Taylor Swift’s highly-anticipated sixth studio album Reputation was released today. Like most fans, I downloaded the new album early this morning and immediately skipped ahead to the song about Kanye West.
“This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is what I expected it to be: a diss track with a loud anthem hook, Taylor talk-singing and a breakout with her annoyingly laughing at the idea of forgiving Kanye. It’s entitled, self-indulgent to the extreme and very uncomfortable.
It’s also…a pretty good song. Not only is it biting enough to send West into a Twitter freakout tailspin, but the song is incredibly catchy. Like “Bad Blood” and “Shake it Off,” “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” is a solid sing-along anthem, capitalizing one of my favorite phrases — just yesterday I told my wife, “This is why we can’t have nice things,” after our 10-month-old threw my iPhone at our dog.
Back to Taylor — I’ve been a fan of Taylor Swift since her Fearless album dropped in 2008. I don’t always agree with Taylor’s lyrics, and have anguished over some of her tabloid exploits, and yes….even some of her breakups (it was very hard to write those last five words.)
We’ve all watched Taylor grow up before our eyes, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons people are so quick to offer flippant commentary on all things Swift. It’s almost like Taylor is one of our own kids and we want to come to her rescue when she’s fighting with Kim Kardashian or being grabbed by some creeper radio DJ.
But here’s the thing — Taylor doesn’t need to be rescued. She’s doing just fine. While everyone is talking about her breakup with Calvin Harris, or nervously worrying about Consequence of Sounds’ D+ rating for Reputation (Rolling Stone and The Guardian gave it 4 out of 5 stars), Taylor is quietly reshaping parts of the music business to her liking and positioning herself to dominate the industry well into the next decade.
Here’s what we know — Taylor Swift is still the biggest pop star in the world three years after officially crossing over from country. Barring some unexpected meltdown, she’s going to continue to stay at the top because she’s self-disciplined, boasts solid songwriting chops and is able to bend pop music trends to match her changing sound.
“And even though what’s au courant in pop — post-Drake lite-soul noir, or gothic but plain dramatists like Halsey and Selena Gomez — doesn’t necessarily play to Ms. Swift’s strengths, she barrels ahead here, finding ways to incorporate it into her arsenal, and herself into it,” explains New York Times pop critic Jon Caramanica in his review of Reputation this morning. “Some things are lost, to be sure, but it turns out that Ms. Swift is as effective a distiller of everyone else’s pop ideas as she was at charting her own (unique) path.”
Here’s the other thing — as a businesswoman, Taylor has created one of the most consequential brands in music, capable of collapsing all the gravity around her. Her album releases and tour stops are giants to go up against, but what doesn’t get a lot of attention is her impact on other aspects of the business like promotions and broadcasting.
My colleague Dan Rys at Billboard had a great article on Swift’s radio strategy, noting that’s she pulled back on broadcast promotion for “Look What You Made Me Do,” after hitting number one on the Billboard Pop songs chart.
“It never really researched like a long-standing power, like she’s had in the past. It was more of a statement single,” a radio executive told Rys.
After all, the singles chart has been dominated by men in 2017 and having a monster single hasn’t led to actual album unit sales for artists like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee with “Despacito,” or Post Malone’s “Rockstar.” Even without nonstop radio and chart longevity, Swift is expected to sell 2 million albums in its first week, smashing Ed Sheeran’s Divide album, which sold 320,000 albums in the first week.
So what is driving Taylor’s promotion for her new album? Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan, which incentivizes “fans to purchase albums and merchandise, or complete social media ‘boosts,'” Rys writes, “which increase their chances of getting tickets to her yet-to-be-announced tour. By Nov. 3, pre-orders had passed 400,000 copies, and Target claimed it as the retail giant’s biggest entertainment pre-order ever.”
There’s also her decision to keep her album off streaming services for a week, as well as her upcoming world tour, which is going to be a routing monster in 2018, forcing just about every competing tour in her path to steer clear of any markets where the Taylor Swift machine touches down.
Heard enough? Good. My point is that Taylor Swift has been carefully preparing for her return in 2018 and like her contemporaries, Beyonce and Adele, has the power to reshape large parts of the music business to her benefit. All the TMZ gossip and click-bait articles are a distraction from the methodic retraining of fans to consume her music, watch her videos and purchase tickets to her concerts on terms that maximize revenue for Taylor.
I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — if Taylor Swift’s strategy in 2018 is successful, perhaps she can usher in positive changes for the music industry, especially for artists who are struggling to build new revenue streams in 2017’s chaotic business environment. Watch and learn folks, because it’s very possible that Swift could one day be running the music industry and those who studied her methods could find themselves in a great position to succeed in her shadow.