Taylor Swift is right about music, and the industry should act on her ideas

Taylor Swift

Country-pop star Taylor Swift penned an optimistic essay in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal about the lasting bonds between performers and their fans, and why she thinks the music industry is “just coming alive.” You can think what you want about Swift’s songs, but her take on the business is a welcome change from the doom-and-gloom we normally read.

In her essay, Swift is upfront about what everyone knows: CD sales fell off a cliff and, while streaming and digital sales have grown dramatically, they have not plugged a shortfall that has seen overall music revenue fall from $15 billion in 2003 to $7 billion today.

Often, such numbers are a cue for a musician to launch into a long harangue about piracy and the need for Congress to expand copyright. Instead, Swift does something different. She offers some new insights into about the evolving relationship between musicians and fans. Here’s what she says about autographs, for instance:

There are a few things I have witnessed becoming obsolete in the past few years, the first being autographs. I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento ‘kids these days’ want is a selfie. It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be ‘how many followers you have on Instagram.’

And here is how Swift sees social media changing traditional music deals:

A friend of mine, who is an actress, told me that when the casting for her recent movie came down to two actresses, the casting director chose the actress with more Twitter followers. I see this becoming a trend in the music industry … In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans—not the other way around.

Swift’s essay also makes a heartfelt plea for the album as art, and expresses a belief that fans will always pay for those special albums that change their lives: “I think the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond, the one my father has with the Beach Boys and the one my mother has with Carly Simon.”

Taylor Swift

A way forward

It’s easy to be snarky to Swift. Indeed, others have already pointed out that her faith in revived album sales is misguided, and that the economics of digital distribution mean that only a lucky few, like Swift or Justin Bieber, have the celebrity klout to sell records in this day and age.

That might be true, but it doesn’t mean that Swift’s other observations aren’t helpful — if only the music industry would act on them. Alas, the industry is instead expending its legal and lobbying power on trying to wring more money from 50-year-old music. Just look at the current efforts to squeeze the likes of Pandora dry with ever-higher royalty rates and ill-considered class action suits.

Imagine if the industry directed more of its energy to finding new revenue sources amid all those selfies and Twitter followers surrounding Swift. As my colleague Mathew Ingram has explained in the context of news, new business ideas based on “membership” may offer more promise than attempting to replace past product sales.

Yes, many of the details are still fuzzy. But new user-based companies like Twitter and Instagram and are still developing their business models, and in coming years they will no doubt offer Swift and others a range of money-making ideas that we have yet to to imagine. Meanwhile, YouTube, despite contract scuffles, is already offering millions in ad revenue to famous acts and upcoming ones alike.

In the future, there will also continue to be a growing range of web and app platforms — everything from games to disappearing messaging apps — that offer both music licensing opportunities, and new ways for fans and performers to connect. The money may take time to emerge but, for cynics and the music industry, this is the way forward. Or in Swift’s words, “This is a love story, just say yes.”

This story was updated at 12:30pm ET to reflect that the music industry figures are in billions not millions.

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