Love her or hate her, Taylor Swift can sell an album, with 1.287 million copies of her latest album 1989 sold in the first week of its release — in other words, two albums were sold every second of that week-long period. 1989 was also the first album to go platinum for 2014. (The only other album to sell one million units this year was the Frozen soundtrack, but that was released in 2013.) Besides that, Swift’s whole discography has gone platinum, with her last three releases, 2010’s Speak Now, 2012’s Red and 2014’s 1989, selling a million copies in their first respective weeks.
In addition to these types of sales, which rarely seem to happen now within the music industry, Swift, after declaring in a Wall Street Journal op/ed piece that musicians should not undervalue their art, removed her entire music library from Spotify. This naturally sparked a lot of dialogue concerning royalties with artists in terms of music streaming sites and the state of music sales.
In regards to industry-wide sales, things are not looking too promising with the sales of physical albums on the decline since 2001. Meanwhile, digital downloads, while on the rise since 2004, have finally followed in decline, in particular with sales on Apple’s iTunes store, which have decreased by 13 percent since 2001.
The trend has shown that listeners have moved toward streaming services, like Spotify and Pandora (one could even add Youtube). However, as stated time and time again, they do not generate as much money for artists and labels as album sales (Youtube probably has the worst per-stream basis out of any of the services).
While one can spend hours debating whether Swift’s intentions were honest or not, the fact remains that whatever she does will not have much of an effect on any other artist (or really any of the artists I do not shut up about in this column), considering that no other artist truly has the pull that Taylor Swift has (sorry Beyoncé fans, but she hasn’t sold a million copies of any of her albums in a week). However, taking into account what Swift wrote, how can other artists and labels be able to reach a large audience without undervaluing their art?
This is not a simple question, nor does it have a simple solution, but one thing it will require is for the labels to stop being reactionary and to become a part of the change and accept the reality of the music industry today.
Instead of having threatened to sue sites like Soundcloud or Spotify over licensing agreements and royalties, the labels should have been in charge of developing the technology to sell and stream music. Since they messed up that opportunity, though, they should work together with their artists to create regulations and standards to prevent unfair compensation with these new services.
For example, instead of having the major labels pressure Soundcloud into becoming a stream service with ads (a.k.a. another Spotify), why did they not work to integrate more of an external online music store with it, instead of the small presence of mini-URLs and quick links to iTunes and other music stores? Considering the success of sites like Bandcamp, which combine music streaming with a rather comprehensive online music store controlled directly by the artist or label, why shouldn’t the other music stream sites try to strive for that?
Why don’t the labels set that standard? Otherwise, the cycle will continue: Once Soundcloud becomes a site full of ads and a slave to the major labels’ demands, someone will come along and make a site and service just like the old Soundcloud, which the labels will eventually threaten again.
In the meanwhile, sites like Spotify need to find ways to improve artist compensation so that they do not alienate and further anger the very people who provide their business with music. This does not include the recent deal that Merlin, the global rights agency for a large number of indie labels (4AD, Matador, Domino, etc.), made with Pandora, in which Pandora will make their Internet radio algorithm to play artists associated with Merlin more while getting lower royalties.
This is eerily similar to payola, a practice that was banned in the 1960s in which labels would pay radio stations to play certain racks in order to gain more popularity and sales. If Pandora goes on to make more deals like this with other labels, it will just diminish the royalties artists get in a very poor attempt to achieve a larger audience.