Shortcuts / 07 November 2023

The business of Taylor Swift (part 1)

You’ve probably heard of Taylor Swift – she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She’s now estimated to be worth US$1.1 billion, making her one of the few artists to reach that level based on her music alone. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at how she started out, her recovery from a rough 2016, and how she’s rewriting the rules in the music industry…

Let’s go back to the start…
Let’s do it. Taylor Alison Swift was born in December 1989. Fans will know that year – she has an album named after it… She was born in Pennsylvania and named after the legendary muso James Taylor. Her dad was in finance and her mum was in marketing.

Sounds like the perfect pedigree to become a star…
It worked out for her, didn’t it? Her early years were spent on a Christmas tree farm, and even then she knew she wanted to be in music. Inspired by Shania Twain, Faith Hill, and other country stars of the time, by 13yo she knew she had to be in Nashville, Tennessee.

The home of country music?
That’s the one. She’s of that time that everyone there wanted to do what she did – sing big songs and become a star. So she knew she had to be different and that’s when she learned guitar and started to develop her songwriting skills.

How did that go for her?
It paid off pretty early. A development deal with Sony records came her way when she was 14yo – and then a year later in 2005, she signed a recording deal with the start-up label Big Machine Records for 6 records.

Then what?
The following year, in 2006, Taylor released her self-titled debut album, and it was a big hit. It climbed to #5 on the Billboard charts.

So she was off to a strong start…
She was, and from the beginning she was very involved in the making and promotion of her albums. She said, “They only had 10 employees at the record label to start out with, so when they were releasing my first single, my mom and I came in to help stuff the CD singles into envelopes to send to radio. We sat on the floor and did it because there wasn’t furniture at the label yet”.

It’s a far cry from her current career…
Yep, and early on another really important part of her career started to form: her close relationship with her fans. At concerts, she would stay back and sign autographs until fans were gone, which sometimes lasted up to 3 hours.

That’s dedication…
Young Taylor was also an early user of social media, especially MySpace at the time. What she would do was get her fans to tell her via MySpace whenever they heard her songs on the radio, so she could then go to radio stations and use her fan messages to encourage them to play her songs more often on the radio.

And then she went gangbusters?
You bet. Taylor’s second album, Fearless, was released in November 2008, and it featured her first 2 #1 Billboard songs – Love Story and You Belong with Me. It went on to become America’s top-selling album for 2009. She also had her first headlining concert, which grossed around US$65 million.

So the hype was growing…
… and her success just kept building for the next 3 albums. Speak Now, Red, and 1989 were all bigger than the previous albums, and the tours keep getting more and more massive. And throughout this time she continued to cultivate a really deep relationship with her fans.

She posted behind-the-scenes videos of her process on YouTube, and wrote a Tumblr blog where she could talk directly with her fans. And for several of her albums she would hold ‘secret sessions’ just before the album was released. These were events where she’d invite hand-picked superfans to her home and play them songs from the new album.

So fanaticism pays offs for Swifties?
It certainly has for some – but not everyone’s a fan…

When did things start to go sour?
It was relatively smooth sailing for Taylor until 2016 – the year that Taylor had public disputes with fellow musos Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and, most famously, Kanye West. There was a backlash against Taylor, and many people who weren’t tuned into her or had decided they weren’t fans started saying she was manipulative and a liar.

How did Taylor respond?
She basically disappeared from the spotlight for a year. But she wasn’t done… She was working on her sixth studio album, Reputation, which is a self-scrutinising response to her fame and the conflicting narratives around her. It showed Taylor’s ability to control the conversations around her, and it was, once again, a big commercial hit.

And it was the last record on her contract?
Exactly, so it meant the end of Taylor’s initial 6-record deal with Big Machine Records. She signed a new deal with Universal Music Group – and as part of that deal, she negotiated a clause that also benefits other artists. Universal was an early investor in Spotify, and Taylor made it a condition of her contract that if Universal ever cashes out its Spotify investment, it will share the proceeds with all of its artists.

So she started shaking up the industry…
She did, and that came to a head when Taylor tried to buy the rights to her first 6 albums from Big Machine. Disaster struck when she learned that Big Machine was being sold to a record executive named Scooter Braun, who had no intention of selling her albums back to her.

What did she do?
Taylor essentially turned this setback into a defining moment of her image and business. Because she couldn’t get her music rights, she decided to re-record her own version of her old albums, with extra content for fans.

So she’s essentially destroying the value of her original albums?
Yep, so the value of the assets that Braun owns – and she’s able to do that because she has loyalty with her fans. As of October she’s released 4 of the 6 ‘Taylor’s Version’ albums, and each of them has once again been a success, heading to the top of the Billboard album charts.

What happened with the next albums?
There was Lover, and then came the pandemic, which forced everyone into lockdown… During this time Taylor went deep with Folklore and Evermore, which were also massive hits. Most recently, she released her tenth album, Midnights.

And let me guess – it was a big success?
You got it. After that album’s release, Taylor launched her Eras Tour, which is a recap of her entire career. In the US, the concert’s ticket sales infamously crashed Ticketmaster, and sold out almost instantly.

How has the tour gone?
It has become a huge phenomenon on TikTok, and Taylor’s cultural impact has never been bigger. And for all the people who didn’t get tickets to the tour – or Swifties who just can’t get enough – she released a film version of the tour. That was only a few weeks ago, and it’s already the highest grossing concert film in history.

Not too shabby…
It became the first concert film to make more than $100 million at the box office – and as for the Eras tour itself, the estimate is that the tour made $780 million during the US leg of the tour. It’s also thought the Eras Tour could become the first concert tour in history to gross more than $1 billion worldwide.

So she’s a bit of a mastermind…
She is – and next week, we’re going to go learn about Taylor’s business smarts, and her wider impact on culture and the economy. Stay tuned…

Squiz recommends:

Listening: We couldn’t leave you without some songs to listen to… Some of our faves are Delicate from Reputation, All Too Well from Red and You’re On Your Own, Kid from Midnights

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