Taylor Swift for Sale

Curator's Note

In today’s recording industry, even the most popular stars have been forced to adjust, even those rare and steady sources of platinum records. Indeed, Taylor Swift’s recent changes not only address her audience but the manner in which they are consuming her brand today and for the forseeable future. First, her persona has changed. If on 2006’s Fearless Swift was a decidedly wide-eyed high school innocent who lived for first kisses, her latest record, Red, exhibits moments of cynicism, derides her exes and pokes fun at herself for being a bit of a dork, albeit one that is 22, has a job and a nightlife. But it's how this finance investor’s daughter’s label has distributed her latest release that reminds her fans that Swift is decidedly career-oriented.

Part of this has been to make certain that Swift’s brand remains physically ubiquitous even as national record chains have shuttered. By the time Red was released last October, Swift’s label, Big Machine, had scored deals with a number of chains to place her CD. However, those deals with Papa Johns, the nation’s 3rd largest pizza purveyor, and Walgreens, the largest drug store in the US, were unique. Throughout fall 2012, Papa John customers could purchase a “Taylor Swift pizza party” and receive the CD, a pie, and a Taylor Swift pizza box for $22 (Wyland 2012). Swift’s CD is also available at Walgreens along with her merchandise. The drug store provides prominent and easy access to a broad range of her merchandise such as Taylor Swift spiral notebooks, T-shirts, posters, journals, cell phone cases, and blankets. In one sense her brand dovetails with Walgreens’ recent efforts to rebrand their generic goods as part of the “Nice!” line. As Forbes noted, ““Nice” is also an apt description of Taylor Swift” (Galli 2012). It’s unclear if Swift’s fans will be buying CDs or even downloading music in ten years, but no doubt they will continue to buy pizzas and get prescription drugs and visit other places where Taylor Swift will continue to be sold.

Works Cited

Galli, L. (2012) "Taylor Swift And Walgreens Make A Nice Pair." Forbes.

Wyland, S. (2012). "Taylor Swift & Papa John’s to Bring Fans Pizza & Red." GAC News & Notes


Thanks for the post, Tim. Could Swift's ubiquity -- at least in terms of her becoming visible despite the closing of record stores -- have also to do with her fans growing with her and having the disposable income to, say, buy a pizza or shop at Walgreens without having to rely on parents/guardians? You bring up a very interesting analogy; the cynicism (I see it as her world-weariness, although it feels odd to say that about a 22-year-old) of Red is equated with shopping at a major drug store and getting take-out pizza. Which says something deeply sad about maturity/adulthood.

Anthony, I had something to say about all of these questions, but left those details out (those pesky word limits). First, Swift is perhaps the first young artist I can remember in a long time that has embraced her "unhip" status. There is nothing cool about Swift at all, her management has embraced this, it's all over her latest set of songs and, I imagine, this is a big relief for many of her fans who would rather not learn the rules of indie cred. Having a pizza party... totally uncool. Buying your pop stash at a Walgreens... makes every purchase at Hot Topic drip with hepness. It may be sad, but I read "Red" as mixed because it often celebrates being liberated enough to actually enjoy small moments of liberation to their fullest, something that, to my ears and eyes, has been long missing in indie culture. In that sense, buying from chains, enjoying the disposable deposits her firmly in the arena of early punk (see Ramones, etc.). The branding stuff, well, that's where the pop kicks in. The thing I was really struck by is the assertion of physical proximity in brand distribution. As one distributor said to me in December, "Never underestimate the laziness of people". His point was in a world where people have millions of choices, most will choose the easiest option. In other words, getting the brand to a place where it cannot be avoided is of utmost importance if you wish to maintain mainstream dominance. As her audience grows, BIg Machine will have to find ways to stay in front. I can imagine deals with Nordstroms and other high end retailers in her late 20s.

Great post, Tim. I'm also struck by the ways in which Swift's image is increasingly morphing to the "not nice" (See, for example, the video for "Trouble") even as more traditional marketing avenues attempt to re-root it in the "niceness" of yore. Your post underlines how polysemic star images remain, especially when it comes to exploiting those images for profit.

Just like any career "pop star" her star will change as she does. This is always one of the more interesting aspects of pop: how the star must be invested into malleability. I love "Red" precisely because its complexities begin at the surface. Her CD cover is more of a nod to Joni Mitchell or Rickie Lee Jones than anyone has yet to point out. However the music is poppier than anything those two ever embraced. As Mitchell and Jones "matured" they went away from folk and toward jazz. To watch Swift move further from Nashville country and into Nashville pop has just been terrific for this media studies professor. I wonder if it has been as exciting for her fans, many of whom have become older and more urbane over time.

Tim, I'm so glad you are writing for this week so I can ask you a question I've been wondering about for two semesters. I am interested in the idea that proximity continue to matter, so my question may be relevant. When discussing the Papa John's deal with my Advertising class, we tried to understand how this deal made sense based on the economics of the industry. One student suggested that physical album sales continue to drive measures of popularity (i.e. Platinum records). Is that true, and if so, is this another reason brick-and-mortar stores still play a crucial role in today's music industry? The absence of "Red" on Spotify is perhaps related as well, with the queen of young country/pop ironically reinforcing traditional business structures? Thanks for a great post.

