Who still pays for music?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

I really thought that by 2015 the paid-for music industry would be dead. I am surprised that it survives. I’m curious who keeps it alive.

Tove Lo and Taylor Swift teamed up to sing “Talking Body” (You’ve got a perfect one so put it on me):


Who pays for music nowadays? I think it’s interesting, this is something that Taylor Swift’s fans have in common: they pay for music. And not just a particular song that they like, they buy entire albums. Why not just download it for free? Or watch the video on YouTube and record the sound so you can play it later? This says a lot about the culture of Swift’s fans.

Ariel Schwartz just wrote an article titled “All the great male pop stars have disappeared” and the thesis is:

“There are just so many amazing, strong women in pop right now,” she said. “Beyoncé. Rihanna. Marina and the Diamonds.” Others she could have mentioned: Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Tove Lo, Robyn, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga…the list goes on.


But in the same article she points out that statistics don’t support the thesis:

“Maybe it’s our perception that’s changed. In an analysis of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Fusion found that women only made up 29% of the top 40 in the first half of 2015. Men are still dominating on the charts, but they aren’t dominating the cultural conversation.”

For the last 30,000 years, since the first cave paintings, good artists have had an importance that goes beyond what money they make. That is the norm. An artist who makes money is the exception.

I’ve been trying to figure out if I agree with the thesis that this is suddenly even more true of some of these female singers. Are female musicians having an impact that’s out of all proportion to their music sales? That’s partly why I’m interested in Taylor Swift, I can’t figure out where she fits in. Is she the boring singer who has a lot of sales, or does she actually have some importance that goes beyond her sales?

You probably heard that Swift has been inviting pretty much every musician and or singer on the planet to come perform with her. Justin Timberlake agreed to do a show with her, along with a hundred others.

GQ has a long interview with her and tries to suggest that Swift’s current success is without precedent:

“The scale of her commercial supremacy defies parallel—she’s sold 1 million albums in a week three times, during an era when most major artists are thrilled to move 500,000 albums in a year. If a record as comparatively dominant as 1989 had actually existed in the year 1989, it would have surpassed the sales of Thriller. There is no demographic she does not tap into, which is obviously rare. But what’s even more atypical is how that ubiquity is critically received. Swift gets excellent reviews, particularly from the most significant arbiters of taste. (A 2011 New Yorker piece conceded that Swift’s reviews are “almost uniformly positive.”) She has never gratuitously sexualized her image and seems pathologically averse to controversy. There’s simply no antecedent for this kind of career: a cross-genre, youth-oriented, critically acclaimed colossus based entirely on the intuitive songwriting merits of a single female artist. It’s as if mid-period Garth Brooks was also early Liz Phair, minus the hat and the swearing. As a phenomenon, it’s absolutely new.”


The article also pushes the idea that Swift autonomy that’s new:

“There is a perpetual sense that nothing about her career is accidental and that nothing about her life is unmediated. These are not unusual thoughts to have about young mainstream stars. But what’s different with Swift is her autonomy. There is no Svengali directing her career; there is no stage mother pushing her toward the spotlight. She is in total control of her own constructed reality. If there was a machine that built humans out of positive millennial stereotypes, Swift would be its utopian creation.”

I’m torn about this. There appears to be some truth to it, but it can’t be the whole truth, since there are roughly a gazillion talented musicians out there trying to make careers in music and they will never have the kind of fans who actually pay for music. When I was at monkeyclaus I met hundreds of great musicians who made 100% of their music money from doing live shows — no one was ever going to buy a song of theirs from iTunes. So Swift is clearly part of some kind of Nashville machine, the kind that can line up the kind of fans that pay for music.

As near as I can tell, Swift fits into the long-term trend whereby country music has become increasingly mainstream. She started as a country singer and now she is seen as a mainstream pop star. According to the article, she had to fight the establishment in Nashville to produce her recent album:


Swift is allowed to make whatever record she wants, based on the reasonable argument that she understands her specific space in the culture more deeply than anyone around her. The making of 1989 is a prime example: She claims everyone at her label (the Nashville-based Big Machine) tried to persuade her not to make a straightforward pop album. She recounts a litany of arguments with various label executives over every possible detail, from how much of her face would appear on the cover to how co-writer Max Martin would be credited in the liner notes. As far as I can tell, Swift won every one of these debates.

“Even calling this record 1989 was a risk,” she says. “I had so many intense conversations where my label really tried to step in. I could tell they’d all gotten together and decided, ‘We gotta talk some sense into her. She’s had an established, astronomically successful career in country music. To shake that up would be the biggest mistake she ever makes.’ But to me, the safest thing I could do was take the biggest risk. I know how to write a song. I’m not confident about a lot of other aspects of my life, but I know how to write a song. I’d read a review of [2012’s] Red that said it wasn’t sonically cohesive. So that was what I wanted on 1989: an umbrella that would go over all of these songs, so that they all belonged on the same album. But then I’d go into the label office, and they were like, ‘Can we talk about putting a fiddle and a steel-guitar solo on ‘Shake It Off’ to service country radio?’ I was trying to make the most honest record I could possibly make, and they were kind of asking me to be a little disingenuous about it: ‘Let’s capitalize on both markets.’ No, let’s not. Let’s choose a lane.”