'I come with opinions about how we can better our industry': Taylor Swift - The Music Week interview

Taylor Swift

Around this time of year, the Taylor Swift anniversaries come at you thick and fast.

Nine years since her third album, Speak Now, every note of which was written entirely by Swift, hit the shelves. Five years since she released her mould-breaking pop album, 1989, and went from the world’s biggest country star to the world’s biggest pop star overnight. Two years since her Reputation record saw her become the only musician to post four successive million-plus debut sales weeks in the United States. And so on.

But today, Swift’s mind is drawn further back, to the 13th anniversary of her debut, self-titled record, and the days when her album releases weren’t automatically accompanied by mountains of hype and enough think-pieces to sink a battleship. Her journal entries from the time – helpfully reprinted as part of the deluxe editions of her new album, Lover – reveal her as an excited, optimistic teenager, but also one with a grasp of marketing strategies and label politics way beyond her years, even if she was reluctant to actually take credit for her ideas.

“It always was and it always will be an interesting dance being a young woman in the music industry,” she smiles ruefully. “We don’t have a lot of female executives, we’re working on getting more female engineers and producers but, while we are such a drastic gender minority, it’s interesting to try and figure out how to be.”

And, of course, when Swift started out she was, as she points out, “an actual kid”.

“I was planning the release of my first album when I was 15 years old,” she reminisces. “And I was a fully gangly 15, I reminded everyone of their niece! I was in this industry in Nashville and country music, where I was making album marketing calls, but I never wanted to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, that promotions plan you just complimented my label on, I thought of that! Me and my Mom thought of that!’

“When you’re a new artist you wonder how much space you can take up and, as a woman, you wonder how much space you can take up pretty much your whole period of growing up,” she continues. “For me, growing up and knowing that I was an adult was realising that I was allowed to take up space from a marketing perspective, from a business perspective, from an opinionated perspective. And that feels a lot better than constantly trying to wonder if I’m allowed to be here.”

In the intervening years, Taylor Swift has released six further, brilliant albums, growing from country starlet to all-conquering pop behemoth along the way. She takes up “more space”, as she would put it, than any other musician on the planet: a sales and now – having belatedly embraced the format with Lover – streaming phenomenon; a powerhouse stadium performer; an award-garlanded songwriter for herself and others; and a social media giant with a combined 278 million followers across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (which would make the Taylor Nation the fourth most populous one on earth, after China, India and the US).

But her influence on music and the music industry doesn’t end there. Because, over the years, Swift has also become a leading advocate for artists’ and songwriters’ rights, in a digital landscape that doesn’t always have such matters as a priority.

In 2015, she stood up to Apple Music over its plans to not pay artist royalties during subscribers’ three-month free trials (Apple backed down immediately). She pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify in 2014 in protest that its free tier was devaluing music, sending Daniel Ek scrambling to justify his business model. When she returned in 2017, it was a crucial fillip for the streaming service’s IPO plans.

More recently, her ground-breaking new record deal with Republic Records contained clauses not only guaranteeing her ownership of her future masters, but also ensuring Universal Music will share the spoils of its Spotify shares with its artists, without any payments counting against unrecouped balances. And when her long-time former label boss Scott Borchetta sold Big Machine to Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings, taking Swift’s first six albums with him, the star publicly called out what she saw as her “worst-case scenario” and stressed: “You deserve to own the art you make”. She may yet re-record her old songs in protest.

In short, Swift has, for a long time now, been unafraid to use her voice on industry matters, whether they pertain to her own stellar career or the thousands of other artists out there struggling to make a living.

All of which makes Swift not just the greatest star of our age, but perhaps the most important to the future development of the industry as a more artist-centric, songwriter-friendly business. Hers is still the life of the pop phenomenon – she spent today in Los Angeles doing promotion and photoshoots (or, in her words, “having people put make-up on me”) as Lover continues to build on huge critical acclaim and even huger initial sales. But now, she’s kicking back with her cats – one of whom seems determined to disrupt Music Week’s interview by “stampeding” through at every opportunity – and ready to talk business.

And for Swift, business is good. The impact of her joining streaming, and the decline of traditional album sales, may have prevented her from posting a fifth successive one million-plus sales debut, but Lover still sold more US copies (867,000) in its first week than any record since her own Reputation. It’s sold 117,513 copies to date in the UK, according to the Official Charts Company.

Even better, while Reputation – a record forged in the white heat of a social media snakestorm over her on-going feud with Kanye West – was plenty of show and rather less grow, Lover continues to reveal hidden depths. Reputation struck a sometimes curious contrast between the unrepentant warrior Swift she was showing to the outside world and the love story with British actor Joe Alwyn that was quietly developing behind closed doors, but Lover is the sort of versatile, cohesive album that the streaming age was supposed to kill off.

