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Taylor Swift, Marvel Films & The Last Gasps of Monoculture

Taylor Swift and The Avengers
Getty Images; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

What do Marvel and Taylor have in common? Propping up their industries and convincing fans to go for the “full experience.”

On Oct. 28, one day after Taylor Swift’s 1989 album was released, Marvel unveiled a new slate of films that will carry the Disney-owned studio through May 2019, during a fan event at the El Capitan theater in Hollywood. With 11 films scheduled over the next five years — including three new Avengers films, as well as new installments in the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises — Marvel’s film timetable is unprecedented in its ambition… and unless some sudden superhero fatigue sets in across the planet, each of these projects will be a blockbuster. After all, Marvel only deals with tentpole releases that are too big to fail: the studio’s two 2014 releases, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, are also the two highest-grossing films of the year in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo, while the original Avengers and 2013’s Iron Man 3 were also among the highest-grossing films of their respective years of release.

Taylor Swift only churns out blockbusters, too, and like the Marvel films, she is an anomaly in a struggling medium. Guardians of the Galaxy was the biggest hit of this past summer, but the film industry suffered its worst summer of ticket sales since 1997; that may just be a symptom of an underwhelming slate of big-budget releases, but a closer look shows that annual domestic ticket sales have also been steadily declining since 2002, while inflated ticket prices have kept the industry’s revenue fairly steady.

Taylor Swift Dominates Billboard Artist 100

The music industry knows all about declining sales: as of last week, CD sales were down 13.6 percent from 2013 to 2014, while digital tracks have also dipped 12.9 percent this year after increasing each year since 2004. Those numbers were released before Swift’s 1989 sold 1.287 million copies of 1989 in a single frame, marking the first album to sell more than a million copies in a single week since… Swift’s Red, in 2012. The album’s performance could be construed as a glimmer of hope for the music industry, or a single-artist inconsistency in the middle of a downward spiral. Marvel is also capable of creating a panacea effect within the film industry — Avengers: Age of Ultron should help summer ticket sales recover when it’s released next May, even if overall ticket sales continue to shrink in 2015.

The triumphs of Taylor Swift and Marvel are not just instances of major brands succeeding in uncertain entertainment industries. Rather, these are some of the last gasps of a monoculture that the powers-that-be want to cling onto even as its disintegrates. The film and music industry has simply become too fractured to produce continual experiences that a large number of audiences can consume simultaneously — in other words, we have such a growing number of entertainment options that cultural touchstones like The Avengers or 1989 occur less and less frequently. This is especially true in the music industry, where the time-honored event of rushing to a CD store to buy an album on its release day has all but vanished.

Musical artists still want their fans to encounter that phantom “shared experience” in order to dominate culture, if only for a small period of time. Think of recent album launches by Beyonce, U2 and Jay Z: all three were spectacles that not only tried to engage fans with their new musical products, but to create a universal conversation, be it through a sneak-attack visual album, free launch on iTunes or Samsung app. All three album launches were unconventional, but they hoped to create the exact same effect — to get a lot of people listening to and talking about the same music, all at once. It’s the same effect that film studios hope to conjure on opening weekends, when the public is experiencing their new product for the first time and excitedly discussing it amongst themselves.

Even though she doesn’t try to experiment with album releases and won’t ever “pull a Beyonce,” Swift actually did dominate culture by selling an absurd amount of albums. In his recent piece “Taylor Swift, Platinum Part Of One” for NPR, Sam Sanders outlines how Swift did it: by being omnipresent with her media and commercial appearances, aggressively reaching out to fans on social media (or #TayLurking), and stressing the importance of buying the full album with moves like removing her catalog from Spotify and packaging her physical CD with sets of collectible Polaroids.

The same general bullet points apply to Marvel’s film franchises. Each of their film’s ad campaigns are inescapable and meticulously scheduled, to the point where the company can game-plan for Avengers: Infinity War Part I’s 2018 release over the next four years. Marvel’s fan outreach, rooted in super-serving diehard comic book fans, is unparalleled in the film industry (exhibit A: last week’s announcement of the studio’s next batch of films was attended by fans who waited for hours outside of the El Capitan theater). As for stressing the “full experience,” Marvel’s special effects-driven features are widely viewed as products that need to be taken in on a silver screen instead of a laptop screen; that’s why, even after The Avengers was pirated and distributed to thousands of computers ahead of its release, the film crushed box office records. You could watch a rip of The Avengers in the same way that you could hunt down grainy versions of the 1989 songs on YouTube, but if you wanted the proper experience — and in on the national conversation! — you had to drop some coin.

Taylor Swift's '1989' Heading for Second Week at No. 1

To Sanders’ list of factors in Swift’s success, I’d add one more: reliability. There are plenty of big pop stars with aggressive album campaigns, just like there is a plethora of big-budget action movies at the multiplex each year. Swift sets herself apart partially due to her track record of being an artist whose albums immediately satisfy while also standing the test of time, instead of someone in the business of flash-in-the-pan singles collections. Likewise, Marvel has molded itself into a trustworthy brand with big stars, smart directors and a contained universe of characters that are woven into a single, engrossing cinematic fabric. Does Guardians of the Galaxy co-star a gun-carrying raccoon? It sure does; it also has a favorable score of 76 out of 100 on Metacritic. When you release products this dependably good, it’s easy to swim against the industry current.

In an essay for the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Swift described herself as “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.” Even if Swift is incorrect, and the music industry (or at least the sale of albums, which is a primary component of the industry) really is dying, then she has at the very least proven herself capable to still breathe life into it, to reanimate the idea of a monoculture now reserved for only the biggest blockbusters. It’s tough to check all of those boxes, but if you do, you can still set records, defy the odds and play the part of a superhero.

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