You will not be surprised to know that 1989, Taylor Swift‘s new album, is my jam this month. I am a little surprised at how invested I am in her career lately, though. Her music has definitely grown on me over the years and I got really interested when she announced a full on split with country music for this record. Studying The Swift is like a study in everything a musician can do right on a grassroots level. The weird part? She’s arguably the biggest pop star in the world at the moment, and she just sold 1.2 million albums this week…in a year when (for the first time in decades) NO ONE ELSE has gone platinum. In fact, her first week sales numbers have consistently gone UP when it’s trending downward for everyone else. It’s not a coincidence. Let’s examine this, shall we?
Swift Factor No. 1:
Be a social media phenom (and go where your fans are)
Taylor has openly admitted to stalking her fans online, and they know she’s lurking. Her Tumblr (the blogging service for people under 30, really) is hilarious and a peek into her sense of humor, which I love. She reblogs fan posts, artwork people have made, and posts the occasional embarrassing middle school photo (because we all have them). She’s just like us, trolling the internet late at night when we can’t sleep.
On Twitter, she’s been re-blogging photos of her fans with their 1989 albums in hand and selfies she’s taken with them. Most pop stars try to seem a little bit untouchable, which is a tactic that actually works sometimes (hey, Rihanna). Taylor’s approach of accessibility has made for a very loyal crowd in her demographic, though. The selfie is the new autograph and the re-tweet is the new high five.
Swift Factor No. 2
Connect with fans on a personal level
Her PR game started way before release week, obviously. One ingenious idea was to host “Secret Sessions” where fans got to listen to the album before it came out. This has been done before because fan clubs have existed for a long time. What made this interesting is that the fans were selected through social media (hence the lurking) by Taylor and her team, and they were invited to Taylor’s own house where they listened to 1989, took photos (Polaroids, which jive with the album artwork!), and ate cookies…baked by Taylor. Again, back to that point…the biggest pop star in the world right now is baking cookies for her fans. I’m sure it made the life highlight list for all the participants, but the ensuing news stories also made casual fans wish they had the opportunity to go, and non-fans admit that hey…that’s pretty cool.
Swift Factor No. 3
Make a physical product people want
People stream and people download. CDs are dinosaurs, especially to anyone under the age of 35…which is Taylor’s main demographic. How the heck did she sell 1.2 million albums to people who don’t buy albums? I saw a couple of factors at play. First, if you bought the physical CD, you got the added bonus of lyric Polaroids. There are 5 sets of of them, and each CD comes with 13 photos. Kind of a throwback to collecting trading cards, but it’s fun to get a bonus for buying the real CD. I’m not sure on what her numbers are from each store, but she partnered with Target to sell the Deluxe version which included (some really great) bonus tracks and voice memos of rough demos. Extra content only available on one format = more sales. There was also the Swiftstakes, where entering a code from the CD puts you in the running to meet Taylor on tour next year. It’s like a lottery ticket with a bonus CD, so you win anyway.
Swift Factor No. 4
Take chances and be vulnerable
Those voice memos on the Target edition struck me as brave (because yeah, I got the Deluxe release). They’re raw beginnings of songs that are super produced and polished on the album. They are hesitant and unsure and sometimes pitchy. That’s how songs get written, and if there was a thought that Taylor wasn’t writing her own stuff, this helps combat it. The other thing I admire about this record is that the last track is a co-write with Imogen Heap, who is a hero of mine as a songwriter and a producer. Apparently, Taylor admires her too, and fortunately when you are Taylor Swift, you get to write with cool people. Imogen blogs about the process here, and they turned out “Clean”, my favorite track on the album. While there are plenty of Max Martin produced songs here, having Imogen end-cap it is a really classy thing to do. It makes me excited for the artistic growth that’s bound to happen if Taylor continues to do her thing.
Swift Factor No. 5
Respect your own work
The other big hullabaloo this week aside from baking cookies with fans and selling a bunch of albums was that 1989 was not on Spotify and in fact, her entire back catalog was removed from the service. I thought it a given that a brand new release would not be on a streaming service immediately, especially since there was such a mad rush to sell physical product, but the removal of older albums was interesting. Granted, rumor has it that her label is up for sale and this was a bargaining chip (remember kids, follow the money), but all the indie artists I know have been aflutter with Swift commentary this week because it’s a big deal when the Big Folk stand up for the Littler Folk (even by proxy of actions with other intentions). Taylor and her label have bargaining power in this art-meets-tech world we live in, and she just pulled out of the game entirely. Whether it’s permanent or temporary (I suspect temporary…streaming is not going anywhere), it is at least causing us to discuss the value of music as a service. We pay $100 for cable TV access every month, and we lay down $8 for Netflix easily. What will make the majority of music listeners pay for access? And in the meantime, how is music even valued these days? Fans aren’t paying $13.99 for the Deluxe Target version of 1989 for the songs. They’re paying for the right to be a fan…to call themselves members of the Taylor Nation and to have a communal experience. And hopefully, whatever comes of this Spotify streaming conversation, artists will be able to stand up for the work they create. As Taylor said, “Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.” Boom.
Swift Factor No. 6
Make your loyal fans have your back
Another interesting point in this whole thing is that no tracks leaked early from those aforementioned “Secret Sessions”. The fans were asked not to record anything and no one did. When the album did leak online a few days early (who does that? Some intern from the label I suppose) and tracks were being posted around Tumblr, fans were refusing to listen to them or share them. They assumed it would hurt Taylor and her sales, and at this point the diehard fans were like a rabid guerrilla marketing team…they had a vested interest in their girl doing well on opening day. This is direct opposition to most album leaks…people generally scoop them up with little thought. Taylor had connected so much with her base that they weren’t about to mess up the album release or spoil the experience of Release Day excitement (which they knew Taylor would be tweeting and blogging about right along with them).
Phew. That’s a lot of dissection for a 24-year-old pop star. I just think that Taylor encapsulated everything I try to preach about over at Social Thinkery when I meet with clients…connect with your fan base far beyond that of a “I am an artist buy this music because I made it” mentality. It’s old and uninspiring. Create your army that will go to bat for you, spread the word for you, share in your victories with you…that is a fan base that will keep returning as long as you stay true to your art. Follow the Swift.