Coordinated to the release of her blockbuster new album 1989, Taylor Swift and her management decided to leave Spotify out of the mix — in fact, they removed all of her music from the service (though it’s still available on several other streaming platforms). Leaving one’s music off a particular platform a week or so around the release date isn’t anything new — it’s called “windowing,” a tactic to ensure that free streaming sites don’t “cannibalize” first-week sales, which are directly coordinated to prerelease hype.
But why remove all of her music? I wondered if perhaps there was hope that Swift might see cause to hold Spotify’s feet to the fire for the cause of the little people. Maybe she’s taking her music off the service for similar reasons to Thom Yorke or the Black Keys: because she views the platform as fundamentally flawed. What a political boost that would be for smaller artists — the highest-selling singer/songwriter in the world taking a stand for their rights.
Or not. The real reason for Swift’s decision came via an op-ed Swift penned for The Wall Street Journal back in July — likely part of the long-lead promo for 1989. Ostensibly about the future of the recording industry, the piece was subtly political. “The value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace,” Swift opined. The recording industry, per Swift, can be saved not by remedying political or structural inequalities or stamping out piracy, but by artists who merely put more “heart” into their music.
Politically, Swift’s position is the same as the conservative thinktank commentators common to the WSJ: individual responsibility alone is the solution to social problems, and markets — which are inherently meritocratic — will reflect this change in due course. Taylor Swift is one of the rarefied 0.01 percent of modern musicians whose charisma and talent, combined with an exorbitant promotional machine, can sell a million copies of an album in a week. She assumes this holds for all musicians in the same way that a wealthy politician tells lower middle-class citizens that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and achieve the American Dream, too. In Swift’s view, (or at least the view carefully hinted at in her op-ed) success in the pop music business is merely a matter of being charming — shooting fans with an “arrow through the heart.”
Oh, and it’s also a matter of music not being available on Spotify — the streaming platform whipping post for a variety of artist positions on the value of music in the digital age. Interestingly enough, despite its democratic rhetoric, Spotify is very much in the same political-economic boat as Swift herself. Upon hearing of her decision, Spotify released a statement that said in part, “We believe fans should be able to listen to music wherever and whenever they want, and that artists have an absolute right to be paid for their work and protected from piracy.” Instead of an arrow through the heart, it’s music in every set of ears. Yet Spotify, like Swift, operates by strategically ignoring structural inequalities at the core of its operation: privileging the music owned by the multinational corporate “major” labels and placing their contracts under binding nondisclosure agreements. Smaller, up-and-coming artists who risk getting lost amid the tens of millions of tracks, and overshadowed by talent with extreme promotions budgets, are left with a similar meritocratic promise: Get your music out there on Spotify, and a rising stream will lift all boats. “The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all,” Swift dreamily intoned in her op-ed. For countless artists, though, the risk isn’t the issue: it’s the infinitely deferred reward.