Karen, The issue of proximity and physicality is one the largest issues that the music industry has had to negotiate. By being dragged into digital, the industry has lost not only retail spaces but about 60 years of best practices in terms of distribution (please note, I consider distribution to be both the movement of and promotion of goods). The deal made with Papa John's didn't really result in huge numbers re disk sale as far as I can tell, but it was an interesting experiment. All of my research right now points to this one fact: the industry is in the experimental phase of a paradigm shift where best practices are being discovered and developed. The largest consideration now isn't just the sales of records, but brand extension. Sales count, somewhat. But the issue lies in the margins. For example, the sale of CDs gain large margins, even if they are collapsing. The artist on a label may gain relatively little in terms of royalties, although I doubt that is the case with TS, but the label needs those margins, which are far wider than those of MP3s and the like. Even wider are T-shirt sales and other merch. In a way it doesn't matter, TS is most likely signed to a variant of a 360 deal and Big Machine receives income streams from multiple sources. The issue of physicality, though, has another goal and that is to act as a continual reminder that an artist exists. And the truth is a CD is just easier than an legal or illegal download. Parents and kids alike understand a $12 CD that can be spun in their car or ripped into iTunes. It's different with downloads. You have to make an account, give someone a credit card (you may not have one), have an internet connection (may not have one of those either), and then there is the issue of sharing. Physical goods are easier to swap with others. We think everyone is digital, but we are still in transition. The absence of Red on Spotify is due to licensing disagreements over on-demand per stream royalties. These are done on a label by label, sometimes artist by artist basis. Unlike the compulsory license that Pandora can acquire (totally different set of legalities and standards apply to streaming when it is not by demand), there is no standard on-demand rate. Artists such as the Beatles, Led Zep and TS want more than Spotify is willing to pay, so there you go. I bet if the rates were higher she would gladly take the money with the understanding that the loss of recordings sold would be overcome by this new income stream.

At the same time, though, Billboard's choice to add on-demand streams into their metrics has put someone like Taylor Swift in a difficult position: as Macklemore sits at #1 with "Thrift Shop" (which lacks anything close to Swift's radio penetration, at least at the moment) while "I Knew You Were Trouble" stalled out at #4, Swift's ability to dominate the pop charts is on some level damaged by the ways in which non-monetary measures of success are shifting to reflect these transitions. I would also note that an artist like Adele began with their album off-Spotify (while featuring "Rolling in the Deep" as the lead single), but eventually released the album to the service once album sales had slowed somewhat, suggesting a gradual release pattern in which albums are given distinct windows to perform in traditional markets before moving onto the digital wild.

Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody are all being measured, to be sure, but I think what you are pointing out re Adele in a "windowing strategy" ala movies and television shows is correct. I have no doubt she will get onto these streamers soon, however only after sales dry up. I have a feeling it will be while. Like Adele's "21", "Red" will be promoted for the next 12 to 16 months. The money behind the album has long term goals, including touring and the like. FWIW, the Karaoke version of "Red" is available on Spotify.

I'm glad you've highlighted these two campaigns, Tim, as they were respectively the campaign I saw the most of (there's a Walgreen's right by my office) and the campaign that seemed the most novel (I was disappointed not to find any Taylor Swift pizza boxes being sold on eBay when I checked a moment ago). I did want to bring her Target campaign into the conversation, though, in part because Target has seemed to aggressively pursue exclusive content from artists in an effort to boost physical album sales and store traffic. I also noticed that they used last night's Grammys to relaunch their Red ad campaign—which uses the title track—timed to a special deal on the album in stores this week. I'm wondering how you felt the Target connection, and its specific ties to "bonus content" rather than simply brand association, fits within the selling of Swift in these instances.

I almost talked about that as well, but Target's content exclusivity is more of a deal to benefit these retailers who do have the infrastructure and demand such treatment. And, of course, Target and Taylor's brand dovetail well (both are upwardly mobile, interested in mainstream pleasures and wares, etc.). I haven't explored these deals in great detail, but I think they are deserving of some analysis. I didn't explore the Target issue re merchandise, but are they carrying merch other than the record? When I was at the Walgreen's today I noticed that the TS "Woven Blanket" would fit perfectly on a Target shelf.

Great post, Tim. Do you think this drive to make Swift's music ubiquitous is in any way de-humanizing in its efforts to sell more records, or is it down to doing whatever it takes to stay afloat financially? Do you think there's a clear divide between "Taylor Swift, the person" and "Taylor Swift, the pop culture icon"? It seems this campaign is built on Swift's dorkiness, but I'm hesitant to say that her dorkiness is the primary perception people have.

Cameron, I think the dorkiness is interesting and is something that you see a lot in pop. It's a vulnerability I often think is under analyzed in star and celebrity studies. I often think that the dork factor is one of those things that works well in pop. You see a lot of this exposed in pop magazines like "Bop" and "Tiger Beat". It puts a premium on the awkwardness of adolescence and deflates some of the emphasis on "sexuality". I don't know the lit on this, but I think there is something here. As for TS the real person, I have no idea who she is. My guess is she is gifted songwriter whose upper middle class background has steeled her with a confidence that most young songwriters (and people) don't have. Who else walks away from re-upping on a Nashville publishing deal as a teen?

I think her dorkiness was on display at the Grammys last night; whereas most of the notables were reserved in their joy, Swift let her inner fan shine. And of course, she got lambasted for it.

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