As a part of the 125th anniversary issue of the Wall Street Journal, pop superstar and self proclaimed “enthusiastic optimist” Taylor Swift wrote an essay about the state of the music industry and her diagnosis for artists who wish to sell more albums. I admire Taylor Swift not because of her vocal skills, or because she really understands the heart ache of breaking up, or because I feel like we would really enjoy binge watching Netflix together. Taylor Swift is very generous to Nashville, Tennessee and during a possible impending shut-down of the Nashville Symphony Ms. Swift donated 500,000 dollars. Thank you Ms. Swift. This act of generosity and support helped a struggling local entity and brought an enormous amount of attention to this institution. Again, thank you.
Ms. Swift’s article, which you can read here, is titled For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music Is a Love Story. She affirms that the music industry is changing but it “is not dying…it’s just coming alive.” (I would like to note that the ellipses were not placed there by me. They are there as a sort of elegant and thoughtful pause. I suppose.) How is it coming alive? She doesn’t say. This idea that it is “coming alive'” is born out of her optimism rather than facts and projected buying trends.
Ms. Swift believes that “the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace.” Oh, I don’t know where to start with this logic. I assume (which we all know what assuming means) that “value” means monetary value. An album’s ability to make immediate sales, gain radio play, and be licensed for car commercials, bra advertisements1, etc, etc, equal the “value of an album”. How is the album or single perceived to have this money generating value? By the amount of heart and soul bleeding that the musician experienced in the writing, recording, mastering, mixing, and auto-tuning of the song and album. Hard work isn’t involved in this equation. Emotional angst, probably deprived from relationship issues, excite the soul to bleed and then create the valuable album. Then, add in the record label executives and minders, who want to make money. Stop full stop. They want to make money. Not art. They listen and throw the money, connections, blitz of PR campaign behind personalities that they believe will make them money. Maybe the album isn’t necessarily secondary to the personality of the artist. But, even Ms. Swift admits that the personal life of the artist is important to the audience, and, she doesn’t mention, exploited by the record label and PR people who are commanded to create as much press as possible about an album and the artist.
Ms. Swift then states the reason people should buy music is because, “music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free…”(Those ellipses are put there by me.) Music, the general umbrella term for anything that is related to noise but doesn’t have the negative connotation of noise, is by its very nature art. Not true. Music is art and thus rare she states. Also not true. As this Washington Post article by Justin Moyer points out, “With GarageBand on every computer and streaming Web sites such as BandCamp eliminating the need for record labels, music is more ubiquitous than ever — easier to make and easier to distribute since the beginning of time. This means it’s a lot less rare — and, in a saturated market, each individual artist is a lot less important than, say, Jimi Hendrix was at Woodstock. Streaming enthusiasts such as Swift should remember: Twenty percent of music on Spotify has never been streamed — so much that there’s a kind of song rescue shelter, Forgotify, to memorialize it.” Music is anything but rare. Moyer is quite right is saying it is ubiquitous. Silence is a rarity in modern life. Not music.
I buy music. I buy CDs, download singles, purchase band T-shirts, and buy concert tickets. I do this not because I think I have a special bond with the band members of Interpol2 or because I believe Iggy Azalea is an artist, but rather because I want them to make money so that they can continue to produce more music. It’s simple. I don’t think that Cake is touring because it’s their hearts content to spend 200 days of the year on the road. I don’t think that the Arctic Monkeys are providing music as a sort of missionary service. Musicians are not providing a free service for me to enjoy. They are not street performers who occupy their street corner for my own enjoyment. Nor, do I kid myself into thinking that we have a real bond commensurable to the relationship I have with my friends.
Ms. Swift and I may disagree about why people should buy music and the fate of the music industry, but we do agree on one small matter. Music should be purchased. High-five Taylor!
1. CD sales, downloads, radio play, and licensing are the way that musicians, managers, and record labels make money. If those four are even slightly profitable, then the real money making event can take place. Touring.
2. That would be awesome though!