It’s the age of Swiftonomics – but will Taylor Swift’s phenomenal success trickle down?

<span>Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Ryan Olbrysh/The Guardian

Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department, is not one of her best. Critics have complained about its exhausting length (31 songs, two hours), subdued tone and lyrical wound-rubbing. Her decision to announce it at the Grammy awards, months before its release on 19 April, was widely seen as tacky, snatching the media spotlight from other winners.

For any other artist, this might be a perilous moment of bubble-bursting hubris, but 34-year-old Taylor Alison Swift is not any other artist. The album set a streaming record on Spotify – 300m in one day and 1bn in five – and made her the first artist in history to secure the top 14 spots on the Billboard Hot 100. In the US, it sold 2.6m copies in the first week, second only to Adele’s 3.4m nine years ago, with 859,000 on vinyl alone.

Swift is a formidable singer-songwriter, but these days she is as likely to feature in the business pages as the music pages. Last October, off the back of the first leg of her Eras tour, she was declared a billionaire – the first person to pass that milestone through music-related earnings alone rather than other investments. Eras became the first billion-dollar tour in history, selling 2.4m tickets in a single day. Forbes estimated she was earning $10m-$13m (£8m-£10m) a night. And the tour movie is the highest grossing of all time, at $262m.

“The Eras tour turned out to be a juggernaut that even she couldn’t have anticipated,” says Carl Wilson, pop critic for Slate. “I can’t remember another phenomenon like it in live music.”

As the tour made its way across North America, local economies boomed, with fans spending an average of $1,325, including travel, accommodation, food and drink. The UK leg is predicted to boost the economy by £1bn, while Singapore outbid rival nations to ensure it was the only Swift-blessed country in south-east Asia. Media fascination with the tour has given birth to a new word, Swiftonomics, and university courses devoted to it.

To find a similarly dominant artist, you’d have to go back to Michael Jackson in the 80s, but thanks to the smartphone, Swift is still more ubiquitous. “Even when Thriller was the biggest thing in the world, you could spend a day without thinking about Michael Jackson,” Wilson says of the artist’s 1982 album. “You’re going to run across something about Taylor Swift every day of your life. When people look back on this last decade, she’s the face in the montage, right?”

That Swift is one of the most financially canny pop stars in history is beyond doubt. She has leveraged her power to cut deals with concert promoters, record labels and platforms that have never been made before. And while she has an A-list team, including renowned attorney Don Passman, there is no doubt that Swift, the daughter of a financial adviser, makes the big calls herself. What is less clear is what her disproportionate success means to the music industry at large. Is she making the weather or simply capitalising on existing trends? Have her spectacular achievements helped other artists, hurt them, or made no difference at all? As Will Page, former chief economist of Spotify and PRS for Music, puts it, “Does a Taylor Swift tide lift all boats?”

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Swift has been very famous and very rich since 2012, when her Red album sealed her crossover from country music ingenue to pop star. Her 2018 Reputation tour grossed $345.7m. But that tense, paranoid album sold far less than its hit-packed predecessor, 1989. It seemed to mark the end of her imperial phase. In fact, her peak was yet to come, thanks to her smart response to two giant misfortunes: one personal, one global.

In 2019, Swift went to war with her former record label, Big Machine Records, after it was bought by the impresario Scooter Braun. Music copyright is split between the song (publishing) and the recording (masters). When Swift signed to Big Machine at the age of 15, she gave the label the master rights to her first six studio albums. Now she wanted to buy them back, and when Braun wouldn’t grant her the deal she wanted, her response was simple: she would rerecord the albums, with bonus material, as “Taylor’s Versions”.

“She exploited a very specific hole in her crappy Nashville contract,” says Cliff Fluet of law firm Lewis Silkin. “People are saying, ‘Are you going to see other artists doing this?’ Spoiler alert: no. Because there will be cast-iron rerecording restrictions in their agreements. But it will make older artists who are out of rerecording restrictions realise they have a whole new asset to sell.”

Eras demonstrates how powerful music is as an economic driver – but getting Taylor Swift to come to town is not a strategy

It was an extraordinary experiment. And it worked. All four Taylor’s Versions to date – Fearless, Red, Speak Now, 1989 – topped the US Billboard 200, as if they were new releases, and became the definitive versions. In its first six months, 1989 (Taylor’s Version) outstreamed the original release by three to one. She also annihilated the “sync” value of Big Machine’s recordings (now owned by a private equity company) because she owns the publishing, so she can require anybody wanting to license one of her songs for film, TV or video game soundtracks to use Taylor’s Version.

Usually a back catalogue is only seriously monetised once an artist is old or dead. Swift effectively turned herself into a legacy artist while still young and active, and struck a blow for artists’ rights against the big, bad industry, personified by Braun. “Her fans are interested in her business issues,” says Damon Krukowski, an indie musician, author and campaigner for artists’ rights. “She made the whole master rights fight participatory, calling it Taylor’s Version – it’s my version for you, the fan, not the business version.”

