We’ve all experienced it before. Maybe it was a small local service company, or a decently-sized technology start up, or even a regional restaurant chain. Whatever it was, it was a company that didn’t do business in the status quo. They actually answer their phones, they manufactured or procured their stuff locally or in the USA, and they generally made you feel good about doing business with them. Whatever they were doing or selling, the idea behind it was so smart, they didn’t have to sacrifice customer service, or the human or local element for the concept to work, and it was such a relief to interface with the company compared to corporate competition that simply treated you like a number and obsessed over the bottom line.
And then the sale or buyout happened, or maybe the company just got too big to be able to continue the quirky and cool way they did business. It’s the price of success. Next thing you know, they’re making their stuff in China, outsourcing customer support to India, training of employees and the overall human element is marginalized, and the founding philosophies that made the company such a success in the first place are forgotten. It is the achingly-predictable life cycle of an American company. At some point, if they’re successful, they just get too big to do any of the small things right.
Invariably when a company gets to a certain size, cost saving measures are implemented at the behest of a hot shot executive brought in from another sector of the business world who’s savvy at taking emerging companies to the next level, but is out of touch with a company’s core principles. Or maybe cost saving measures are outsourced to a consultation firm. A lot of times the same American consumers who feel marginalized by a company they once loved are actually the ones to blame. As soon as a company becomes publicly traded, investors demand the company show increasing profits each quarter, many times necessitating these cost-saving curbs be instituted company wide.
You have real live humans answering your phone? Put in an automated system and send everyone else overseas. You’re using skilled workers in service-oriented positions? Save on labor costs and hire warm bodies who can get the job done. Someone is doing something similar to you? Sue them. It sometimes takes years for consumers to burn through the good will a brand has forged with them before cost saving will begin to wear on their loyalty, and by that time the company has become so big, they can afford to lose some customers in the grand scheme, as long as the profits and losses continue to balance.
What does any of this have to do with Taylor Swift, or country music for that matter? That’s a good question.
Taylor Swift right now is at that same juncture as your favorite little company that has grown so big their founding philosophy begins to flounder, and they start to alienate the same customers and principles that got them to where they are. The problem with money is that you can always have more of it, and for many, the more money they have, apparently the more they think they need.
Taylor Swift’s move to pop in 2014 was designed to take her to the very top echelon as a music artist, and it has done so quite admirably. So how do you squeeze more money out of your situation when you have already reached the pinnacle of your discipline? You control costs, you protect assets, and you figure out ways to squeeze more revenue out of the same sources.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen Taylor Swift reign in and protect her brand like never before, and doing things that, at least on the surface, differ from her core founding philosophies as an artist. The first move was trademarking some 37 phrases from her recent album 1989. Okay so what? An artist has many reasons they may want to protect the lyrics that the public identifies with them and their music. But one of the strange things about Swift’s trademarks is that some of them are for quite mundane and common phrases. Stuff like, “Nice to meet you, where you been?”
What was the reason given for the trademark applications? Because Swift wanted to protect herself from potential sellers of T-Shirts and such who may take these Swift phrases and profiteer on them. Subsequently, Swift also cracked down on Etsy sellers who are using her likeness, or her lyrics to sell stuff.
One of the key ingredients given credit for Taylor Swift’s worldwide success was her propensity to interact with fans in such an intimate way. She was known to answer every single email sent to her by fans in the MySpace days. Then she encouraged fans to make T-Shirts, signs, and props (similar to many of the items found by Etsy sellers) to show their Taylor Swift spirit, even incentivising this behavior by rewarding throngs of concertgoers who made the most noise and put together the best presentation with backstage passes to meet Swift after shows.
And then the shows got bigger and bigger, and the demands on Swift’s time greater and greater. Soon the backstage spirit awards were replaced with Swift saying she would watch fans as they leave, and read all their signs and appreciate their effort that way. Her last album 1989 had little sweepstakes cards where fans could enter a code for a chance to meet her on tour, but invariably the percentage of fans who actually have a chance to interact with Swift continue to decrease. Hey, this is understandable, but now some fans are being served cease and desist orders for the same behavior Swift used to encourage. It’s that moment you walk into that favorite neighborhood restaurant, don’t notice any of the waitstaff, and the menu has changed to food that’s not as good, and more expensive.
Taylor Swift has already been her own corporation for years. But now she’s reached that apex level where the only way you can make more money is to find ways to save it. So shut down the Etsy sellers, and shuttle your lyrics to the copyright office, and get ready to sue anyone who doesn’t comply. Some reports have Swift set to release a massive merchandising line that make the trademarks of her lyrics somewhat necessary. But still, why be so aggressive against others? Doesn’t Taylor Swift have enough money already?
