This piece was originally written for Quartz
Taylor Swift fights for the little man. Except for when she doesn’t.
The pop superstar graces the cover of Vanity Fair’s September issue in a wide-ranging interview that includes new details about the back story of her now-famous open letter to Apple. Calling upon the media giant to pay artists, writers, and producers royalties during the three-month free trial period of their new music-streaming platform, the nature of the response was very different from Swift’s op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last summer, in which she called out Spotify. While Spotify ignored Swift’s demands, Apple did an about face less than 24 hours later.
While certainly not lacking for accolades as far as her musical career is concerned, Swift’s recent, politicized headlines have catapulted her into a different realm altogether. Since the Apple row, she’s been lauded as an activist for musicians, a savior in the fight against greedy music-industry titans. But there’s one problem with this media narrative: Taylor Swift is not an underdog. Taylor Swift has never been an underdog, and the media’s painting of her is silly and ignorant.
For one thing, underdogs do not sign record deals with RCA at 13 years old. Their fathers are not investors in their labels. They don’t typically sell more than five million copies of their debut album or boast a comfortable net worth of $200 million. They don’t have access to The Wall Street Journal or Vanity Fair when they’re shopping their latest manifesto.
No, Taylor Swift is an incredibly savvy capitalist and businesswoman—and that’s okay. But we should acknowledge her success for what it is, even if that success is less Occupy Wall Street and more Wolf of Wall Street.
Before now, streaming platforms like Spotify have skirted the topic of how rights-holders of music— the producers, writers, and singers—are compensated every time a song is streamed. Spotify states that rights-holders are awarded about 70% of Spotify’s revenue, but that average payout ends up being between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream. After labels and publishers take their cut, an artist could expect about $0.001128 per song. Meanwhile, an artist gets between seven and eight cents when a 99 cent song is purchased on iTunes.
It’s not that Swift’s accusations against streaming services and her demands to pay artists more are wrong. Indeed, as music sales continue to dwindle and streaming continues to surge, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. But it’s a bit disingenuous for Swift to act as if Spotify in any way threatens her income, or that she doesn’t have anything to gain from dismissing it. After pulling her albums from Spotify’s catalog last fall, CEO Daniel Ek estimated that an immensely popular artist like Swift was on track to earn more than $6 million in royalties from Spotify in a year.
If $6 million isn’t enough, she can always supplement it with her hugely successful tours, branded merchandise, and sponsorship deals. But Swift has something to gain from pulling her music from Spotify that’s bigger than income. Earlier this summer, 1989 became the first album to break five million units sold since 2011. While it would have been a huge success even if it were available on Spotify, it’s difficult to ignore the strategic move to keep the album off streaming platforms as a way to drive up impressive album sales.
Then there’s the fact that for a newly-anointed David, Swift seems to have been hurling quite a few of Goliath’s javelin at individuals recently.
This January, Swift sent several Etsy sellers cease and desists, alleging trademark violations. These are not massive corporations like Wal-Mart selling products in her likeness, mind you; they’re fans. They’re people who sell cross-stitched pillows with “Shake It Off” lyrics for $25, barely making enough money to cover production and shipping costs.
Going a step further, Swift petitioned to trademark specific lyrics from 1989—general phrases like “this sick beat”—in a slick business move meant to deter further unofficial usage.
But it’s not just knitting circles who have incurred Swift’s wrath. In the immediate aftermath of Swift’s critique of Apple, concert photographers called her out for actively curtailing their ability to make a fair wage. Swift says she’s standing up for the rights of artists, and yet her management company, Firefly Entertainment, serves up aggressive contracts limiting the artistic rights of others. Concert photographers in particular are limited to “one-time use” publication rights and must concede that Firefly has the “perpetual, worldwide right to use” their work in any promotional content—without compensation. Those who don’t comply face the threat of destruction of their equipment.
“You say in your letter to Apple that ‘three months is a long time to go unpaid.’ But you seem happy to restrict us to being paid once, and never being able to earn from our work ever again, while granting you the rights to exploit our work for your benefit for all eternity,” wrote UK photographer Jason Sheldon, one of the photographers who shared his contract with the internet in an open letter to Swift.
Exactly who is Taylor Swift standing up for? Who are these underdogs she champions? In the Vanity Fair interview, Swift claims her Apple letter was spurred by a text from a friend.
“The contracts had just gone out to my friends, and one of them sent me a screenshot of one of them. I read the term ‘zero percent compensation to rights holders,’” she said at the time.
But standing up for the little people is about more than just saying they should make more money. You can’t generate income from higher streaming payouts if no one is streaming your music. If Swift really were standing up for the little people, she’d be giving unknowns spots on her tour, or including them among her famous, ever-expanding clique.
Perhaps we should look more closely at Swift’s own words. “With Beats Music and Rhapsody, you have to pay for a premium package in order to access my albums. And that places a perception of value on what I’ve created. On Spotify, they don’t have any settings or any kind of qualifications for who gets what music,” Swift told Time last November.
Essentially, Swift believes her music should be a premium service, and should cost more than her competitors. Although she may have positioned herself as a hero of the creative class, Taylor Swift taking on music streaming services is not an underdog story. If anything, it’s the clash of the titans.