The second major setback Swift was able to turn to her advantage was the pandemic. Before Covid-19, she was preparing to tour her 2019 album Lover, including a headlining slot at Glastonbury. When she was forced off the road, her solution was to make more music. Over the last four years, she has released four new studio albums – Folklore, Evermore, Midnights and The Tortured Poets Department – alongside four Taylor’s Versions. This avalanche of material, combined with the enforced five-year live hiatus, raised demand for Eras tickets to hysterical level. Swift won again.

The Eras tour united the rerecordings and the new albums in a career-spanning set averaging more than three hours – a kind of self-authored on-the-road biopic. “She wants to foster that sense of ‘Look at how we’ve grown together’,” Wilson says. “She’s always promoting the whole catalogue.” Most strikingly, her 2019 fan favourite Cruel Summer wasn’t even a single until its live popularity turned it into a global chart-topper.

Swift’s fans are uniquely invested in her narrative – not just her obsessively scrutinised relationships with actor Joe Alwyn, the 1975’s Matty Healy and current partner American footballer Travis Kelce, but her creative journey. She has never been an untouchable demigod like Jackson or Prince, keeping fans at arm’s length. On a stadium stage, she works the camera like an actor, using tiny gestures and expressions to signal intimacy all the way back to row ZZ so every fan feels personally seen. On social media, she frames consumption as an act of devotion. “My mind is blown,” she told her 95.3 million X followers on 28 April. “I’m completely floored by the love you’ve shown this album. 2.6 million ARE YOU ACTUALLY SERIOUS??”

“She has a remarkable parasocial relationship with her fans,” Krukowski says. “Make your personal purchase and she’s going to be grateful. It’s a consumer relationship. She’s not alone in that, but she excels at it.”

Swift manages to be both authentic singer-songwriter and unabashed hyper-capitalist. Fans are increasingly aware of the realities of the music industry – like, subscribe, share, buy – and Swift makes them feel like proud participants in her commercial achievements. While rappers have always been comfortable talking about money, bullishly business-minded artists such as Mick Jagger or Metallica’s Lars Ulrich have traditionally inspired suspicion. “Commerce used to be a dirty word,” Fluet says. “Now it’s like, ‘I’m an industry, a conglomerate. I’m Taylor Swift Inc.’ She’s taking the ickiness out of commerce and allowing new artists to really be aware of the business: ‘Well, if Taylor can do it … ’”

Like Bono before her, Swift is unusually interested in her cultural significance and commercial clout. She is the biggest because she really cares about being the biggest. But her supremacy is possible only because she no longer has any competition. “There’s a vacuum that she’s moved into,” says Hanna Kahlert, cultural trends analyst at Midia Research. “It’s more difficult to create superstars. It’s very easy to find your niche, but it’s very hard to grow beyond it. The big artists who predate streaming are the only ones who still have broad name recognition. Taylor Swift has got her superfan following and she’s also got mainstream recognition.”

The handful of younger stars who have made it of late – Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo – do not project blazing ambition for greater success, and Swift’s 2010s peers have matured into prestige album artists (Beyoncé), fallen off the charts (Katy Perry), chosen residencies over mega-tours (Adele) or imploded (Kanye West). Whereas Jackson had Madonna and Prince vying for his crown, Swift has no rivals. “In a world where there are increasingly few global pop stars, she becomes even more unique,” Page says. “Who else can do what she did?”

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Damon Krukowski has recently been talking to Washington DC politicians about the Living Wage for Musicians Act, and the Swift effect has been striking. “Elected officials all know about Taylor Swift because their daughters and granddaughters want to go to the shows. The Senate actually held hearings about ticketing issues around the concerts. She does bring a lot of music industry issues to popular perception.”

Shain Shapiro, founder of economics consultancy Sound Diplomacy, credits the Eras tour’s widely reported bonanza for hotels, restaurants, airlines and Uber drivers with influencing Congress’s new Music Tourism Act, which aims to attract more visitors to music venues. It has also helped underline the message of his book This Must Be the Place: How Music Can Make Your City Better – up to a point. “Obviously it’s incredible at demonstrating how powerful music is as an economic driver,” he says, “but it can make people think it’s easy. I see music as part of civic infrastructure, but focusing on the high level can make us discount the boring day-to-day things that are needed. This isn’t a panacea. Getting Taylor Swift to come to town is not a strategy.”

Swift’s success reflects broader trends in the industry over the last few years. The bottom line is it is booming. After a dramatic decade-long slump due to the collapse of physical sales, revenue began to recover in 2015. In 2021, it surpassed the high-water mark of the CD boom. In 2023, it was worth $28.6bn. “The industry is making more money and more of it is getting through to artists,” Page says. “Royalty rates and advances are going up, and contracts are getting cleaner. That was happening pre-Taylor and continues to happen post-Taylor.” Live music is also thriving, up by one-fifth in the UK between 2019 and 2022, and exceeding £2bn for the first time.

We have a history of artists bitching about their labels, but her action is different. It’s like, I’m bigger than the label

The catch is the vast gulf between superstars and everybody else, with half of concert revenue now going to stadiums and festivals. “The live music recovery is incredibly lopsided,” Page says. “Go big or stay home. Taylor Swift exemplifies that.” Such artists can demand up to 100% of the ticket price, forcing promoters to make their money with additional fees and higher bar prices. They can also jack up prices in the knowledge that fans will happily pay them: the £150 ticket is now standard.

