Like any red-blooded American, I learn what to think about business and about life really, from Taylor Swift. In case you missed it, Taylor Swift wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal today where she shares her views on the economic viability of the album as a commodity in American culture. Although it’s plainly clear that someone ghosted a lot of the prose in this piece (the irrelevancy of the album as an economic entity…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) there is merit to the underlying points she is making. I would like to say however that it undermines Swift’s argument for authenticity that so much of her writing on this topic was ghosted.
While I don’t expect pop superstars to be Ernest Hemingway, I would like to at least read their own words and the sentences that were written in this piece were clearly put together by speechwriters. The sentence construction of the various paragraphs makes it seem like this was written by a college freshman pumped up on too much Adderall. My favorite paragraph in the entire piece is the analogy to love that she makes (because everything Taylor Swift writes is about love.) “Some music is just for fun, a passing fling (the ones they dance to at clubs and parties for a month while the song is a huge radio hit, that they will soon forget they ever danced to). Some songs and albums represent seasons of our lives, like relationships that we hold dear in our memories but had their time and place in the past.” Doesn’t that strike you as so very Gatsby?
Anyways, as much as I’d love to pick apart the writing of Swift’s article (and I may very well do so when I’ve got more time on my hands) there are fair economic arguments that Swift is making that need to be addressed. Let’s look at the changing dynamics at play in the music industry. There is no solid “currency” in the industry anymore. There were once records, then tapes, then cds and now there’s…digital downloads? The only legitimate way, as I see it, to support an artist is to see them in concert. It is the most intimate venue for experiencing music and it is also the most authentic experience you can have with a musician (aside from sleeping with one.) Swift notes that autographs have gone the way of those old records and that selfies are the new fad, but should that necessarily make us nostalgic for the past? As long as music is an experience it will have value and this is Swift’s main argument. Swift writes: “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. 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. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.” That’s a strikingly economic argument to make about something Swift claims to have such an emotional attachment to. She is right that art does have value, but the market sets the value. The value can only be changed if the market changes or the product available on the open market sees a rise in marginal utility.
In other words, music needs to change it’s revenue model if it wants to make more money. Just as TV has outgrown commercials and films have outgrown the blockbuster, music has outgrown the album. The fact that she has to point out that “valuable things should be paid for” shows how much we, as a society and culture, value music. If something is valuable you don’t need to point out that fact to the consumer as the consumer essentially sets the price. I don’t need to tell you that a Monet painting is worth a lot of money because if you have one chances are that you are either really rich or have just completed a museum heist. In any event, you have made a great sacrifice for the piece of art now in your possession. It does not need to be pointed out to you that what you have is of value because you would not have made the economic sacrifice or soon to be sacrifice in freedom to obtain it. Therefore, art sets it’s own price and the market determines the value of the commodity. Artists need to be innovative, but so does the industry that markets their product. As long as an industry uses a flawed profit model the value of it’s goods will always be undervalued.