Taylor Swift’s entire catalogue is back on Spotify. Her first four albums haven’t been available since November 2014, and her October 2014 release 1989 has never been on the service before today. It’s the end of what has inarguably been the biggest, messiest controversy of the paid streaming era, and my colleague Micah Singleton has plenty of thoughts on how it happened and what it means for the music industry.
But I’m also interested in what this decision means for Taylor Swift. Not as a pop star or Katy Perry’s nemesis (happy album release day, Katy!) or a lightning rod for controversy — but as Taylor Swift the economist, the moralist, and the vague symbol for artists’ rights.
To put Swift into some context I think is often ignored, she’s not just one of the biggest pop stars in the world: She’s also its most successful, prolific, and recognizable contemporary songwriter. That’s a designation she’s proven she cares about. She can make hundreds of millions touring as an A-list performer, but it still makes sense that a prodigiously talented young woman who was written off for years on the basis of her diaristic songwriting and frivolous interest in glitter would transition into adult pop stardom in part on a platform of business savvy and semi-empowering rhetoric about the value of her own labor.
She’s uniquely positioned to speak authoritatively on this issue as a public-facing brand and a behind-the-scenes creative. Though, that doesn’t guarantee that her stance on streaming is logically sound.
July 2014: “Valuable things should be paid for”
In a now-infamous essay for The Wall Street Journal, Swift wrote:
"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."
The thrust of this argument takes a few things for granted that weren’t true, even in 2014: For one, that Swift could use her personal situation as a standard by which to gauge the industry’s dealings with artists. More importantly, that music takes its value from being “rare,” and for another, that the concept of a concrete “price point” for an album was still one that made any sense.
There is no such thing as “rare” when you’re talking about content that’s distributed primarily via the internet. Album sales, digital and physical, were already plummeting by the time Swift offered up these thoughts, and many of her young fans were more likely to listen to her music on YouTube, paying for the experience with auto-play ads, than they were to have gone to a Target and laid down their $14.99. But the biggest flaw in Taylor Swift’s argument? She’s Taylor Swift.
She, and other top artists, stand to make millions of dollars from streaming no matter what happens, and Spotify and Apple Music even push them further ahead of the crowd by way of recommendation algorithms, featured playlists, and paid exclusives. Nothing she says will ever apply evenly to the people who might really suffer.
November 2014: Streaming is “an experiment”
Swift’s 1989 was conspicuously missing from Spotify when it was released in October 2014, and Swift yanked the rest of her catalogue a month later.
Days later, she explained the decision saying:
“[A]ll I can say is that music is changing so quickly, and the landscape of the music industry itself is changing so quickly, that everything new, like Spotify, all feels to me a bit like a grand experiment. And 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. And I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free... I thought, ‘I will try this; I'll see how it feels.’ It didn't feel right to me.”
Spotify had as much fun as it could with the controversy at first, writing her a pun-filled public note and promoting a playlist called “What to Play While Taylor’s Away,” so it’s mildly interesting that they’ve refrained from gloating about today’s victory. When reached for comment, a Spotify spokesperson would say only “We can confirm that Taylor Swift’s entire back catalogue is now available on Spotify for her millions of fans to enjoy,” a fact which anyone with internet access can also confirm. The spokesperson also linked to a “This Is: Taylor Swift” playlist, which looks just like the “This Is” playlist for every major artist, and has the simple tagline “She’s back. Stream all of her greatest hits now.”
Whether or not Swift’s stance on Spotify made sense, its obviously just glad to have her back, and no longer interested in going toe-to-toe. Or maybe Spotify doesn’t feel the need to point out the obvious: Streaming isn’t an experiment now, it’s just the way things are. Swift doesn’t exactly look like a hypocrite here, but she does look like someone who bet on the wrong horse.
March 2015: Tidal is fine
For reasons that went unexplained by anyone from Swift’s camp, she decided one spring day to put all of her music except 1989 on Tidal. At the time, the service was available only as a “hi-fi” premium subscription sold for $19.99 per month. Since Swift’s main issue with Spotify was its free, ad-supported tier, it makes sense that she would be more willing to play ball with an all-paid service. But then, why hold back 1989? And, if she had a fundamental moral quibble with the very idea of ad-supported streams, why keep anything on YouTube? Vevo’s royalty payments aren’t anything impressive compared to Spotify or Tidal.
A blip in the timeline, this move still muddied Swift’s point.
June 2015: Apple Music free trial is “shocking, disappointing”
When Apple announced three-month free trials to users willing to give Apple Music a go, and quietly told labels that artists wouldn’t be seeing any royalties for those streams, Swift took to Tumblr to express her displeasure:
“I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.
This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success. This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create...
...I realize that Apple is working towards a goal of paid streaming. I think that is beautiful progress. We know how astronomically successful Apple has been and we know that this incredible company has the money to pay artists, writers and producers for the 3 month trial period… even if it is free for the fans trying it out.
Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing. I say this with love, reverence, and admiration for everything else Apple has done. I hope that soon I can join them in the progression towards a streaming model that seems fair to those who create this music. I think this could be the platform that gets it right.”
This argument, as opposed to Swift’s first statement in WSJ, acknowledges that Swift is not ever going to be personally affected by the outcome of the streaming wars. It also asks for something specific and points out a policy that’s quite obviously unfair, bringing the plights of producers and songwriters to the forefront. It’s a really strong recalibration for Swift’s message in regards to streaming, in particular because it’s not an argument against the very basic idea. Though, it also spends a weird amount of time on complimenting the richest tech company in the world.
June 2015: The first time streaming “felt right” in Taylor’s gut
Apple acquiesced to Swift’s demand, and agreed to pay royalties to everyone during its free trial. So the following week, she announced via Twitter that 1989 would stream for the first time on Apple Music (alongside her back catalogue).
This is simply the first time it's felt right in my gut to stream my album. Thank you, Apple, for your change of heart.— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) June 25, 2015
She also took care to note that 1989 was not an Apple Music exclusive in any contractual sense, she just didn’t want to put the album on any other services yet. Again, that’s a bit of a contradiction, considering Tidal was also subscription-only.
August 2015: Apple Music has “humility,” Spotify is “a corporate machine”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, swift laid out the crucial differences between her two big streaming feuds:
“Apple treated me like I was a voice of a creative community that they actually cared about. And I found it really ironic that the multi-billion-dollar company reacted to criticism with humility, and the start-up with no cash flow reacted to criticism like a corporate machine.”
This didn’t really go over very well for Swift. She sort of unfairly neglected to acknowledge that her issue with Apple had been one the super-rich company could easily solve with money, and that her fight with Spotify had been a meta-level spat over its very existence and the business model. Pandora co-founder Tom Conrad called it “mostly theater,” pointing out on Twitter that Spotify does pay out artist royalties for its free tier — exactly what Swift demanded Apple do, then thanked them for doing, complimenting their “change of heart.” What exactly is the problem with Spotify’s free tier, if they sustain it with the same system by which Apple would support its free trial? You can argue, of course, that royalties are too low in both cases, but Swift didn’t.
She also faced criticism from former One Direction member Zayn Malik, leading to a really funny and hard to follow Twitter spat between Malik and Swift’s then-boyfriend, DJ and producer Calvin Harris. Malik and Swift later recorded a duet for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack, so I guess everyone’s over it.
December 2015: “A little surprise for you”
Swift’s 1989 World Tour Documentary became Apple Music’s first big video exclusive, announced to coincide with her 26th birthday: “Thank you so much for all the birthday wishes. I have a little surprise for you.” Promoting it, she always remembered to tack on an @AppleMusic.
April 2016: An Apple Music ad “based on true events”
Swift’s first ad for Apple Music showed her running on (and falling off of) a treadmill while listening to an Apple Music-curated playlist called “#GYMFLOW.” Specifically, she was listening to “Jumpman,” a song off of Drake and Future’s big Apple Music exclusive, What a Time To Be Alive. The ad debuted on Apple’s 40th birthday, on Swift’s personal Twitter account, with the caption “Based on true events.”
Whatever nitpicks Swift might have had with the basic concept of streaming in 2014, they were seemingly all behind her at this point. Not only was she onboard with one streaming service, she was actively promoting it.
Swift’s music is also available on Pandora and Google Play Music, and 1989 has finally been added to Tidal. She hasn’t said a single thing about it, beyond her label announcing that it’s a celebration of 1989 selling 10 million copies worldwide. Maybe because there’s nothing to say other than “I had to change my mind eventually?”
Swift won her feud with Apple Music because she wanted something very specific, and she took issue with a business practice that was blatantly unfair. Her feud with Spotify was never a feud with Spotify at all — it was a feud with the entire industry, the changing landscape, and the way fans expect to access music now. She was always going to surrender, and dipping her toe in with Apple Music probably helped Spotify in the long run. As a symbol for the rights of artists in the digital age, she’s a watery one at best.
Did she win anything from Spotify? Maybe. Universal Music Group, the parent company for Swift’s Big Machine Records, signed a new deal in April that lets artists opt to keep new albums off of Spotify’s free tier for their first two weeks. Spotify has also been cozying up to songwriters, announcing just this week that it would start a “Secret Genius” program — an awards show, special workshops with A-list talent, and curated playlists in honor of the almighty lyricist. She might see that as a welcome sign of respect. And Swift is famous for lacing her album booklets with riddles and clues about the songs’ meaning. Maybe, with the death of the album insert, Spotify’s new Genius integration is appealing to her? Maybe it really is a Katy Perry thing.
Anyway, she’s back.