We need to talk about Taylor Swift (and Spotify; but mostly Taylor Swift)

Oh Taylor, I almost liked you. Maybe not to fanatic levels but still, you had at least gained a modicum of respect through the sheer genius of ‘Shake It Off’. An actual proper, no holds barred pop-song with not a single desire to be anything but. I’d ‘shaken off’ (sorry) my preconceptions of you as a slightly contrived youth-messiah and accepted your skill at turning such bitchy hate into clever, catchy couplets. A Regina George for the global stage.

                                      So. Fetch.

It’s all gone now. Swift has withdrawn her new album ‘1989’ from the music streaming service Spotify (and all her other albums for that matter) and the interweb has gone a little mad about it. Admittedly she had had a rather fractious relationship with the service from the start, citing worries over it’s pay-per-stream model of less than half a cent and the knock on effect this has on record sales. She had also previously used a piece in the Wall Street Journal to set out her position and it has divided those that take interest in these matters (basically her fans and musicians of the lowest tier). As you should know I am a passionate supporter of Spotify; both as an artist and a fan. This puts us at odds.

Here’s a quote:

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. – Taylor Swift, 7/7/14 Wall Street Journal

I think that is patronising and wrong so have been reflecting on it for this blog. As I’m not sure the best way to present my views, I thought I’d sod it all and do a top 5. Here we go:

  1. Music is an art form, not an art. Semantic difference it may be but it’s one of great importance when viewing the rest of the statement. Just as the visual arts encompass everything from billboard advertisements to the work of J M W Turner; so the musical arts include TV jingles through to the New Complexity movement. All music fits somewhere on the spectrum. Whether it’s an Art (in the sense of great work that reflects the human condition in a fresh perspective) or not depends on endless aesthetic debate. A creator can only view their work as Art on a personal level. The rest of us must decide for ourselves whether the piece is worthy of such high an honour, not have the creator tell us so. I don’t see her work as art, I see it as catchy-commodified pop. It’s not a dig; it doesn’t make it less good; it just doesn’t move anything in me (except my hips).

  2. Art is obvs. important. It’s how we reflect our culture and collectivity. It’s how some of us define ourselves whilst others define the world. It’s an expression of who we are. But it’s not rare. Not rare in the slightest. If we take Swift’s view that all music is art then go turn on the radio, you’ll be bombarded with an endless parade of art. I’m listening to Spotify now and could happily be surrounded by audible art for the rest of my life. Lack of content is not the problem but the quality of it. There is so much out there and most of it is dross (in both the mainstream and the underground). Pricing it all becomes relative.

  3. Yeah, Swift’s logic is kinda sound. Important, rare things are valuable, though so are merely rare things; or simply important things; or anything really. Market forces hold us in chains; big business conniving to get the biggest return on an investment, often at our expense. This makes it hard to justify whether certain things should be paid for in the traditional way. I don’t advocate theft but then again I don’t steal, I pay my Spotify subscription and get my reward. It’s an affordable system. If I stop my payments then I lose the reward. Simples. When a business artificially increases the rarity and therefore inflates the price of a commodity (such as De Beers and all those shiny, shiny diamonds) then it leaves a bad taste to be guilt-tripped into paying over the odds by the producer themselves. By removing her work from Spotify (though not Beats Music or Rdio) Swift is artificially increasing the rarity of her self-described ‘art’. Forcing us to pay whatever she chooses. Actually, now you mention it…

  4. An artist that arbitrarily sets price points (especially one who has such a committed fan-base) is a bit of a worrying idea. It reminds me of everyone knocking the bankers and their inflated salaries. The argument in that instance being that they worked hard and deserved it (of which most people were disgusted by the sums involved); Swift is saying she worked hard and deserves her money. Of course she does. But then we get into difficult discussions over how much she actually needs, £55 for the cheapest performance tickets (in Glasgow) isn’t the worst but it’s still a lot of money. My first gig only cost about £15 and; yes it was a long time ago; yes, inflation blah blah blah but it was at Wembley Arena and it was affordable. It was also for a 5 piece band so the income had to be split 5 ways. Of course, that said she works for that money on a show by show basis so can set the point where she likes. A record is different. It is a commodity. It will go up and down in value naturally (it’s now £35 for a vinyl of Brian Eno’s ‘Before and After Science’!!!!). If she was so genuinely sincere about the costings of her music then she’d sell it exclusively from her website. But she wants the whole musical spectrum to join her in cynically raising the cost of music, thus once again pricing out the lesser groups and re-altering the field we worked so hard in levelling. She wants the big labels to continue to hold the monopoly, making and breaking artists as they see fit for profit. This is not a good thing.

  5. The kicker at the end. A condescending send off. ‘I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art’… We don’t. We just don’t. It’s not a community of try-hards being crushed under the weight of the free services, forcing us into a penniless cultural slavery. We down on the lower tier value ourselves highly, it’s why we use services like Spotify and Soundcloud to show our work off with pride. We use Bandcamp to sell our music at affordable prices for those that want to buy it. It’s just become so easy to be a musician nowadays! But all the big bucks are being spent on advertisement campaigns and record advances for the big acts so there is very little to be spent developing us. Helping us. Giving us value. That was the death knell for the old music industry (of which Swift, with possibly the sole Platinum album of 2014, is very much a member); the moment they stopped investing in the future of music. Instead they used their resources to rip each other off and flail about in vain to gain that fast buck from a clone of whatever is currently popular. Indeed, ‘our’ (as in, we put upon masses) art has been completely devalued by the utter saturation of popular culture by but a few massive names. I’m a bit annoyed that I’m adding to it by writing this. Still; haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.

That was a lot of words…. Sorry. Moving on.

Swift’s heart is in the right place (albeit one with an endless parade of famous friends and comfortable shoes) but she’s simply not put anywhere near enough time into thinking about the issue. The music industry is not dying, not in the slightest. It’s being reborn as something more egalitarian and more honest with Spotify as the vanguard. There will be less money in it but that will just make us work harder for what we can get and hopefully increase the quality of art (for it will likely be art, as it will have to mean everything) in the process. Removing her music is entirely her choice and however cynical I think it be, she’s entitled to it. I just don’t think her reasons are justified. Oh well, at least we’ve still got Veronica.

                               There is always Veronica
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