Why Taylor Swift is the most important artist of the millennial era

Millennial icon.
Millennial icon.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Is Taylor Swift the defining singer/songwriter of her generation—the Gen-Y answer to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, or Kurt Cobain? Glowing critical praise and blockbuster sales for her music suggest she might be.

What that says about Swift, and millennials, you can decide for yourself.

But regardless of your opinion about her music, Swift is quickly becoming the most influential artist of her generation, in terms of her impact on the industry.

Swift has embraced corporate sponsorships, once taboo among musicians, with an unprecedented fervor. And in an era when millennials are increasingly spending their money on experiences rather than things, she has mastered the business of live performing. Add to that her ability to bestride multiple musical genres, which has won her devoted fans in both the country and mainstream pop scenes.

Now she is effectively attempting to flip conventional wisdom about the future of the music business (where sales are declining, and all-you-can-eat subscriptions are rising) on its head. Today, Swift withdrew her entire back catalog from Spotify, the biggest streaming music service on the planet.

She has yet to comment on that decision, and her label, Big Machine, did not respond to a request for comment from Quartz. But it looks like this is the latest step in a one-woman crusade to defend the concept that music should be bought, rather than rented, preferably in the bundle known as the “album.” Never mind that album sales have been in a steady decline, ever since the internet made it possible to access music illegally or legitimately download individual songs.

Swift was ridiculed earlier this year when she argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that consumers will still buy albums in full, just fewer of them, and “only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart.”

She’s now effectively backing up those words with action. And she is probably going to be vindicated.

Last week, Swift released her latest album, 1989, to generally positive reviews. Now that album is on track to shatter sales records. Billboard is forecasting that 1.3 million copies of the new record could be sold within its first week. That would be the strongest performance for any album since 2002 (Eminem’s The Eminem Show) and approaching the strongest sales week ever for a female recording artist (currently held by Britney Spears’ 2000 release Oops I Did It Again).

Given sales of recorded music, both physical and digital, are in what looks like a death spiral, this kind of performance is nothing short of astonishing.

Will the Spotify snub backfire? It is hard to say. Spotify has 40 million users globally (10 million of them paying subscribers). Some of them will no doubt be upset by the move. But Swift has her own army of devoted fans more loyal to her than any streaming service. She sold 6 million copies of her last album alone.

Between mid-2012 and mid-2013, Spotify says, the annual royalty payout for a global hit album was about $425,000, while the rights holders for music by one unnamed global star were paid a total of $3 million. These amounts will rise as the service grows bigger. By way of comparison, Swift made nearly $40 million last year, mostly from touring.

Effectively, the bet Swift is making is that the money lost from Spotify royalties will be made up in album sales. Whether the bet turns out right will be hard to prove—the finances behind recorded music are notoriously opaque. (Courtney Love once claimed that a band could sell 1 million copies of an album and still lose money.)

Of course not every artist has the clout or fan base to abandon platforms like Spotify. Even those that do have good reason to stick around. Streaming services offer the music industry the most viable path forward to growth. The annual cost of a Spotify subscription is more than double the average amount a consumer spent on music at the industry’s peak. If enough people adopt these services, the industry pie will grow, although it will need to feed more mouths.

At any rate, the fact that Swift can ignore the biggest streaming service and probably get away with it is a testament to her marketing skills and to the incredible bond she has developed with her enormous fan base, no small feat at a time when audiences for just about everything have become fragmented.