Taylor Swift Is Right: There Will Always Be a Market for Emotion

The singer argues that the digital revolution may improve music as an art form. That's optimistic, but not foolishly so.
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Record sales may never spring back to life as T-Swift suggested, but she's right to say music that hits you like an arrow through the heart will live on. (AP Photo/John Davisson/Invision)

Taylor Swift is getting a lot of grief on the internet today for an essay she penned for the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the music industry has a bright future.

The reaction to her thesis has ranged from snarky derision to more methodical forms of ridicule. But ultimately, dismissing the views of one of the world’s most successful artists—Swift reportedly made $64 million last year—is both condescending and absurd.

Swift’s belief that people will still buy albums in full might be questionable. But the idea that people will pay for music “that hit[s] them like an arrow through the heart” and that there “are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people’s lives forever,” seems pretty sound. In fact, it reminds me of comments made by Steve Albini,  the legendary grunge-era figure who produced seminal albums for Nirvana and the Pixies in the 1990s. “Music is no longer a commodity, it’s an environment, or atmospheric element,” he told me earlier this year. “Consumers have much more choice, and you see people indulging in the specificity of their tastes dramatically more. They only bother with music they like.”

As the Journal points out, the music industry’s revenue has been sliced in half (and then some) over the past decade, mainly due to declining CD sales, a phenomenon itself caused by piracy, digital downloads (which allow people to buy individual songs rather than full albums) and the growth of streaming services. This trend is undeniable. The question is whether music, as an art form if not an industry, is actually losing out as a result.

Albini, one of the fiercest critics of the old music business paradigm, argues that the real losers are the record company middlemen and not artists, for whom the barriers to audiences have been completely removed. Bands don’t need to jump through the arbitrary hoops to access audiences anymore—signing with a record label, winning over the media critics. Instead, they can develop fan bases organically. This is manifest in the huge growth of numbers of independent artists making a living by creating music.

Yesterday Nielsen quietly released fresh figures on music sales, which showed further declines in digital downloads (down 12% over the past year) but huge gains for streaming services (up 42% over the same period). Those seeking a silver lining to this trend should look to Sweden for evidence that continued growth in digital platforms could actually see the overall music industry revenue pie return to growth globally. The penetration rate for streaming services in Sweden is the highest in the world, and the recorded music industry has been growing there, as people abandon piracy and adopt legitimate streaming platforms such as Spotify.

Of course,  the annual cost of a Spotify subscription (about $120 a year) is more than double what most people are willing to spend on music, but this can be viewed as both a challenge for subscription-based models, and an opportunity for the music business to capture an increased share of consumer wallets.

Yes, music is much easier to access for free or cheap than it was before the internet existed, and like many things on the internet, that’s driving down sales of music. But that doesn’t mean people are less willing to pay for it. They are just paying for it indirectly— by exposing themselves to advertising via streaming on YouTube, Pandora or Spotify, or by attending concerts.

The revenues from these sources are not yet making up for the declines in music ownership, but they may eventually. And as Albini argues, musicians may already be benefiting from the paradigm change, and have more to gain. Swift is right: There will always be a market for emotion.

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John McDuling is a reporter at Quartz.

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