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Taylor Swift doesn't need Spotify

Taylor Swift doesn’t need Spotify. 

In its first week, Swift’s new album, “1989,” sold nearly 1.3 million copies. It’s not only the fastest selling album of the year, but of the last 12 years, since “The Eminem Show.” To appreciate the sheer magnitude of that accomplishment, you have to consider the current state of the industry. According to analysts, this sort of thing shouldn’t be possible right now. Digital music sales have been in a state of free fall since last year, with Apple reporting losses of roughly 13 percent from iTunes through 2014. Streaming is killing digital downloads, much in the same way digital downloads killed physical CDs — or so the story goes.

Yet, the very album that Swift told Time Magazine her record label warned her not to make has become the first of the year to go platinum. And it generated all this buzz without relying on ad-supported streaming, as the pop icon pulled her entire discography from Spotify late last month.

She’s probably feeling quite good about that, as she should. “1989” is only entering its fourth week, and it has already validated Swift’s beliefs about what her music is worth.

Should we be surprised though? If anyone was going to drop 2014’s first platinum record, it had to be Taylor Swift. There are only a handful of artists today that can move CDs from Wal-Mart shelves and full-album downloads off iTunes. And these artists are perfectly content with that old, brick-and-mortar model of the business because it still pays them dividends.

Revelation of the century: Most musicians are not Taylor Swift. The market for her product is already saturated. Everyone knows who she is. Whether “1989” turned out to be a critical darling or disaster, there is no universe in which a new Taylor Swift album releases to minimal fanfare — at least, not today. Check back in 10 years, and we’ll see if that still holds true.

Taylor Swift doesn’t need Spotify, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, there is something undeniably wrong with perpetuating this myth about the injustice of streaming.

In her interview with Time, Swift said there should be “an inherent value placed on art.” Which would be a fair claim to make, if she wasn’t already being handsomely compensated in the first place. Spotify pays Swift’s record company based on her fraction of their total streams, multiplies that by her royalty rate and then keeps 30 percent for itself. What the singer gets out of the pie once it’s been sliced a hundred different ways by her label is per the terms of her contract. But there’s no free lunch on Swift’s dime — unless you’re a pirate.

So if free listeners are still paying for her music in the sense that they’re providing an audience for advertisers and the relevant parties are still getting their share, what’s Swift’s problem?

Evidently, it’s a moral one. “People should feel there is a value to what musicians have created,” the star argues in that same interview. In other words, the sheer quantity of dollars changing hands is irrelevant if the consumer doesn’t feel as if they’ve sacrificed anything to hear her music.

Again, these are things Swift can afford to worry about because, well, she’s Taylor Swift. This isn’t necessarily true for the majority of musicians who are simply looking to earn a living doing something they love and couldn’t care less about whether fans contemplate the value of their art. For these musicians, ad-supported streaming bears many potential benefits, beyond just exposure. Artists today have access to a greater number of distribution channels and tools than ever before, thanks not only to Spotify and other streaming services, but also Kickstarter and Bandcamp, which have revolutionized the way in which up-and-coming musicians fund new projects. While this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to “make it” today than it was in the past, it does mean musicians have choices — choices that did not exist even just 10 years ago.

Major labels used to be gatekeepers — only the content they permitted was released to the airwaves, commercialized in television and film and sold at retail. If you were a rising star, you had no other option. You had to play their game. Technology, thankfully, changed that — but Swift couldn’t give a damn. Her stance on free streaming comes from a place of security, confidence and unbridled success, kind of like a billionaire lobbying Washington for tax breaks for the rich. It is self-serving, insensitive to fans and totally irrelevant to the situations most artists find themselves in. Taylor Swift may not need Spotify, but we do.

Adam Ismail is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies with a minor in psychology. He is the Design Editor of The Daily Targum.

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