Discover more from The Bulwark
Taylor Swift Is an Inspiration for Us All
Everything you need to know about why you should like her.
1. It’s me. I’m the Problem.
The world is full of serious problems right now but I’m going to take a point of personal privilege to talk about Taylor Swift.
I went to the Eras concert movie this weekend with my two daughters and it was great.
And by “great” I mean supremely inspiring on an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual level.
Let me explain.
I like Swift as an artist. She’s an excellent songwriter and a gifted performer.1 But what I love about her—what I find genuinely inspiring—is her approach to her career and her willingness to fight the larger forces in the music industry.
Historically, the music industry is a wicked business.
Record companies, agents, and producers use their standing as capital holders and middlemen to take advantage of the musicians who actually make the product: From “race records” and the exploitation of African-American musicians, to Col. Tom Parker sucking Elvis dry, to Epic Records not releasing Aimee Mann from her contract even though they didn’t want her albums, the story is always the same: An individual artist can make music for free. But if they want to turn their art into a career, then they have to relinquish control—and a great deal of the value they create—to the companies that own the infrastructure.
Taylor Swift had the guts to challenge this system and beat it.
Swift has wanted to be a musician pretty much her entire life. She was making demo tapes when she was 11; at 13 she signed a development deal with RCA. The idea was that she’d write songs and periodically RCA would check in to see if they liked her work enough to give her a recording contract.
Here’s the story from a 2009 profile:
After a year Swift had to play her new songs for the assembled topbrass at RCA. “Basically, there were three things that were going to happen. Either they were going to drop me, or shelve me - that's kind of like putting me in cold storage—or give me a record deal. Of course, the only one of those that you want is the record deal. But they announced they were going to shelve me, and ‘monitor my progress’ until I was 18.”
As far as she was concerned, this was just as bad as being dropped. “I mean, I was 14,” she says, her voice arching upwards in indignation. “I genuinely felt that I was running out of time. I'd written all these songs and I wanted to capture these years of my life on an album while they still represented what I was going through.”
So she did something unprecedented in Nashville: she walked away from the biggest record label in town. At the same time, she told Sony not to bother selling any of her songs as she wanted to sing them herself. After setting up a showcase concert herself, she was the first artist signed [to Big Machine Records, which was] set up by a former DreamWorks executive named Scott Borchetta.
That line about “running out of time”—at 14—is absolute gold. Swift had an amazing sense of assurance and understanding that she was worth more than the record company was saying and that she didn’t need their permission to unlock it.
One of my mantras is that There is no permission structure for entrepreneurialism. It took me a long time to see this truth, because I was a Company Kid—the kind of boy always worrying about what the teacher, or admissions officer, or other assorted gatekeepers would let me do with my life.
Taylor Swift figured this all out at 14.
Swift’s next big fight came in 2014. Streaming was changing the economics of the music industry so that another capital holder—this time the streaming platforms—was able to exploit artists, too.
First, Swift pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify, because, as she explained,
I’m not willing to contribute my life’s work to an experiment that I don’t feel fairly compensates the writers, producers, artists, and creators of this music. And I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free.
A year later Apple Music offered a free three month trial to users in an attempt to get them to sign up for the service—but during this period it did not pay artists any royalties for their work. Apple’s view was: “We’re using your work to get them to pay us, but until we get paid, you don’t get paid.”
Swift wrote an open letter telling Apple that she wouldn’t let her album 1989 be on the service because of this policy. Apple changed the policy the next day.
In 2017 Swift allowed her music to come back to Spotify—but only after they created a new-release window that increased revenue for artists.
The best Swift fight came in 2019.
After she completed her original recording contract with Big Machine Records, Swift signed with another label, Republic Records.2
By the terms of most recording contracts, the label owns the “masters”—the original studio master sessions—of music the artist recorded while under contract. After Swift left Big Machine, she attempted to buy back the masters of the five albums she had recorded while under contract with them.
But the company wouldn’t sell.
So Swift decided to re-record those albums as “Taylor’s Versions.” She would own these re-recordings completely. And by signaling to her audience that “Taylor’s Versions” were the preferred canon, she destroyed the value of the original masters. It was an epic act of rebellion; pure Cersei Lannister.
If you’re new here, this newsletter is usually just for members of Bulwark+. And usually it’s about politics. But we do lots of culture at The Bulwark and you can sign up to get nearly all of it for free—with no ads or anything—if you hit us up here.
