everything.  Not just 1989.  The only track you can find that even features Swift is “Safe and Sound,” her collaboration with The Civil Wars.  Go now and listen while you still can, before we have all been forsaken by the great blond goddess of our musical age.

I don’t want to delve too deeply here into the reasons for Swift’s abrupt maneuver, since the rest of the internet has that pretty firmly covered.  The talking heads have cast blame on three major factors: Big Machine Label Group’s impending $200 million sale, the theory that holding back new music from Spotify creates scarcity and drives up record sales, and Swift’s personal opposition to artists not being paid the full value of their work (her full op-ed, sadly, requires a Wall Street Journal subscription).  The first two of these can be seen to go hand in hand; with Big Machine on the selling block, it behooves the label to quickly sell as many physical copies of the record as possible to maximize its sale value, and removing not only 1989 but all of Swift’s music from Spotify may drive more fans to buy the album in other, cash-up-front ways.  The strategy has been utilized by Beyoncé, the Black Keys, and Coldplay within the past year with some success.  And if–or, more likely, when–Swift and Big Machine decide to put her songs back on Spotify, her fans will flock back to them in far greater concentrations than ever before, multiplying the streaming service’s meager per-play royalty by millions.  If nothing else, the ploy has generated even more media buzz surrounding 1989, a feat that most of the music world probably thought impossible.

Despite the opposition raised in some circles of online music critics, I think this is a brilliant marketing tactic by Swift and her label.  It would be a futile quest to attempt to shut down all streaming and free music services’ carriage of her music; you can still listen to 1989 in its entirety on YouTube, for instance, and many young listeners will probably still do so.  But a calculated strike at the standard bearer for the so-called future of music listening is a major power move that accomplishes a number of goals.  As I’ve already stated, Swift would be hard pressed to find a better way to push her new album to the forefront of the world’s consciousness, likely increasing demand in the record by creating this semi-illusory state of scarcity. And even with some fans labeling her as just another greedy megalomaniac, she can moralize her decision by pointing to her long-standing views regarding the devaluation of the art she produces when that art is available for next-to-nothing on Spotify.  Swift can frame this episode as a defiant stand for the rights of musicians everywhere, becoming the embattled hero while she and Big Machine rake in the boosted physical sales of 1989 and any of her previous albums that might be viewed as newly exclusive.

When it comes to this moral aspect of the debate, though, things get murky.  I don’t disagree with Swift’s assertion that artists should earn their proper keep for the product; in a musician’s fantasy land, artists would reap 100% of the revenue from their songs, doing away with labels entirely and somehow managing to retain the wide distribution network they provide.  But artists don’t simply measure the value of their work in terms of dollars.  The reason a songwriter puts pen to paper and sets lyrics to melody is to share a story and emotions with as many people as possible, and the advent of streaming services makes it easier for artists who may not have the support of a major label’s distribution.  It is certainly a luxury for Taylor Swift that she has built enough popularity to garner a major label deal, publicly renounce Spotify and expect a resulting increase in sales of her album.  But it also helps that she operates in one of the few genres where labels are still committed to artist development.  Many other artists need the service to build awareness of their music, realizing that earning a major label deal–the only real way to continue to earn any substantial mechanical royalties–now requires an existing large fanbase that can best be constructed via free and widespread online distribution of their product.  In addition, streaming and free music services provide older bands with an avenue to be rediscovered by a younger generation in an era when labels are less willing to expend resources on recirculating the music of a bygone age.  Both underground and oldie acts can thus spread their work within the online community and gain immense pleasure from the lives their songs touch, while still utilizing revenue streams from live shows, merchandise, and performance royalties to earn some money.  I’m not saying that artists shouldn’t want to earn money.  But if that’s the only way musicians measure success, they stand to lose the very reason they began to create songs in the first place.  And I hope that Taylor Swift hasn’t lost sight of this more fundamental value of music just because she no longer needs Spotify.

The bottom line, though, is that regardless of your opinion on the future of streaming music and its impact on the value of songs, Taylor Swift and Big Machine must be admired for their bold strategy in releasing 1989.  Not only has Swift ensured that her name will be at the top of both the headlines and the charts for the next week…she has also used her tremendous influence to reopen discourse about the very music industry itself.  No one knows if or when her songs will be back on Spotify, but until then, we’ll all just have to buy physical copies like it’s 1989.

Or just listen to the full album below for free until Big Machine forces YouTube to take it down.

*I am indebted to Molly Corn for today’s beautiful and catchy headline.