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Taylor Swift, the optimist

Jeffrey Remz  |  July 9, 2014

Taylor Swift is an optimist. We figured that out - at least when she's not singing about relationships - a long time ago.

That's what Swift wrote in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal on Monday. Swift laid it out, saying she was "one of the few living souls in the music industry who still believes that the music industry is not dying...it's just coming alive."

That's a true rarity in recent years because the record companies aren't making a lot of money at all from selling CDs. In fact, a chart with the story said that in 2003 almost all of the $15 billion in revenue made by the music industry came from compact discs (94.8 percent to be exact). Music videos (3.4 percent) and cassettes (.9 percent) accounted for most of the rest.

In 2013, the total pie was only $7 billion with CDs and other physical product accounting for only 35 percent of sales. Digital downloads were far bigger - at 40 percent. Subscription and streaming services were 21 percent. Ringtones and "synchronization" (usually licensing music for movies and TV shows) were 1 and 3 percent respectively.

Despite the daunting numbers, Swift believes otherwise. "There are many (many) people who predict the downfall of music sales and the irrelevancy of the album as an economic entity. I am not one of them."

Swift said she thought the value of an album will be determined by "the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace."

I'm not sure that is entirely correct. I like the idea of "heart and soul" helping determine whether a piece of music might do well, but that would be confusing artistic interest with the realities of the market place and the muscle that the powers that be may have as well. An artist could put out a great album because he/she is a superb songwriter and singer, but it is not easy for the public to discover it. And many artists are not so keen on going with record labels these days either.

Some artists give away their music for free. That doesn't mean that they think it has no monetary value. They just are presumably resorting to other means, such as touring or hoping to place their music on TV shows or in movies.

"Music is art, and art is important and rare," says Swift. "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."

Cynics would say this is self-serving because Swift certainly stands to benefit from more record sales. True, but Swift is sitting quite pretty with the money that she has already made.

Frankly it is refreshing to hear that there is a monetary value placed on art, meaning that it is worth something that people should be willing to pay for. Just like movies and books. Part of the problem, however, was that the labels were very greedy in how much they charged consumers. When finally able to (usually illegally) get it for free, the labels were not going to win back these young folks as buyers.

"There are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people's lives forever," writes Swift

That is true for very very few artists these days. Take a look at the number of artists who are one-album wonders. It seems to be more and more the case in recent years. You're only as good as your current album. Fans tend to be more on the fickle side when it comes to signing up as a fan.

Swift acknowledged that some music "is just for fun, a passing fling" generated by a radio hit. Some songs are tied in with a stage of life.

"However, some artists will be like finding "the one." We will cherish every album they put out until they retire and we will play their music for our children and grandchildren. As an artist, this is the dream bond we hope to establish with our fans. I think the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond."

Let's hope that Swift is right because that will be a sign that music is of lasting value and matters. She talks of the "element of surprise" as a means to keep the fan/artist relationship going. Swift said on her last tour, she brought out special guests to change it up because she figured most fans had seen large portions of her show online.

"My generation was raised being able to flip channels if we got bored, and we read the last page of the book when we got impatient. We want to be caught off guard, delighted, left in awe. I hope the next generation's artists will continue to think of inventive ways of keeping their audiences on their toes, as challenging as that might be."

Excellent sentiments because we need artists who think creatively. (I hope you are reading this Mick Jagger!). Yet, that doesn't necessarily entail a spectacle, which seems to be the norm these days. Unfortunately in this day and age, for many, the music is not enough to build that bond.

Swift was a pioneer in building the fan base by being very active on social media from the get go in a genre - country - that has been notoriously slow in keeping pace with the rest of the record industry. Swift also has interacted with fans - sometimes visiting a university or a hospital - unannounced to keep that element of surprise going. Not to mention the good deed of visiting the sick.

Swift also addresses the amelioration of genres, which she sees "fading into the gray." I think it already has faded - at least in country.

"The wild, unpredictable fun in making music today is that anything goes. Pop sounds like hip hop; country sounds like rock; rock sounds like soul; and folk sounds like country-and to me, that's incredible progress. I want to make music that reflects all of my influences, and I think that in the coming decades the idea of genres will become less of a career-defining path and more of an organizational tool."

Swift might like that, and it is already true in many cases, but at a large level, I lament that for country where it's hard to hear country as we once knew it in some of the acts out there today like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryant.

"The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all," says Swift.

However, are record labels willing to take risks? Will they let artists take risks when they need sales? Swift has the luxury as an artist to do so because she has a huge fan base and smartly works that base to keep and expand upon those fans. She can call her own shots.

Perhaps Swift's optimism will catch on. It's hard to be particularly optimistic when sales are in double-digit decline this year. But Swift raises some valid points in a very thoughtful way.

Optimistic or not, Swift makes it clear that artists must work hard (she never really talks about making quality music, but hopefully that's a given), while also pushing the musical envelope. Here's hoping that Taylor Swift's next album is a dyed-in-the-wool traditional country album. How's that for optimism?

:: Posted at 9:59 PM by Jeffrey Remz ::
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