Ever since Taylor Swift announced that her new record 1989 would be “my very first documented, official pop album,” critics have wondered what exactly she means by “pop.” After all, Swift’s pop sensibilities have been in place since she first conquered Nashville. Grantland‘s Molly Lambert noted that what 1989 really recalls is not just late-’80s pop but also that era’s synth-lacquered rock. New York‘s Lindsay Zoladz pointed out how Swift’s idea of pop “seems to have boxed her in.” Deadspin‘s Rob Harvilla called out “what it truly means to ‘go pop’ in the 21st-century: It’s the point at which your public antics make for better art than your actual art.”
Now we have a new, old-fashioned definition: Pop is what still sells records. Swift has pulled her entire discography from Spotify, as the streaming giant made plain in a blog post asking her to return. The country crossover star hasn’t commented on the move, instead announcing her 1989 world tour. Spotify’s post didn’t explain the reason for the split, either, only that the Swedish-based company wants her back.
“We hope she’ll change her mind and join us in building a new music economy that works for everyone,” Spotify’s blog post said. “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. That’s why we pay nearly 70% of our revenue back to the music community.”
Swift’s move expands on certain big-selling acts’ strategy of withholding albums from Spotify for a certain period after release. Swift took that approach herself with 2012′s Red. Coldplay’s album from this year, Ghost Stories, wasn’t initially available on Spotify. The Black Keys’ latest, Turn Blue, and Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album still aren’t on Spotify. Adele is also among the members of the elite club that can afford to put off streaming their music on Spotify.
Swift, by removing her albums in their entirety, has gone a step further. It’s a decision reminiscent of when Radiohead‘s Thom Yorke pulled his solo recordings from the service. And it comes as criticism of Spotify has been spreading among increasingly mainstream performers: Jimmy Buffett recently asked Spotify CEO Dan Ek when young artists might be able to expect a raise in Spotify’s royalty rates. (Ek demurred.)
It’s also a decision that reflects Swift’s dominance. According to Billboard, 1989 is poised for the biggest sales week for an album since Eminem’s The Eminem Show debuted with sales of 1.322 million in 2002. This is a far cry from Galaxie 500‘s Damon Krukowski pointing out in Pitchfork last year that a 1,000-copy run of vinyl singles in 1988 could earn them as much as more than 13 million streams nowadays. Swift’s farewell to Spotify is a sign of her market clout, not a rallying cry for long-suffering artists.
Swift presaged something like this in a op-ed she wrote for The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is,” she wrote. “I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason recently made a similar point about U2‘s new album, telling Rolling Stone that “music has been horribly devalued by being given away.” And in fact it has been venerable rock acts that have tended to eschew Spotify, including the Beatles and AC/DC. But the trend had generally been toward legacy bands eventually embracing the streaming service, as with Led Zeppelin a year ago.
The debate over Spotify is complicated, and plenty of performers without Swift’s selling power may have valid reasons for wanting off of the service. Last December, the company revealed the average payout it makes to rights holders is 0.6 cents to 0.84 cents per play. That money would generally go to labels and the like, with the songwriters and recording artists getting a smaller cut. (For recordings from before 1972, online streaming services pay only songwriters, not the owners of the recording — a state of affairs that has prompted legislation called the RESPECT Act, named after the song Aretha Franklin made her own but didn’t write.)
Spotify’s Ek laid the situation at a conference in July. “There are a few artists that can do totally without giving their music away at all,” he said, as quoted by Fortune. “They don’t need any promotion. They are attracting an audience that will go physically buy their CDs, and Taylor is one of them.”
Swift, who presents herself as an underdog, is now one of the music industry’s top dogs. It’s hard to get more “pop” — more 1989, for that matter — than selling a boatload of compact discs. As Spotify asks her to take it back, it remains to be seen whether her response will be, as on Red, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” But in 2014, pop artists’ business models often make for better art than their actual art. And right now Swift is the toppermost of the poppermost.