Taylor Swift and the music industry’s next $20
I have this theory that music is usually about five years ahead of the rest of media in terms of its relationship to tech — whether that’s new formats based on new tech,
like vinyl to CDs, new business models like streaming, or simply being disrupted by new kinds of artists who use new forms of promotion, like TikTok, in unexpected ways.
I’ve always thought that if you can wrap your head around what’s happening to the music industry, you can pretty much see the future of TV or movies or the news or whatever because the music industry just moves that fast.
I was talking about this with my friend Charlie Harding, the co-host of Switched on Pop, and he said that he thinks the upcoming Taylor Swift The Eras Tour is itself the end of an era in music — that the age of cheap streaming services is coming to an inevitable conclusion and that something has to change in order for the industry to sustain itself in the future.
So, in this episode, Charlie and I walk through a brief history of the music business — which, despite its ever-changing business models, is permanently trying to find something to sell you for $20,
whether that’s the music itself, all-access streaming, merch, and even NFTs — using Taylor Swift as a case study. We map her big moves against the business of music over time to try to see if this really is the end of an era.
And maybe more importantly, to try and figure out if the music industry can sustain and support artists who are not Taylor Swift because streaming all by itself definitely cannot.
Whenever I think about the state of the music industry and its business, I find myself coming to talk to Charlie Harding.
Taylor Swift, interestingly enough, is a great way of looking at the different eras of the music industry, of when they began and when they ended. She has inhabited a lot of them and been able to go with the changes in a way that many artists have not.
She is unusual in that the length of her career spans from the end of the CD era into the streaming era. In many ways, she is at her height and she’s still breaking records on charts. Her career is definitely a good case study across the last almost 20 years.
We have to add some stipulations before we begin a conversation on Taylor Swift. One, I think we both very much like Taylor Swift’s music and we think she’s a good musician. Very much so. She’s an amazing songwriter.
Two, she is also an incredible capitalist money machine. She’s a great musician, she’s also just very good at making money.
She’s very savvy, yes. Also unusual, because a lot of her peers that go off and make money do so primarily through means outside of music — by starting fashion lines, restaurant chains, or whatever it might be.
She has committed hard to the songwriting and music thing, and this next tour is set to supposedly maybe make her a billionaire.
I think that piece of it is the thing that makes her the most unusual. It’s hard to think of another artist at this point that actually monetizes music itself as the primary and richest revenue stream.
I don’t have insight into her taxes, but obviously she has done movies and she has brand endorsements. Like everybody else, she has all those things, but she leans the hardest into music. Touring is certainly doing really well for her.
That’s the other thing I want to stipulate. If you go back and listen to other Decoder conversations, like the one we had with Steve Boom from Amazon Music, it’s shocking to me how over and over again music itself is undervalued.
If you go see an Avengers movie, you might spend $20 on a ticket plus popcorn, or if you watch it on streaming, you might spend an enormous amount of money for those streaming services. Maybe you buy a movie on iTunes for $20 or $30.
With music, the expectation is that it is effectively free. Your Spotify or Apple Music monthly fee is cheaper than Netflix, HBO Max, or whatever else, and you get more. You get the entire catalog of recorded music, in a way that Netflix doesn’t have everything or HBO doesn’t have everything.
That dynamic, where you expect more but pay less and the artists are openly struggling, is the most unusual thing about music to me. And then Taylor Swift transcends it all.
The marketplace of music is strange, in that the consumers are pretty happy, the distributors are doing great, and the suppliers are extremely unhappy in general.