“People will not economise when there is a must-see event,” says Mark Davyd, founder and CEO of Music Venue Trust, a UK charity focused on grassroots venues. “These shows are not impacted by the economic climate.” Smaller shows, however, are more exposed to belt-tightening, while falling alcohol consumption makes it harder to compensate with bar sales. The result is a crisis at the grassroots, with dozens of venues for new artists closing every year. Whether a Swift show drains budgets that would otherwise be spent at local venues is unclear, but there is certainly no trickle-down effect.

Swift’s exceptional vinyl sales also fail to lift up other artists. In the US, she accounts for six of the top 10 vinyl bestsellers of the modern era and one in 15 vinyl sales in 2023. Remarkably, more than half of vinyl buyers don’t own a turntable, so a majority of Swift’s records are being bought as attractive artefacts rather than vessels for music. Michael Jackson’s Thriller helped jolt the music industry out of its early-80s recession because fans going to the record shop would buy other records, too. “There was a reflected benefit to all of us from huge, year-defining releases,” Krukowski says. “In fact, her product squeezes everyone else out of the store.” Most physical sales of Swift’s new album were pre-orders through her own website, cutting out retailers altogether.

Yet Swift can still move the needle for everybody through her unmatched negotiating power. In 2015 she froze out the newly launched Apple Music to protest at its policy of not paying royalties during the three-month free trial period. Within days, Apple buckled. “We hear you @taylorswift13,” tweeted Apple’s Eddy Cue.

Recently, the industry was gripped by Universal Music Group’s Mexican standoff with TikTok over the failure to agree a new licensing deal. In February, UMG pulled all of its music from the platform, including that of Swift, Rodrigo, Eilish and Ariana Grande. Swift, however, does not have a standard contract. In much the same way that she sold the Eras movie direct to cinemas rather than partnering with a studio, she simply licenses her albums to UMG to distribute. This enabled her to shock the industry by single-handedly breaking the boycott in April. Two weeks later, UMG made a deal. “Was it going to happen anyway?” Fluet says. “We can only speculate. But the day she went back, they must have been opening the champagne at TikTok Towers.”

Swift sets the tempo. She pulled her catalogue from Spotify in 2014, claiming that “music should not be free”, but since she ended her embargo in 2017 no major artist has held out on purely financial grounds. She has helped to normalise contracts in which labels license masters for a fixed term rather than owning them in perpetuity, tipping the balance of power towards artists. “We have a history of artists bitching about their labels, but her action is quite different,” Krukowski says. “It’s like, ‘Fuck you – I’m bigger than the label.’”

Related: ‘Like eating too much chocolate’: Guardian readers on Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department

Swift is also the industry leader in monetising superfans: VIP ticket packages, deluxe editions, exclusive merchandise. “It’s a glimpse of what the music industry is going to look like moving forward,” Kahlert says. “Everyone’s looking to superfans. Taylor Swift saw this coming a mile away.” Other artists may not be able to match her success but they can learn from her technique. “Despite how insanely big she is, she manages to bring this unique personal touch,” Kahlert says. “In an era of online ubiquity, fans are looking for something special and personalised that feels genuine.”

Swift likes to present herself as a warrior for artists’ rights, but could she be more collegiate and use her clout to improve the whole music ecosystem? Eilish has promoted ethical face-value resale and added a £1 ticket levy to fund Reverb, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable touring. Davyd has long been campaigning for a similar levy to support the grassroots. “A lot of the objections were that it was unworkable,” he says. “As soon as Billie Eilish and her management decided they wanted it to happen, it happened.” Whether or not megastar philanthropy should be expected to solve systemic problems is another question. “Should it be on Taylor Swift to give back out of the goodness of her heart?” Kahlert asks. “Because you’re putting a lot of power in the hands of one individual.”

Krukowski is sceptical that Swift’s lessons can be widely applied when most artists are struggling to make a living. “Scale is required for any kind of success,” he says. “The pitch is: ‘That could be you.’ But the reality is the opposite. That’s the paradox of the industry right now. It’s like the lottery. Anybody could be a millionaire, but buying lottery tickets is not a career.”

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What happens after the Eras tour concludes in Vancouver in December is an open question. Swift has no obvious successors, and the fact that she has already weathered a backlash circa Reputation means that she will be more resilient to another, but how long can this ubiquity last? She has always benefited from powerful foes but she has won every battle – with the industry, her peers, her ex-boyfriends. Her output of one new album and one rerecording a year seems unsustainable.

“There’s obviously going to be some level of Taylor fatigue,” Wilson says. “She might be smart to step to the side for a while.” For him, Swift’s most cheering achievement is proving a singer-songwriter can still be the world’s most compelling and influential celebrity. “Three years ago, I was asking myself the question: do young people care about music as much as they did when I was young? Compared with video games and TV, does music play a cultural role in helping form who they are? With the Taylor phenomenon I find it hard to doubt that it does, and that’s reassuring. I wouldn’t have thought this could happen, but it has.”