Bono might have been there in person, but his wasn’t the pop star name on everyone’s lips last week at Dublin’s Music Summit, the Web Summit’s spin-off division devoted to the music industry.
That honour belonged to Taylor Swift, the blonde-bobbed, pert-lipped, 24-year-old pop singer who last week took on the might of music streaming giant Spotify, one of the biggest global sources of music consumption, with more than 40 million users across 58 countries – and won.
Uncomfortable with having her music streamed for free, Swift removed her fizzy-pop new album 1989 from the music streaming service last week, a decision that startled industry observers, but may have contributed to her achieving staggering first-week sales figures for her fifth record.
Between October 27 and November 2, more than a fifth of all albums bought in the United States were copies of Swift’s 1989. Swift sold 1.287 million copies of her fifth studio album, making her 2014’s first platinum artist and giving her the best first-week sales of any artist since Eminem in 2002.
The album (which debuted at No 1 in Ireland) has sold more copies than the previous week’s 70 biggest-selling albums in the United States combined.
Swift’s digital and physical release sales will yield her a considerably higher return than anything Spotify could offer – the service pays artists between $0.006 and $0.0084 per play, meaning that even millions of plays delivers relatively meagre rewards.
“I don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free,” Swift told Yahoo. “I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists and creators of this music.”
In a record industry torn asunder by dwindling sales, free streaming and music platform fragmentation, Swift’s achievement firmly anoints her as one of the most powerful figures in pop music.
For observers, the trick is to figure out how she did it, and whether her path might work for other artists.
“I think she’s a unique case,” Jimmy Chamberlin, Live One Inc chief executive and former drummer with Chicago rockers the Smashing Pumpkins, said at the Music Summit last Thursday. “It’s a numbers game. She ran the numbers and made an economic decision.”
“Taylor Swift is one of the few artists who can drive sales and not just streams,” said David Holmes, an editor for tech publication Pando Daily. “Over time, if artists want their music to be heard in any meaningful way, they need to be on a streaming service.”
But as more than one industry observer pointed out, Swift has not removed all her music from streaming services, she has simply customised her approach, opting to keep her new music back entirely, but allowing her older music to continue to stream on paid-for, subscription-based services, which do not, like Spotify, allow for free, play-what-you-like streaming with adverts.
“From an artist’s point of view, subscription services have to work for the artist,” said Anthony Bay, chief executive of the music streaming service Rdio. “We have all of Taylor Swift’s music other than the new album. She’s not anti-streaming. She’s anti-free-streaming.”
Bay believes that, in the future, big artists will move towards releasing their music on services like Spotify gradually, in a similar approach to DVD rentals. “People don’t say, ‘Oh my God, the newest movie is not on Netflix. You don’t expect it to be. If you want to wait and see it for free, you know to wait.”
Swift isn’t the only high-profile artist who has a rocky relationship with Spotify. Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks and AC/DC have all refused to allow their albums stream on the service, and British singer Adele’s album 21 was not placed onto Spotify until well after the hit album’s release into shops.
Speaking at the Web Summit, Adele’s manager Jonathan Dickins backed the idea of streaming services, but said that Spotify’s policy of insisting that albums be made available on both its free and premiums tiers could become untenable for bigger stars. “Personally, I think streaming’s the future, but I don’t believe one size necessarily fits all with streaming,” he said.
As with any artist, the trick is to customise their personal brand and distribution style to best fit their particular audience. Key to Swift’s incredible success is her clever targeting of the kind of listeners Jimmy Chamberlin calls “super-fans” – the devoted fans who attend every gig, buy expensive box sets and forge an almost religious connection with their idol.
In the early days of the Smashing Pumpkins, Chamberlin said, he and lead singer Billy Corgan decided to look closely at their audience to understand how they could best sustain the band through a long and lucrative career.
“We started to notice that you can compartmentalise people into fans and super-fans,” Chamberlin said. “If you can create enough product for super-fans, you can create economic models that’ll give you longevity throughout your business – and that ties into our decision to release box sets. We have a really cogent understanding of that type of fan base, which has allowed us to be a successful catalogue business up until today.”
Swift has operated a similar model, but added in an important social networking dimension. In a panel discussion, Michael Schneider of social platform Urturn singled out for mention the success of ‘Taylurking’, a play on the Twitter term ‘lurking’, whereby Swift secretly pulled Twitter photos of fans posing with her new album and posted them to her Twitter account, much to their surprise and delight.
Swift has also personally invited super-fans to her house for pre-release album listening parties. “I found [the super-fans] on the internet,” she said in an interview with Graham Norton. “I would go online and look at their Instagram pages or their Tumblr or whatever and just watch them for months, and just cyber-stalk them, and then I invited them over, and they came.”
Those super-fans then wind up blogging, Instagramming and tweeting enthusiastically about their experiences, which can only assist sales. Anthony Bay believes that in the future, those super-fans may be given the opportunity to buy albums pre-release. “How much would your biggest fans pay for early release records, if you got it two weeks before the official release?” he said. “Some people would absolutely pay for that.”
If Spotify are upset by the development, they’re trying their best to take it lightly, tweeting song lyrics to Swift’s account to ask her to return. Swift was one of Spotify’s most popular artists. Her songs were on 19 million playlists and 25 per cent of listeners have streamed her music. Defending its streaming revenues, the company claims that the biggest album on the service each month generally generates more than $400,000 in royalties.
Still, musicians have every right to be wary of how their music is distributed. In an interview at the Web Summit with David Carr of the New York Times, Bono said musicians had to remember to value themselves.
“Historically musicians were troubadours, they travelled from town to town and sang for their supper,” the U2 singer noted. “I don’t like that – I prefer when musicians are their own brands. What makes me nervous about the present moment is that we’re slightly slipping back. Musicians are losing the firepower we had.
“Musicians have to be very careful that we don’t underestimate our value. We don’t have to play for the lord of the manor. The lord of the manor can pay in, and come see us like everyone else.”