In the 2010s, she went from country superstar to pop titan and broke records with chart-topping albums and blockbuster tours. Now Swift is using her industry clout to fight for artists’ rights and foster the musical community she wished she had coming up.
One evening in late-October, before she performed at a benefit concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Taylor Swift’s dressing room became -- as it often does -- an impromptu summit of music’s biggest names. Swift was there to take part in the American Cancer Society’s annual We Can Survive concert alongside Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Camila Cabello and others, and a few of the artists on the lineup came by to visit.
Eilish, along with her mother and her brother/collaborator, Finneas O’Connell, popped in to say hello -- the first time she and Swift had met. Later, Swift joined the exclusive club of people who have seen Marshmello without his signature helmet when the EDM star and his manager stopped by.
“Two dudes walked in -- I didn’t know which one was him,” recalls Swift a few weeks later, sitting on a lounge chair in the backyard of a private Beverly Hills residence following a photo shoot. Her momentary confusion turned into a pang of envy. “It’s really smart! Because he’s got a life, and he can get a house that doesn’t have to have a paparazzi-proof entrance.” She stops to adjust her gray sweatshirt dress and lets out a clipped laugh.
Swift, who will celebrate her 30th birthday on Dec. 13, has been impossibly famous for nearly half of her lifetime. She was 16 when she released her self-titled debut album in 2006, and 20 when her second album, Fearless, won the Grammy Award for album of the year in 2010, making her the youngest artist to ever receive the honor. As the decade comes to a close, Swift is one of the most accomplished musical acts of all time: 37.3 million albums sold, according to Nielsen Music; 95 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 (including five No. 1s); 23 Billboard Music Awards; 12 Country Music Association Awards; 10 Grammys; and five world tours.
She also finishes the decade in a totally different realm of the music world from where she started. Swift’s crossover from country to pop -- hinted at on 2012’s Red and fully embraced on 2014’s 1989 -- reflected a mainstream era in which genres were blended with little abandon, where artists with roots in country, folk and trap music could join forces without anyone raising eyebrows. (See: Swift’s top 20 hit “End Game,” from 2017’s reputation, which featured Ed Sheeran and Future.)
Swift’s new album, Lover, released in August, is both a warm break from the darkness of reputation -- which was created during a wave of negative press generated by Swift’s public clash with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian-West -- as well as an amalgam of all her stylistic explorations through the years, from dreamy synth-pop to hushed country. “The skies were opening up in my life,” says Swift of the album, which garnered three Grammy nominations, including song of the year for the title track.
She recorded Lover after the Reputation Stadium Tour broke the record for the highest-grossing U.S. tour late last year. In 2020, Swift will embark on Lover Fest, a run of stadium dates that will feature a hand-picked lineup of artists (as yet unannounced) and allow Swift more time off from the road. “This is a year where I have to be there for my family -- there’s a lot of question marks throughout the next year, so I wanted to make sure that I could go home,” says Swift, likely referencing her mother’s cancer diagnosis, which inspired the Lover heart-wrencher “Soon You’ll Get Better.”
Now, however, Swift finds herself in a different highly publicized dispute. This time it’s with Scott Borchetta, the head of her former label, Big Machine Records, and Scooter Braun, the manager-mogul whose Ithaca Holdings acquired Big Machine Label Group and its master recordings, which include Swift’s six pre-Lover albums, in June. Upon news of the sale, Swift wrote in a Tumblr post that it was her “worst case scenario,” accusing Braun of “bullying” her throughout her career due to his connections with West. She maintains today that she was never given the opportunity to buy her masters outright. (On Tumblr, she wrote that she was offered the chance to “earn” back the masters to one of her albums for each new album she turned in if she re-signed with Big Machine; Borchetta disputed this characterization, saying she had the opportunity to acquire her masters in exchange for re-signing with the label for a “length of time” -- 10 more years, according to screenshots of legal documents posted on the Big Machine website.)
Swift has said that she intends to rerecord her first six albums next year -- starting next November, when she says she’s contractually able to -- in order to regain control of her recordings. But the back-and-forth appears to be nowhere near over: Last month, Swift alleged that Borchetta and Braun were blocking her from performing her past hits at the American Music Awards or using them in an upcoming Netflix documentary -- claims Big Machine characterized as “false information” in a response that did not get into specifics. (Swift ultimately performed the medley she had planned.) In the weeks following this interview, Braun said he was open to “all possibilities” in finding a “resolution,” and Billboard sources say that includes negotiating a sale. Swift remains interested in buying her masters, though the price could be a sticking point, given her rerecording plans, the control she has over the licensing of her music for film and TV, and the market growth since Braun’s acquisition.