Okay, back to T-Swizzle.
One of my favorite musical microgenres is songs about struggles with the recording industry. Aimee Mann is, obviously, the queen of this set. But the single best entry in the space might be Cypress Hill’s “(Rock) Superstar”:
You should listen to the whole thing, because the underlying story is that being a rock star is just a job. As B-Real explains, it’s a fun job—but it’s still a job.
There have been better musicians and song writers than Taylor Swift, but nobody has ever been better at the job of rock star than she is. That’s because she intuited that her recording industry “partners” were actually her enemies and that she needed to find a way to subjugate them.
She accomplished this by taking ownership of her audience.
Swift worked very hard to forge a deep connection with the people who buy her music. She wrote music that spoke to them, of course, but she also cultivated them and treated them like fellow passengers on her personal journey. She brought them inside—or at least inside a constructed a diorama of her life which her audience took to be the real thing.
It’s a lot like kayfabe in professional wrestling: In Taylor Swift’s world it’s impossible to know what’s a work and what’s a shoot.
This isn’t a criticism. Most of pop music involves myth-making.3 The difference is that nearly all of the time it’s the record companies who make up the backstories.4 Taylor Swift wrote her own script.
Swift figured out that it isn’t enough to write catchy songs. If you’re only a good singer/songwriter, then you’ll be at the mercy of the larger forces in the industry.
So while the first half of her job was art, the second half was commerce: She had to build her own audience and then forge a connection with it so strong that she could command it.5 Kind of like a cult?
And if we’re being honest, the Swifties are cult-like. And that isn’t a criticism either! Because Swift has used her powers mostly for good.
Even at the artistic level, Swift used her audience’s loyalty not to jam bland product down their throats, but to give herself the freedom to explore multiple genres and grow herself as an artist.
It’s important to understand that she was only able to make that journey as an artist because she mastered the business side of her job.
The Eras Tour is the culmination of Swift’s ownership of her career. She attempted to bend Ticketmaster—a notoriously rapacious company—to her will by having them use a “verified fan” program that would get tickets directly into the hands of end-users and put a cap on reselling.
It didn’t work. But this time, the fault was Swift’s: She simply had too many fans. On the day tickets went on sale, Ticketmaster prepared for 1.5 million people to hit their website. Instead, 14 million people tried to get in the door. The entire tour sold out in a day and in the end the resellers made a fortune, with the average ticket on the open market going for roughly $3,800.6
All told, Eras became the highest grossing tour in U.S. history, taking in $1.4 billion in ticket sales and generating an estimated $4.6 billion in excess consumer spending surrounding the shows.
It’s like Swift ran her own private stimulus program for post-COVID America.
In the end, that’s what I love about Taylor Swift. She believed in herself and she did the work. In a business full of sharks and bullies, she beat the house.
And her success has turned out to be good for all of us.
2. Biden and Israel
The Jerusalem Post says that Joe Biden has set a new standard for U.S. support of Israel. Across Israel billboards thanking Biden for his words and actions have popped up. And over the weekend a Marist poll showed two-thirds of Americans think it’s important for Biden to be publicly supporting Israel.
That same poll also asked Americans how they think Biden is handling the crisis so far.
Now, are you ready? Put your coffee down.
In this poll 52 percent of respondents disapprove of Biden’s handling of the crisis.
A supermajority of Americans think it’s important for Biden to support Israel.
Biden has supported Israel to such a degree that Israelis are impressed and publicly grateful.
Also, a majority of Americans disapprove of what Biden has done with regard to Israel.
Put this in the “What do you people want” file along with “it’s like the Great Depression but boat sales are through the roof” and “our schools are a disaster, but parents with kids like their schools.”
This is the story of two white men who go around Texas looking for defective property titles and then suing to acquire the land. Most of the titles they target are for what is known as “heirs’ property,” a particular form of real estate born in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. These two men are so successful that they are able to find a piece of property on which the owner has paid taxes, every year, for decades, and then strip him of it for a few hundred dollars.
It’s the kind of story that shows why we need magazines like Texas Monthly:
The Smiths’ tract was heirs’ property, land handed down from generation to generation without the use of wills. This form of ownership is not unusual in Black communities, where access to attorneys—and often the funds to pay them—has historically been scarce. Much of the acreage held by Black families in Brazos County and throughout the South is heirs’ property, a legacy of the region’s poverty but also of the lack of trust in white attorneys and the court system during the Jim Crow era.