On the surface, Taylor Swift is better to her fans than most pop stars of her size, or even smaller. You can’t venture into the social media world without seeing a story on Taylor Swift sending gifts to fans, reaching out to someone through Instagram, or visiting an ailing supporter in the hospital. Whatever she does, the cameras and reporters are there chronicling everything. It’s not even that the sentiments behind Swift’s good deeds aren’t real. She’s a big star, and can’t see everyone, and her philanthropy is nearly unmatched in entertainment. But the intent is to create a corporate facade of Swift interacting with her fans on a more intimate level than what reality presents. It’s like Exxon and BP running ads during Sunday morning political shows touting their environmental record.
Hey, Taylor Swift has every right to protect her name and intellectual property. Don’t get me started about how many times the registered trademark “Saving Country Music” has been ripped off. But it would be a little bit different if she were a starving songwriter trying to protect her sole revenue stream from music. Taylor’s Spotify issue is just another example of wanting to control the market, marginalize loss, and squeeze every last dollar possible out of an intellectual asset. Yes, there’s also artist protection philosophies that run parallel with this behavior, but let’s not pretend money isn’t a factor too.
At Sunday night’s Grammy Awards, Taylor Swift got shut out of the awards. Granted, it was only one single “Shake It Off” that was really eligible for anything, and with its marginal artistic quality, wasn’t really considered a front runner anyway. But she still lost, and since she left country and the possibility of winning CMA and ACM awards, the once very award-decorated songstress is on sort of a losing streak when it comes to award hardware. Yes, she remains rich beyond all of our comprehensions and wildly successful. But is this all about the money, or is Swift still worried about how she is perceived as an artist? Does she want to still contribute to music, or just use it like any business model—to squeeze as much revenue from it as possible, and worry about the future when it comes? What happened to the awkward girl with her guitar, writing her own songs and relating to America? What happened to our generation’s Joni Mitchell?
Meanwhile the man who did walk away with Grammy hardware Sunday night was producer Max Martin—the man Big Machine Records CEO Scott Borchetta suggested Taylor Swift bring on board back during the recording of her album Red, who co-wrote her first major pop smash hits like “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” and the man who was the executive producer and co-writer for many of 1989‘s tracks. He won Producer of the Year—the very last of 70-something awards handed out in the pre-telecast event. Though many of the bigger names in country and beyond didn’t bother to be in attendance to accept their awards, Max Martin was, and Scott Borchetta was on hand and beside him at the podium. So Taylor walked away empty handed, but the producer at the forefront of turning Taylor pop, did.
So what does all of this have to do with country music?
Absolutely nothing and positively everything. Right now the distribution deal for the Big Machine Label Group—of who Taylor Swift is the cash cow of—is up for grabs, and the company is clearly looking for a dance partner for a new deal, including entertaining offers for an acquisition by a bigger company. Recent rumors have iTunes as Big Machine’s latest suitor, but as always seems happens with these deals, Apple denies any involvement. Nonetheless, as Big Machine and Taylor Swift goes, so could go the entire music industry—country music and beyond.
Taylor Swift has one album left on her Big Machine deal, and Scott Borchetta will be doing everything he can to get her back under contract. Nothing will weigh more into the decision of who Big Machine lines up distribution with than what Taylor Swift will want moving forward, and Borchetta has said he doesn’t want to deal with a major label. This move has implications on how all music is distributed to consumers moving forward, not just the Big Machine roster, and will be directly affected by Swift’s motivation to protect her intellectual assets—something that may not be such a bad thing for smaller artists to potentially benefit from.
Maybe Swift doesn’t need more money, but Joe Schmo songwriter sure does. As the biggest music star in the world, Swift could enact a trickle down effect, and it’s not necessarily bad that she’s showing some leadership in this realm. The Grammy Awards made a special point in 2015 to talk to the public about protecting the revenue streams for music, and making organizations to fight for music rights in Washington. The issue of Spotify and songwriter payouts aren’t just smoke and mirrors, or PR from Swift Inc. These are the biggest challenges facing music today.
So what will happen? We have no idea. But what we do know is Swift has officially reached the point where she’s looking to hedge bets and protect assets in the name of continued growth. So you better watch out for your homemade Swifty T-shirts, and make sure you don’t use any of the wrong phrases on your personally-made Taylor Swift key fob on CafePress. Because there’s money to be made, and it ain’t gonna being made by you.