Back in 2014, Taylor Swift became an unlikely hero for struggling musicians when she pulled her music from Spotify and denounced the undervaluation of music in an era of free streaming.
Some hoped that Swift’s move would convince others to abandon streaming, inspiring a revolution against the tech companies that had got rich off the work of musicians and artists. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t really happen. Spotify and other streaming services have only grown more influential and the economics of the industry haven’t got much fairer for artists, even if the increase in streaming has made the industry more profitable in general.
It also shouldn’t come as any surprise that Swift is choosing to keep her latest album, Reputation off streaming services for its first week, as she did with her last album, the blockbuster, multimillion-selling 1989. 1989 was a huge commercial success, selling over 1 million US copies in its first week, and a big reason for that was because you had to buy (or torrent) it to hear it.
But the buzz around Eeputation is not the same as the kind that preceded 1989. Although ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ matched ‘Shake It Off’ by reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and surpassed it by becoming Swift’s first UK no. 1, it also polarised critics and was mauled by commentators on social media. Swift has always had haters but for the first time, the hate felt like it was overwhelming the praise.
While ‘LWYMMD’ holds some impressive records, most notably the most first-day streams on Spotify, its staying power has been underwhelming at best. In the 78 days between the release of ‘LWYMMD’ and Reputation, the song has gone Platinum in the US, selling around 1 million copies according to the RIAA. In the same time, ‘Shake It Off’ was well on its way to reaching 3x Platinum. Similarly, while 1989 produced three no. 1 singles in the US, the two follow-up singles to ‘LWYMMD’ have only peaked at no. 4 and no. 13 respectively. Swift was pretty much bulletproof when it came to the charts in 2014 so she could do whatever she wanted. A week before the release of 1989, the demand for Swift’s music was so high that an 8 second clip of white noise that was accidentally released as the album’s third track shot to no. 1 on the Canadian iTunes chart. You can’t imagine the same level of hysteria happening today.
Taylor Swift is still a bankable artist but she doesn’t feel invisible anymore.
What should be even more worrying for Swift’s team is how her strong first-day sales and streams are hiding the vulnerability of Reputation’s promotional campaign. As mentioned earlier, ‘LWYMMD’ opened strong with its first week sales but has failed to keep that momentum. Now, its sales stand next to no chance of catching up with multi-million sellers like ‘Shape of You’ and ‘Despacito’ by the end of 2017. Swift’s disappointing momentum can also be seen in her streaming numbers, which started as strongly as any artist this year but soon fell rapidly.
When looking at the figures of the first 10 weeks of global Spotify streams for the six songs that have managed to record 40 million weekly streams this year, Taylor’s track had the most rapid decline. Although it’s natural for a hit song to start strong and then gradually fade away, the collapse of Swift’s streaming numbers over ‘LWYMMD’’s first 10 weeks is both sharper and more consistent than the other 5 songs. In short, while people have been keen to check out Swift’s new singles, it could be suggested that they haven’t been interested in returning to them. The same trend can be seen with Reputation’s other singles so far, albeit with weaker first-week streaming numbers.
All of this points to a very worrying reality that none of Reputation’s singles have really impacted mainstream culture in the same way that ‘Shake It Off’ or ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ did. When those songs came out, you couldn’t avoid them, even if you wanted to. Now, it feels surprisingly easy to not care about the new Taylor Swift album. If it’s also not on streaming services, a lot of people may not even end up listening to it.
However, Swift’s team don’t seem to share my pessimistic outlook. In fact, they’re predicting that Reputation could sell 2 million first-week copies in the US; a projection that sounds so ridiculous that they must have some decent data to back it up. Nevertheless, I do agree that it will perform well in its first-week. I could see it breaking a few records, maybe even earning Swift her highest sales yet. But the problem with the Reputation roll-out is not that it’s been unable to take headline-worthy records. The problem has been with longevity. Lots of people might buy this album but the evidence so far suggests that most of them are not going to return it and embrace it into their lives. It risks becoming just another piece of pop culture to be consumed and discarded.
So, to go back to the original question – is Taylor Swift still powerful enough to avoid streaming? – the answer is yes, for now. Avoiding Spotify and Apple Music will likely help Reputation’s sales, as a short-term business move it’s perfect, and it will spare Swift the possibility of underwhelming streaming numbers derailing the campaign. But if what I’ve argued is true and Reputation becomes one of those albums that a lot of people own but very few people listen to, what happens to Taylor Swift? Will she still have as committed a fanbase in 2 or 3 years’ time? And will we all be anticipating a new Taylor Swift single as hotly as we have done before? I doubt it, and that’s concerning because Swift works best when she’s creating conversation, when she’s able to use her music to comment on her social status, and dare we say, her reputation.
In short, if in 10 years’ time, we end up asking the question – do you remember when Taylor Swift was big? Don’t be surprised if people point to Reputation as the turning point.
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Words by Conrad Duncan