However it plays out, the battle over her masters is the latest in a series of moves that has turned Swift into something of an advocate for artists’ rights -- and made her a cause that everyone from Halsey to Elizabeth Warren has rallied behind. From 2014 to 2017, Swift withheld her catalog from Spotify to protest the streaming company’s compensation rates, saying in a 2014 interview, “There should be an inherent value placed on art. I didn’t see that happening, perception-wise, when I put my music on Spotify.” In 2015, ahead of the launch of Apple Music, Swift wrote an open letter criticizing Apple for its plan to not pay royalties during the three-month free trial it was set to offer listeners; the company announced a new policy within 24 hours. Most recently, when she signed a new global deal with Universal Music Group in 2018, Swift (who is now on Republic Records) said one of the conditions of her contract was that UMG share proceeds from any sale of its Spotify equity with its roster of artists -- and make them nonrecoupable against those artists’ earnings.
During a wide-ranging conversation, Billboard’s Woman of the Decade expresses hope that she can help make the lives of creators a little easier in the years to come -- and a belief that her behind-the-scenes strides will be as integral to her legacy as her biggest singles. “New artists and producers and writers need work, and they need to be likable and get booked in sessions, and they can’t make noise -- but if I can, then I’m going to,” promises Swift. This is where being impossibly famous can be a very good thing. “I know that it seems like I’m very loud about this,” she says, “but it’s because someone has to be.”
While watching some of your performances this year -- like Saturday Night Live and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert -- I was struck by how focused you seemed, like there were no distractions getting in the way of what you were trying to say.
That’s a really wonderful way of looking at this phase of my life and my music. I’ve spent a lot of time recalibrating my life to make it feel manageable. Because there were some years there where I felt like I didn’t quite know what exactly to give people and what to hold back, what to share and what to protect. I think a lot of people go through that, especially in the last decade. I broke through pre-social media, and then there was this phase where social media felt fun and casual and quirky and safe. And then it got to the point where everyone has to evaluate their relationship with social media. So I decided that the best thing I have to offer people is my music. I’m not really here to influence their fashion or their social lives. That has bled through into the live part of what I do.
Meanwhile, you’ve found a way to interact with your fans in this very pure way -- on your Tumblr page.
Tumblr is the last place on the internet where I feel like I can still make a joke because it feels small, like a neighborhood rather than an entire continent. We can kid around -- they literally drag me. It’s fun. That’s a real comfort zone for me. And just like anything else, I need breaks from it sometimes. But when I do participate in that space, it’s always in a very inside-joke, friend vibe. Sometimes, when I open Twitter, I get so overwhelmed that I just immediately close it. I haven’t had Twitter on my phone in a while because I don’t like to have too much news. Like, I follow politics, and that’s it. But I don’t like to follow who has broken up with who, or who wore an interesting pair of shoes. There’s only so much bandwidth my brain can really have.
You’ve spoken in recent interviews about the general expectations you’ve faced, using phrases like “They’ve wanted to see this” and “They hated me for this.” Who is “they”? Is it social media or disparaging think pieces or --
It’s sort of an amalgamation of all of it. People who aren’t active fans of your music, who like one song but love to hear who has been canceled on Twitter. I’ve had several upheavals of somehow not being what I should be. And this happens to women in music way more than men. That’s why I get so many phone calls from new artists out of the blue -- like, “Hey, I’m getting my first wave of bad press, I’m freaking out, can I talk to you?” And the answer is always yes! I’m talking about more than 20 people who have randomly reached out to me. I take it as a compliment because it means that they see what has happened over the course of my career, over and over again.
Did you have someone like that to reach out to?
Not really, because my career has existed in lots of different neighborhoods of music. I had so many mentors in country music. Faith Hill was wonderful. She would reach out to me and invite me over and take me on tour, and I knew that I could talk to her. Crossing over to pop is a completely different world. Country music is a real community, and in pop I didn’t see that community as much. Now there is a bit of one between the girls in pop -- we all have each other’s numbers and text each other -- but when I first started out in pop it was very much you versus you versus you. We didn’t have a network, which is weird because we can help each other through these moments when you just feel completely isolated.
Do you feel like those barriers are actively being broken down now?
God, I hope so. I also hope people can call it out, [like] if you see a Grammy prediction article, and it’s just two women’s faces next to each other and feels a bit gratuitous. No one’s going to start out being perfectly educated on the intricacies of gender politics. The key is that people are trying to learn, and that’s great. No one’s going to get it perfect, but, God, please try.
At this point, who is your sounding board, creatively and professionally?
From a creative standpoint, I’ve been writing alone a lot more. I’m good with being alone, with thinking alone. When I come up with a marketing idea for the Lover tour, the album launch, the merch, I’ll go right to my management company that I’ve put together. I think a team is the best way to be managed. Just from my experience, I don’t think that this overarching, one-person-handles-my-career thing was ever going to work for me. Because that person ends up kind of being me who comes up with most of the ideas, and then I have an amazing team that facilitates those ideas.
