It's not every day a music superstar pens an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal and covers a variety of topics in nearly 1,200 words. At a time many artists fret the industry is crumbling, Swift's piece brims with optimism.
Swift's thoughts on the music business were unsurprising and middle-of-the-road mainstream. She argued for the value of artistic creations, the viability of the album format and the importance of developing deep, emotional connections with fans. She described the short attention span of young consumers and advised artists to "constantly [provide] them with the element of surprise." Her thoughts about free music -- streaming was not mentioned -- may clash with the mainstream, but they're hardly controversial.
But Swift could have written much more.
She left out the reasons country artists have to be optimistic. Their genre is supported by the most mainstream media formats. Country radio is incredibly successful, accounting for about 14% of listening in the U.S., according to Arbitron. Country is a mainstay on broadcast television, too. And it has two organizations — the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association — that help develop young talent and solidify the careers of established talent. Artists in other genres don't have that kind of support system.
Not only did Swift fail to mention the role brands play in music, she failed to address the disparity in brand sponsorships. Brands already play an important role in the music business and will undoubtedly carry more weight in the future. Swift has worked with numerous brands, such as Cover Girl, Keds, Papa Johns and Diet Coke. These days, popular artists, especially in country music, tend to have brand sponsors. But the distribution of these sponsorships is heavily skewed toward a small number of superstars. While developing and mid-tier artists do attract sponsorship dollars, the top-tier artists command the lion's share of the money.
Sponsorships, like ticket sales, are emblematic of the winner-takes-all market that is today's music business. In other words, the superstars get an outsized share of the revenues. As Robert Frank, co-author of the 1996 book "The Winner-Take-All Society" wrote in the New York Times in March, winner-take-all forces are strengthening as artists have greater ability to reach fans via the Internet. The dream of the long tail has been replaced by the reality of a crowded marketplace.
"Because there are thousands of talented bands today, their odds of stardom are vanishingly small," he wrote.
There was one hint of a sea change in the op-ed. Swift underscored the role social media will play in the future music business by telling an anecdote -- relayed by an actress friend -- in which a motion picture role was given to the actress with the most Twitter followers. Swift predicts the value of do-it-yourself marketing will exist in music, too.
"In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans — not the other way around,” she wrote.
Ironically, the exception could be country music. In Nashville, recording artists are often built from the ground up, or close to it, and those with existing social media followings -- think actresses in a TV series -- may not have earned their fans through years of recording and touring as an independent artist or on a small label.
It's not hard to imagine a future drastically different than the one Swift presents. Her anecdote begs the question, How will artists get the fans that help land them a record deal in the first place? Was it the efforts and capital of a management company or an agent?
Outside of country music, where country radio is the all-powerful gatekeeper, an artist able to create a sizable social media following might not need a record label. A new type of company, perhaps an outgrowth of a management company or a promoter, could be the driving force behind artist development.
"Where will the music industry be in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years?" Swift asked in the opening sentence. It's difficult to forecast 10 years into the future let alone 20, 30 or 50 years. But one can look at today's trends -- the winner-take-all market, the decline of the record label and the rise of social media -- project into the future and envision something unrecognizable today.