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Five problems with Taylor Swift’s Wall Street Journal op-ed

Does Taylor Swift know how to fix the music industry? (Photo by Al Powers/Powers Imagery/Invision/AP, File)
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Taylor Swift wrote an unflinchingly positive forecast for the music industry in the Wall Street Journal yesterday called “The Future of Music Is a Love Story.” The 24-year-old mega-star — who Forbes reported had made $64 million by June 2014 — didn’t apologize for her starry-eyed view: “You should know that you’re reading the opinion of an enthusiastic optimist: one of the few living souls in the music industry who still believes that the music industry is not dying…it’s just coming alive,” she wrote.

Responses were either condescending or offered ill-considered support — and failed to take Swift’s unorthodox arguments seriously. Here’s a quick fact-check.

1. “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.”

When record stores existed, their bins were filled with also-rans. For every Bruce Springsteen there are many Southside Johnnies; for every RZA there are many Masta Killas. When so many musicians give so much to their art and get so little, it’s hard to argue that love is all you need to create value in the market.

2. “Music is art, and art is important and rare.”

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.

Washington locals Felt Letters offered a less nuanced critique in the 2009 song “600,000 Bands”:

3. “The wild, unpredictable fun in making music today is that anything goes.”

Cole Porter first pointed out that “Anything Goes” in the 1934 musical of that name, making Swift’s observation about eight decades late. But while artists such as M.I.A. or Death Grips genre-bend in novel ways, it’s not clear that anything goes on the radio or in the marketplace. For the most part, what’s topping the charts today has been topping the charts since they existed: dance music in 4/4 time — or ballads.

Yes, Anthony Braxton is free to play free jazz and Kayo Dot is free to play avant-garde metal. But even before the sale of recorded music was disrupted by Silicon Valley, it’s not clear the market supported these boundary-breaking artists — or earned them a middle-class wage. DJs can earn $10 million for a residency in Las Vegas. The Ruins can’t.

4. “Artists will get record deals because they have fans — not the other way around.”

Swift’s supply-side argument — if they come, you can build it — focuses on the power of social media, but confuses social media with society. Real friends buy a record — Facebook friends “like” it. Twitter followers retweet a show announcement — but don’t necessarily go to a show. Malcolm Gladwell argues that such “weak ties” can’t bring lasting social change. We can’t expect them to bring every worthy artist to the surface, either.

And record deals do not necessarily bring riches anyway. The Root pointed out in 2010 that, for every $1,000 in album sales, the average musicians make $23.40. Steve Albini — and Courtney Love — were on to this shell game long ago.

5. “The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all.”

Those who abandon more reliable careers for music risk poverty, parental disapproval, a lack of quality medical insurance, frustrated neighbors, frowning housemates, disappointed life partners, substance abuse, spotty resumes, boring van rides and likely irrelevance.

What’s not to fear?