The behind-the-scenes work is different for every phase of my career that I’m in. Putting together the festival shows that we’re doing for Lover is completely different than putting together the Reputation Stadium Tour. Putting together the reputation launch was so different than putting together the 1989 launch. So we really do attack things case by case, where the creative first informs everything else.
You’ve spoken before about how meaningful the reputation tour’s success was. What did it represent?
That tour was something that I wanted to immortalize in the Netflix special that we did because the album was a story, but it almost was like a story that wasn’t fully realized until you saw it live. It was so cool to hear people leaving the show being like, “I understand it now. I fully get it now.” There are a lot of red herrings and bait-and-switches in the choices that I’ll make with albums, because I want people to go and explore the body of work. You can never express how you feel over the course of an album in a single, so why try?
That seems especially true of your last three albums or so.
“Shake It Off” is nothing like the rest of 1989. It’s almost like I feel so much pressure with a first single that I don’t want the first single to be something that makes you feel like you’ve figured out what I’ve made on the rest of the project. I still truly believe in albums, whatever form you consume them in -- if you want to stream them or buy them or listen to them on vinyl. And I don’t think that makes me a staunch purist. I think that that is a strong feeling throughout the music industry. We’re running really fast toward a singles industry, but you got to believe in something. I still believe that albums are important.
The music industry has become increasingly global during the past decade. Is reaching new markets something you think about?
Yeah, and I’m always trying to learn. I’m learning from everyone. I’m learning when I go see Bruce Springsteen or Madonna do a theater show. And I’m learning from new artists who are coming out right now, just seeing what they’re doing and thinking, “That’s really cool.” You need to keep your influences broad and wide-ranging, and my favorite people who make music have always done that. I got to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the Cats movie, and Andrew will walk through the door and be like, “I’ve just seen this amazing thing on TikTok!” And I’m like, “You are it! You are it!” Because you cannot look at what quote-unquote “the kids are doing” and roll your eyes. You have to learn.
Have you explored TikTok at all?
I only see them when they’re posted to Tumblr, but I love them! I think that they’re hilarious and amazing. Andrew says that they’ve made musicals cool again, because there’s a huge musical facet to TikTok. [He’s] like, “Any way we can do that is good.”
How do you see your involvement in the business side of your career progressing in the next decade? You seem like someone who could eventually start a label or be more hands-on with signing artists.
I do think about it every once in a while, but if I was going to do it, I would need to do it with all of my energy. I know how important that is, when you’ve got someone else’s career in your hands, and I know how it feels when someone isn’t generous.
You’ve served as an ambassador of sorts for artists, especially recently -- staring down streaming services over payouts, increasing public awareness about the terms of record deals.
We have a long way to go. I think that we’re working off of an antiquated contractual system. We’re galloping toward a new industry but not thinking about recalibrating financial structures and compensation rates, taking care of producers and writers.
We need to think about how we handle master recordings, because this isn’t it. When I stood up and talked about this, I saw a lot of fans saying, “Wait, the creators of this work do not own their work, ever?” I spent 10 years of my life trying rigorously to purchase my masters outright and was then denied that opportunity, and I just don’t want that to happen to another artist if I can help it. I want to at least raise my hand and say, “This is something that an artist should be able to earn back over the course of their deal -- not as a renegotiation ploy -- and something that artists should maybe have the first right of refusal to buy.” God, I would have paid so much for them! Anything to own my work that was an actual sale option, but it wasn’t given to me.
Thankfully, there’s power in writing your music. Every week, we get a dozen synch requests to use “Shake It Off” in some advertisement or “Blank Space” in some movie trailer, and we say no to every single one of them. And the reason I’m rerecording my music next year is because I do want my music to live on. I do want it to be in movies, I do want it to be in commercials. But I only want that if I own it.
Do you know how long that rerecording process will take?
I don’t know! But it’s going to be fun, because it’ll feel like regaining a freedom and taking back what’s mine. When I created [these songs], I didn’t know what they would grow up to be. Going back in and knowing that it meant something to people is actually a really beautiful way to celebrate what the fans have done for my music.
Ten years ago, on the brink of the 2010s, you were about to turn 20. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
Oh, God -- I wouldn’t give myself any advice. I would have done everything exactly the same way. Because even the really tough things I’ve gone through taught me things that I never would have learned any other way. I really appreciate my experience, the ups and downs. And maybe that seems ridiculously Zen, but … I’ve got my friends, who like me for the right reasons. I’ve got my family. I’ve got my boyfriend. I’ve got my fans. I’ve got my cats.