Taylor Swift’s Monopoly

Darling, I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream

Taylor Swift’s Monopoly

Is the endless Taylor Swift discourse good for music?

It’s a big day for Taylor Swift. 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is filling my social feeds (and now your inbox!) and the daughter of a banker, great grand daughter of a banker and great great grand daughter of a banker, reportedly became a billionaire after the huge Eras tour.

Great for her… except there’s the cognitive dissonance that two UK music venues are closing per week.

Alongside this, my social feed is full of musicians and unions fuming that Spotify is reportedly considering a plan to lower the royalties of the least successful artists.

It’s hard not to feel increasingly like music’s ecosystem (egosystem?) mirrors the issues of wider society, where the top 0.1% extract wealth, aggressively dominating and monopolizing industries.

The three richest Americans (Musk, Bezos and Gates) hold more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country. Globally, the bottom 50 percent of the world's population holds around 2% of global “wealth”. The wealth of the UK’s billionaires has skyrocketed by over 1000% between 1990 and 2022, ballooning by around £600bn. The number of UK billionaires exploded from 15 in 1990 to 177 in 2022. Between 2020 and 2022 , billionaire wealth increased by almost £150bn (Source: Equality Trust).

Waiting for any kind of trickle down of this money, feels like expecting fossil fuel firms will put the planet before profit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Taylor Swift fan but not a fully obsessed Swiftie. This isn’t the hater’s gonna hate-hate-hate but something feels a bit off about where we’re at as an industry - not to mention as a global population.

Aside from the money flowing upwards (small side but UMG made $3bn in Q3, whilst calling for a change to streaming royalties by CEO Lucian Grainge who recently had a $150m payout atop his $5m salary), what’s baffling me is that there’s little discourse about Swift’s domination of the attention economy.

Spend much time online and you’ll see that from culture sections to the business pages, a large chunk of media resource is now dedicated to and dominated by the success of a few artists. USA Today even advertised a role as a full time Taylor Swift correspondent. This crowds out other stories and feeds into streaming, where the top 1% of artists generate 90% of streams on Spotify.

This has a big impact. A study by the UK Intellectual Property Office entitled Music Creators’ Earnings In The Digital Era looking at data from 2014-2020 revealed that only the top 0.4% of UK artists (around 720 acts) make a liveable wage from streaming on platforms like Spotify or Apple Music.

Meanwhile, in recent months Spotify founder Daniel Ek has banked $168m worth of shares whilst in the next breath he’s writing an op-ed for the UK’s right-wing grievance sheet The Daily Mail to lay into Apple for their App Store commission rate. The streaming giant has also taken out ads to promote this opinion piece on Elon Musk’s Twitter, which is paying out a share of ad revenue to, well, yeah, not the greatest contributors to public discourse.

In response to the reported change to streaming for small acts, The United Musicians and Allied Workers union shared on social media a post on social media that said: “Artists have solutions to fix streaming but Spotify isn’t listening. Instead they propose changes that will enrich the top of the pyramid even more, and make it even more impossible for working musicians to benefit from streaming.”

All of this resulted in me waking up today with existential questions swirling around my head: Is this consolidation around a few super rich artists the future of music? And is this domination of the attention economy being empowered by journalism that chases Swift clicks? How do we shine those blinding arena lights on a few more artists? In writing this, am I contributing to the Taylor Swift economy?

These thoughts are some of the froth atop the bone broth I’ve been eating every day for the last few weeks whilst cooking up the new season of the DiS podcast.

I’m both fearful and excited about what comes next for music media. To explore this more deeply and share some insights and predictions, I decided to dedicate season two of the Drowned in Sound podcast to speaking to experts from magazine editors to TikTokkers about where we’re headed, what’s needed and lots about why magazines are wonderful things.

The first two episodes are now live on Apple, Spotify, etc. Just search for “Drowned in Sound” wherever you get your podcasts. (Yes, this entire newsletter was a pyramid scheme to get you to subscribe to the podcast) (not really, I’m not that cynical) (or am I?)