It contains more than its fair share of pop bangers (You Need To Calm Down, Me!), but also some gorgeously-crafted acoustic tracks (Lover, Cornelia Street), some pithy political commentary (The Man, Miss America & The Heartbreak Prince) and the sort of musical diversions (Paper Rings’ irresistible rockabilly stomp, the childlike oddity of It’s Nice To Have A Friend) that no other pop superstar would have the sheer musical chops to attempt, let alone pull off.

“Taylor’s creative instincts as an artist and songwriter are brilliant,” says Monte Lipman, founder and CEO of Swift’s US label, Republic. “Our partnership represents a strategic alliance built on mutual respect, trust, and complete transparency. Her vision is extraordinary as she sets the tone for every campaign and initiative.”

No wonder David Joseph, chairman/CEO of her long-time UK label Virgin EMI’s parent company Universal Music UK, is thrilled with how things are going.

“Love Story was a fitting first single release for Taylor here – she’s loved the UK from day one and has engaged so much with her fans and teams,” says Joseph. “She really respects and values what’s going on here creatively. To see her go from playing the Students’ Union at King’s College to Wembley Stadium has been extraordinary. Taylor is an artist constantly striving for perfection, and with Lover – from my personal point of view, her most accomplished work to date – her songwriting has gone to a new level. I adore working with her and whilst it’s been more than 10 years this still feels like the start.”

And today, Swift is keen to concentrate on the present and future. She has a starring role in Cats coming up (and a new song on the soundtrack, Beautiful Ghosts, co-written with Andrew Lloyd Webber) and, after a spectacularly intimate Paris launch show in September, festival dates and her own LoverFest to plan (UK shows will be revealed soon). Time, then, to tell the cats to calm down and sit down with Music Week to talk streaming, contracts and why she’s “obsessed” with the music industry…

Unlike with Reputation, most of the discussion around Lover seems to have been focused on the music…

“Absolutely! One of the ideas I had about this record, and something I’ve implemented into my life in the last couple of years is that I don’t like distractions. And, for a while, it felt like my life had to come with distractions from the music, whether it was tabloid fascination with my personal life or my friendships or what I was wearing. I realised in the last couple of years that, if I don’t give a window into distraction, people can’t try to look in and see something other than the music. I love that, if you really pour yourself into the idea that an album is still important and try really hard to make something that is worth people’s attention span, time and energy, that can still come across. Because we are living in an industry right now where everyone’s rushing towards taking us into a singles industry and, in some cases, it has become that. But there are still some cases where clearly the album is important to people.”

Does it matter that some new artists won’t get to make albums the way you always have?

“It’s interesting. Five years ago I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and said, maybe in the next five years, we would see artists releasing music the way that they want to. I thought that each artist would start to curate what is important to them, not just from an artistic standpoint but from a marketing standpoint. It’s really interesting to see different release plans, if you look at what Drake did and then what Beyoncé does, incredible artists who have really curated what it is to drop music in their own way. We all do it differently, which is cool. As long as people dropping just singles want to be doing that, then I’m fine with it, but if it feels like a big general wave that’s being pressured by people in power, their teams or their labels, that’s not cool. But I do really hope that in the future artists have more of a say over strategy. We’re not just supposed to make art and then hand it to a team that masterminds it.”

Were you worried about putting an album on streaming on release day for the first time?

“Well, there are ways that streaming services could really promote the [whole] album in a more incentivised way. We could have album charts on streaming. The industry follows where they can get prizes. So you have a singles chart on streaming services which is great but, if you split things up into genre charts for example, that would really incentivise people. It’s important that we keep trying to strive to make the experience better for users but also make it more interesting for artists to keep wanting to achieve. But I really did love the experience of putting the album on streaming. I loved the immediacy, I loved that people who maybe weren’t a huge diehard fan were curious and saying, ‘I wonder what this is like’ and listening to it and deciding that they liked it.”

You’d resisted streaming for a long time. Have you changed your mind about the format now?

“I always knew that I would enjoy the aspects of streaming that make [your music] so immediately available to so many people. That’s the part of it that I unequivocally always felt really sad I was missing out on. There wasn’t ever a day when I woke up and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really glad that multitudes of people don’t have access to my music!’ So I always knew that streaming was an incredible mechanism and model for the future but I still don’t think we have the royalties and compensation system worked out. That’s between the labels and their artists and I realised that me, to use a gross word, ‘leveraging’ what I can bring to cut a better deal for the artists at my record label was really important for me.”

How big a factor were things like that in you signing to Republic/Universal?

