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.”