Heirs’ property tends to become more and more diffuse as new generations have children. Eventually any individual heir may own only a tiny percentage of the land, known as an “undivided interest,” not unlike holding a few shares of stock in a company. Lawrence’s cousin’s suit against him had demonstrated that heirs’ property was a tenuous form of ownership. But Curtis Capps was no rogue family member—he represented something far more formidable. . . .
Capps’s manner was brusque and, to Lawrence’s mind, arrogant. He had already secured most of the Anna Hackney tract as a result of a recent judgment in another lawsuit and was now suing Lawrence and his fellow Hackney heirs to clear up his title to the land. According to Capps’s research at the county clerk’s office, Hackney never owned as much of Petersburg Settlement as her heirs thought she did, and many of the deeds created in conjunction with the tract over the years were faulty. He offered $3,000 for Lawrence’s share of the land, plus $10,000 more if he would persuade the other heirs to sell their shares. “I’m going to get it all eventually anyway,” he said.
Lawrence was insulted. He had long assumed he’d sell someday; real estate agents perked up whenever he mentioned he owned property southeast of College Station, where new subdivisions—some with million-dollar homes—had been creeping steadily toward Millican, the old railroad town where Lawrence was born. Land in that part of the county was going for at least $5,000 an acre and in some cases twice that, which meant his family’s parcel was worth as much as $360,000. . . . .
Capps asked the court for what’s known as a partition, a proceeding in which a tract is apportioned among its various owners. In this case, the judge determined there was no fair way to divide the 3.6 acres among Smith and his fellow heirs and instead ordered it to be sold, so that each heir could be compensated in cash. Capps then purchased the 3.6 acres himself, completing his takeover of the Anna Hackney tract. The district clerk’s office sent Lawrence a check for his share of the sale proceeds: $635.
Just like that, his land—representing a significant portion of his family’s wealth—was gone. Lawrence wasn’t alone. As he came to understand in the years that followed, Capps and Youngkin had targeted heirs’ property all over the Brazos Valley. Black land ownership was under siege. . . .
[T]he tenuous nature of heirs’ property, which makes up what’s estimated to be more than one third of Black-owned land in the South, continues to erode Black wealth. The USDA has identified heirs’ property as the leading cause of involuntary land loss for African Americans, making it a major contributor to the wealth gap between white and Black America. . . .
A typical Capps case begins with contacting an heir, frequently one who is unaware that they have inherited an interest in the targeted tract. Carolyn Waldon, a retired Bryan ISD counselor, said a representative of Capps met with her elderly mother-in-law, Bertha, in 2016, inquiring about fifty acres not far from Millican. Bertha, who had been diagnosed with dementia, had no idea she was an heir to the property. “She was told her portion of the land wasn’t even big enough to park a car on,” Waldon said. Bertha signed away her interest on the spot for $1,200. Waldon worried her mother-in-law had been taken advantage of.
Brad Smith has heard similar stories from members of several other families, who received letters from Capps threatening suit over Petersburg Settlement land. “Capps tells you, ‘You know, your uncle has already sold his interest, and your cousins have all sold. We’ve got your check here too, and we just need you to sign these papers,’ ” he said. “You’re talking about someone who may only have $1,000 in the bank, and here is someone offering them a few thousand for some land they might not have seen since they were a child. It’s like they won the lottery.”
Read the whole thing. It’s one of the clearest accounts of structural racism—or legacy racism, or whatever you want to call it—that you’ll ever see.
My own preferences are slightly more obscure. My favorite band? You probably haven’t heard of them. 😉
Why did Swift sign with Republic? Because it’s a division of Universal and Universal owned a large stake in Spotify. Swift’s contract with Republic (1) gives her total ownership of her work, including her masters; and (2) required Universal to share with artists proceeds of any sale of their Spotify holdings.
The White Stripes, for instance, sold themselves as a brother-sister act, even though they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
If you have time, settle down and read the definitive story on this phenomenon in a 2003 New Yorker piece called “The Money Note.”
There’s a lesson in this for every creator, everywhere: The most important thing in the world is for you to own your audience.
I would not choose to spend $3,800 to attend a Taylor Swift concert. But having seen the concert film I can say with some confidence that in a world in which I had spent $3,800 to see the show, I would have come away feeling like I got my money’s worth.