“That’s important to me because that means they’re adopting some of my ideas. If they take me on as an artist that means they really thought it through. Because with me, come opinions about how we can better our industry. I’m one of the only people in the artist realm who can be loud about it. People who are on their fifth, sixth or seventh album, we’re the only ones who can speak out, because new artists and producers and writers need to work. They need to be endearing and likeable and available to their labels and streaming services at all times. It’s up to the artists who have been around for a second to say, ‘Hey guys, the producers and the writers and the artists are the ones who are making music what it is’. And we’re in a great place in music right now thanks to them. They should be going to their mailbox and feeling like they’ve got a pension plan, rather than feeling like, ‘Oh yay, I can pay half my rent this month after this No.1 song’.”

Did you have more creative freedom making Lover than on your previous albums?

“In my previous situation, there were creative constraints, issues that we had over the years. I’ve always given 100% to projects, I always over-delivered, thinking that that generosity would be returned to me. But I ended up finding that generosity in a new situation with a new label that understands that I deserve to own what I make. That meant so much to me because it was given over to me so freely. When someone just looks at you and says ‘Yes, you deserve what you want’, after a decade or more of being told, ‘I’m not sure you deserve what you want’ – there’s a freedom that comes with that. It’s like when people find ‘the one’ they’re like, ‘It was easy, I just knew and I felt free’. All of a sudden you’re being told you’re worth exactly, no, more than what you thought you were worth. And that made me feel I could make an album that was exactly what I wanted to make. There’s an eclectic side to Lover, a confessional side, it varies from acoustic to really poppy pop, but that’s what I like to do. And, while you would never make something artistic based on something so unromantic as a contract, it was more than that. It was a group of people saying, ‘We believe in what you’re making, go make what you want to make and you deserve to own it too’.”

You’re obviously not happy about what’s happened at Big Machine since you left. But will the attention mean artists don’t find themselves in this situation in the future?

“I hope so. That’s the only reason that I speak out about things. The fans don’t understand these things, the public isn’t being made aware. This generation has so much information available to them so I thought it was important that the fans knew what I was going through, because I knew it was going to affect every aspect of my life and I wanted them to be the first to know. And in and amongst that group, I know there are people that want to make music some day. It involves every new artist that is reading that and going, ‘Wait, that’s what I’m signing?’ They don’t have to sign stuff that’s unfair to them. If you don’t ask the right questions and you sit in front of the wrong desk in front of the wrong person, they can take everything from you.”

Songwriters are in dispute with Spotify in the US over its decision to appeal the Copyright Board decision to boost songwriting royalties. Do writers need more respect?

“Absolutely. In terms of the power structure, the songwriters, the producers, the engineers, the people who are breathing magic into our industry, need to be listened to. They’re not being greedy. This is legitimately an industry where people are having trouble paying their bills and they’re the most talented people we have. This isn’t them sitting in their mansions going, ‘I wish this mansion was bigger and I would like a yacht please’. This is actually people who are going to work every single day. I got into writing when I was in Nashville and it was very much like what I read about the Brill Building. You would write every day, whether you were inspired or not, and in the process I met artists and writers. Somebody would walk in and someone would say, ‘Oh, he’s still getting mailbox money from that Faith Hill cut a couple of years ago, he’s set’. That’s not a thing anymore. Mailbox money is a thing of the past and we need to remember that these are the people that create the heartbeat that we’re all dancing to or crying to.”

You were clearly aware of music industry machinations from a young age…

“Reading back on the journal entries, I forgot how obsessed I was with the industry as a teenager. I was so fascinated by how it works and how it was changing. Every part of it was interesting to me. I had drawn the stages for most of my tours a year before I went on them. That really was fun for me as a teenager! A lot of people who start out very young in music, either don’t have a say or don’t have the will to do the business side of it, but weirdly that was so much fun for me to try and learn. I had a lot of energy when I was 16!”

Are you doing similar drawings for next year’s LoverFest?

“Definitely. And that’s why it’s still fun for me to take on a challenge like, ‘Oh, let’s just plan our own festival’. Let’s create a bill of artists and try and make it as fun as possible for the fans. I’m so intrigued by what that’s going to be like.”

Finally, when we last did an interview in 2015, you said in five years’ time you wanted to be “finding complexity in happiness”. How has that worked out?

“That’s exactly what’s happened with this album! I think a lot of writers have the fear of stability, emotional health and happiness. Our whole careers, people make jokes about how, ‘Just wait until you meet someone nice, you’ll run out of stuff to write about’. I was talking to [Cats director] Tom Hooper about this because he said one thing his mother taught him was, ‘Don’t ever let people tell you that you can’t make art if you’re happy’. I thought that was so amazing. He’s a creator in a completely different medium but he has been subjected to that same joke over and over again that we must be miserable to create. Lover is important to me in so many ways, but it’s so imperative for me as a human being that songwriting is not tied to my own personal misery. It’s good to know that, it really is!”

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