Taylor Swift and the future of the music industry

Originally published in Palatinate Comment, November 2014.

Music is dead, or so the cynical might claim. Industry income was around a depressingly low 59.7% of the 2003 level at the end of 2013 – and this was an increase on the previous year’s figure.

In this difficult climate Taylor Swift’s recent platinum album, 1989, is impressive. Even more so is that she has shunned Spotify, despite the growing importance of streaming services at a time when the financial value of album sales (physical and digital combined) is actually declining. But is a ‘Taylor Swift’ model achievable for other musicians, or is it an increasingly untenable dream to be able to succeed on the back of album sales, as the musicians of old were able to?

Streaming services can be a godsend for the average consumer. The student lifestyle isn’t exactly conducive to spending £10 on a new album but logging into Spotify and hearing an artist’s latest album is quick and easy. Even better, it can be done for free. From the perspective of a musician however, it is not so clear-cut. For the sale of one album, the artist will net approximately £1, although of course this figure varies. In contrast, each Spotify play has been estimated by journalist Barry Collins to earn a musician $0.008. Shockingly, this works out at approximately 7875 plays to be able to buy some sweets from Poundland — never mind actually earn a living!

It is easy to see how artists, especially those as prolific as Swift, would be highly frustrated at this system. However, while high-earners might be able to neglect the potential benefits of music streaming, many cannot. One issue with music streaming is that it does not leave behind the detritus required to make most albums memorable. There is no longer a bloated music library on your computer or a pile of CDs perched on the edge of your desk — there is simply a list of played tracks. The loss of this tangible, real-world aspect of music is more than a little upsetting but undoubtedly it is most damaging for the sea of musicians hoping to be remembered.

When considering the future of the music industry perhaps it is not only the sales and financial aspect that need to be considered. After all, music is not analytical and logical — it is abstract and can be incredibly touching. It should be considered whether there is actually any benefit in reducing music to simply a discussion of the financial state of the industry. After all, despite the damage arguably done by the digital age great discoveries have also been made.

The Belgian choir Scala and Kolanchy Brothers, for example, have been able to share their music online to create a global audience. They have provided the backing to trailers for both The Social Network and Sunday night favourite Downton Abbey, yet their UK debut only reached eighty-two on the chart. It is clear that, whatever the negatives, the increasing digitisation of music can be beneficial for some.

According to BPI, 94 million albums were sold in the UK last year. This illustrates that despite other sobering statistics the music industry is still surviving and functioning well. With the rise of services such as Spotify and Google Play to the detriment of traditional music sales, it is hard to judge whether this is a period of innovation or degradation. Perhaps, as is so often the case, this will be for consumers to decide.

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