“We take our craft — whether it be the music, the lyrics, or the photos and artwork — very seriously, as do most artists. It is therefore sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is. From a business standpoint, this is about piracy — taking something that doesn’t belong to you; and that is morally and legally wrong. The trading of such information — whether it’s music, videos, photos, or whatever — is, in effect, trafficking in stolen goods.”
-Lars Ulrich, drummer, Metallica, taken from Rolling Stone, April 13th, 2000
“I have real concerns with the biggest companies licensing their catalogs to any streaming service that switches on. I think that devalues music, and so it’s really important that record companies and content providers around the world make sure that we’re holding on to … value. It takes a lot of time and effort and money and talent to do this, and if we start giving it all away for fractions of pennies, we’re not going to be able to do it anymore.”
– Scott Borchetta, CEO, Big Machine Label Group, taken from Financial Times, January 20th, 2014
Last week Taylor Swift became the first artist in 2014 to go platinum, she has had the best first-week selling an album in over 12 years, and many are predicting that it could be the last ‘first-week Platinum’ record ever. Her, and her record label Big Machine Label Group, hit it huge with this record and it will be remembered as one of the greatest commercial (and critical) smash-hits of this decade – on par with and already even exceeding The Heist, Random Access Memories, and 21. Just wait till January, it’ll be like this but with a bitter Beyonce in the background.
When 1989 dropped last Tuesday there was one glaring omission from the outlets that were offering the album: the very popular music streaming service, Spotify. After publicly criticizing the 24-year old for not having her newest smash-hit immediately available, as is the norm for albums of this caliber, Big Machine Label Group and Taylor Swift, decided on Monday to “shake-off” Spotify like one of her scorned past lovers and removed Swift’s entire catalog from Spotify. This left 40 million fans, and 2 million followers on Spotify (and an uncounted number of other fans on streaming sites like Pandora, Rdio, and Songza) without access to her music. Coincidentally, Beats Music, the smaller, less popular, and soon to be defunct music streaming service, which was bought by Apple earlier this year was spared this indignity.
Why would an artist as popular as Taylor Swift, and with as many resources as her record label, choose to take themselves out of this market?
According to the op-ed written by Swift herself in the Wall Street Journal, “Music is art, and art is important and rare… Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
There’s validity to that statement. If anybody knows the value of creating and selling music, I would imagine that it’s Taylor Swift – one of the most successful acts of this generation.
You know who also knows the value of music? Me. However, I’m on the other end of that “success” spectrum.
Allow me to illustrate this: I’ve been working in the music industry as a performer and bandleader since I moved to Toronto to begin my collegiate career, and have been playing music in some capacity since the age of 3. I’ve released 3 independent records with 3 different acts, records we recorded from scratch using money we made from playing bar gigs for our friends, family, and a small but dedicated group of fans. Music is my life, therefore my life has value.
On top of this I’m really, really good at keeping legal and financial records in order, so I happen to know exactly what I am making from streaming sites such as Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, etc..
Armed with this knowledge, and with a little bit of math, let’s see just how much Taylor Swift and Big Machine Label Group would have made just from Spotify!
According to my last cheque from Spotify I made $0.08 from 15 total streams on Spotify in the month of July. Very impressive, and one of the best months I’ve had to date.
Taylor Swift had over 2 million followers on Spotify. 1989 has a total of 13 songs. Let’s say that these die-hard Taylor Swift fans listen to this album, oh…. twice a week for the next month (that is a complete low-ball estimate). That’s 208 million plays of 1989 in a month. Now, if I got $0.08 for every 15 plays, that would mean that Taylor Swift and her team would pull in $1,109,333 in November alone just from 1989 being on Spotify.
This number, this insane number that the average Joe and Jane musician could never comprehend in their wildest dreams, this number is a low-end estimate. 208 million plays does not even account for all of the other songs and albums Swift has recorded during her career that were streamed via Spotify over the past few years.
So when Scott Borchetta said in the quote at the top of the page that “it’s really important that record companies and content providers around the world make sure that we’re holding on to … value”, he really means that they’re looking at their profit margins and Big Machine, as well as other big labels, see that streaming services are on the low end of that totem pole. This is true. Another look at my financial statements for that same month revealed that I sold 41 songs on iTunes and got remunerated $28.70. Not only is this a bigger windfall, but it is also a greater per unit profit of $0.70, in comparison to the $0.0018 I get from a streaming service.
If you chart these things out and look at potential sales, yeah, there will be a huge difference in profits. Anybody with a working set of eyes, let alone a Marketing/Business degree, can see the potential profits that are lost from streaming as oppose to downloads/physical sales.
But what I’m hearing out of the Swift camp is a lot of the same language I heard from Metallica a decade ago when they took on Napster. Things such as, “It is… sickening to know that our art is being traded like a commodity rather than the art that it is” or, “Napster has devised and distributed software whose sole purpose is to permit Napster to profit”. Swift, and Big Machine, have taken the, “this is art, respect and value this as art” angle.
There’s a GIF that came to mind as I was writing this:
For those who don’t know – this was taken from the Grammy ceremony last year when Taylor Swift thought she had won album of the year, but was mistaken as the actual winner was Random Access Memories (which sounded a lot like the name of her album Red).
What I see there is Taylor Swift, artist, musician, singer-songwriter, talent – she’s got it all – getting really excited when for a fleeting moment she had won Album of the Year only to be let down. But who the are those other guys, the guys who seem just, maybe even more, let down? That’s the management, those are label reps, big-wigs, whatever you want to call them, they’re money men. I’m sure they work very hard and are extremely good at what they do, but their end goal is to make money off of those who create art.
So when these people see a profit margin slip below their own ideals of ‘acceptable’, they pull the plug, they get out. This leaves the 2 million Taylor Swift Spotify followers to “go buy her CD” because if you don’t “you don’t support artists”.
Of course, if they lose the fan base they’re screwed, so here comes the PR team getting Taylor to extol the virtues of valuing music while Big Machine watches a spike in iTunes sales.
This whole thing smacks of greed and an unwillingness to understand emerging markets and new technology in the name of profits, all the while holding the “this is art” argument in front of you like a shield against the masses.
The example of Metallica v. Napster from 10 years ago shows clearly that ignoring, condemning, or straight up suing a new technological advance in marketing and consumption may work in the short run, but in regards to the long-term success (what a business person might call the “back-end”) it’s a horrible move. This makes the “this is art” argument ring just as hollow as ever.
One thing of note, go to YouTube, type in ‘1989 Taylor Swift Full‘ and see what pops up. Not surprisingly you’ll find close to 1,300 uploads of the album available to listen for free. Of course, these are example of a horrible breach of copyright laws and most of these will be shut down soon enough – however, if Swift and Big Machine want to address the idea of “value” of music in today’s digital age, they may be starting in the wrong place.