It may have raised eyebrows for some, but it is entirely appropriate for Taylor Swift to be writing an article for the Wall Street Journal. Over the past few years she has appeared regularly in the Forbes 30 under 30 list as one of the richest young people in popular music. Forbes styles itself the “capitalist tool”. If so, the WSJ must be capitalism’s Swiss-army knife: an enduring, versatile and sharp-edged combination of implements for understanding and advancing the cause of prosperity.
Swift, 24, has a story that is every inch a tale of personal and corporate prosperity and absolutely congruent with the cause of celebrating the Wall Street Journal’s 125th birthday. Born to parents well-placed in high finance, Swift has, with their direct support, made waves in country music since the age of 12. Country music, as pop music generally, has always had a place for the child prodigy. From Brenda Lee (11) to Leann Rimes (13) there have been teens and pre-teens who have enjoyed huge acclaim, but no-one compares to Taylor Swift.
Swift signed to RCA Records at the age of 14 and released her first album at 16. That album, Taylor Swift, sold 5m copies and, throughout a time of an extreme and seemingly defining downturn in sales of albums, especially on physical formats, Swift’s releases continuously buck the trend. For example, Forbes reported her fourth album Red had “moved 1.2m units in its opening week”.
But it is not just record sales and touring that contribute to her vast wealth, it is an astute, collective business brain – her own, her parents’ and her managers’ – that has created not just a music phenomenon, but a business one.
Covers and cross-overs
If Lady Gaga created her enormous following through Twitter, Taylor Swift was one of the great successes of MySpace. MySpace, for those who don’t remember, was Facebook before Facebook but Swift was no gauche unsigned musician drawing in followers who enjoyed her home recordings.
From the outset, her parents recognised their daughter was talented and used their resources to find her a manager who, in turn, exposed her to the music industry. Taylor’s particular favourite was Shania Twain and, in pursuit of a Twain-like career, the family moved to Nashville to further her ambitions. Certainly, no-one makes it without talent, but talent alone is nowhere near enough to succeed in popular music.
The music industry is not called an industry for no reason, and Swift is nothing if not industrially-aware. From her first album release onwards, she has has used a co-ordinated strategy of conventional marketing, social networking and product endorsement to reach a loyal fan-base.
She has used collaborations with established song-writers to cross over beyond country music to pop more generally. She has then secured and deepened her appeal through extensive touring where a feature of her tours has been the regular inclusion of unlikely cover songs and the introduction of a host of stars for onstage duets.
This cross-genre and cross-era strategy has seen her cover Rihanna, Justin Timberlake and Eminem and duet with James Taylor, Justin Bieber, Nicky Minaj and Carly Simon. An astute balancing act has followed: Swift remains “country” while, in fact, being about as pop as it can get. The country dimension secures her as a true Heartlands sweetheart while the crossover strategy has allowed her to avoid the excesses that, for example, Miley Cyrus has needed to engage in, to break free of child star constraints.
Against such a background, Swift’s Wall Street Journal article is consciously disingenuous; lashings of “heart and soul”, “emotion”, “art” and “awe” but set inside a context of “price point(s)”, “financial value”, “Instagram”, “Twitter”, and “risk”. Taylor Swift embodies the great contradiction of capitalism – which is that the entrepreneurial risk-taker succeeds by taming risk, by minimising it and, best of all, eliminating it.
With four albums behind her, what she must do now is maintain her place in the firmament, but what that success is based upon was a savvy business mind and deep financial support; a winning combination that brought her all of the ingredients for take-off that less well-advantaged 12-year-olds can only dream of.
From take-off to today, Swift’s career has been handled astutely and, as her article shows, that astuteness is hers as much as it is anyone else’s. Like Madonna before her, Taylor Swift is here to stay, and she is here to stay because, as few realise and fewer can finesse, music industry means knowing when and how to pay attention to music and to industry.